Cross words on Crossrail to Woolwich

London Reconnections brings news of a debate in parliament last week about Crossrail – and, more pertinently, the chances of Crossrail coming to Woolwich. At the moment, Crossrail is due to run from Maidenhead and Heathrow Airport in the west, to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east.

The station at Woolwich was a late addition in March 2007, after a great deal of campaigning from the likes of Greenwich Council (proving that its Great Projects obsession is not always a bad thing) after funds had been promised by Berkeley Homes, which is developing the Royal Arsenal site where the station would be. It’s worth bearing in mind that this would be a separate station from Woolwich Arsenal, on the north side of Beresford Street/Plumstead Road; clearly, any property developer with interests in land close to a fast, frequent rail link to Canary Wharf, the City, West End and Heathrow is in line to hit the jackpot.

But to accumulate you need to speculate, and it seems Berkeley’s run out of cash with which to splash out. It’s been hit by the downturn, and is one of a number of developers hit by the new coalition government’s plans to slash public spending. (Indeed, Berkeley’s plans to redevelop the old Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke now look under the cosh, despite the bulldozers already having moved into the grim blocks.)

Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford, who played a big role in getting Crossrail to stop at Woolwich, asked whether the government would ensure Woolwich was still included in the scheme. Transport minister Theresa Villiers’ response was not hopeful:

The plans to include a station at Woolwich have always depended on contributions from the developers who stand to benefit most from it. That was the case when the last Government took the decision to add the station to the Crossrail Act, and it remains the case under the new Government. It is abundantly clear that the debt crisis left by Labour has placed intense pressure on the public finances, so we cannot default to a position where a shortfall in the promised private sector funding for the station simply pushes up the costs for the taxpayer.

Indeed, there was no commitment even to ensure the Abbey Wood branch remained in the scheme. During the election, I spoke to a Conservative who was spitting blood over Boris Johnson’s cancellation of the Greenwich Waterfront Transit scheme. A second transport cancellation in the Abbey Wood/Thamesmead area wouldn’t exactly reflect well on that party. Indeed, true blue Bexley Council, which once had a modest campaign to see these improvements extended further into its area, called Jump on Board! campaign (website now deleted, although you’ll find its original press release here). Potential mayoral candidates, take note.

Pressed further by Mr Raynsford, who stressed he was not looking for further public contributions to the scheme, Ms Villiers replied:

I know that Greenwich council is actively engaged in the issues that we have discussed this evening. It is now important for all of us who care about Crossrail to assess thoroughly the possible alternative funding sources that could be available between the interested parties if Berkeley Homes does not step up to the plate and deliver what it promised. Therefore, while I cannot promise additional funding from the Department and the taxpayer, we do stand ready to try to help the interested parties find a solution to enable Woolwich station to go ahead. The right hon. Gentleman can have my absolute assurance on that.

But where would that money come from? Has anyone else got a few hundred million pounds handy? Of course, while a new railway station at Woolwich would cost a fortune, so does subsidising Woolwich in its current status as a run-down tip. Hopefully, wise heads will prevail and Crossrail will stay.

Interestingly, the government might not have been in this fix if it’d chosen an alternative route for Crossrail – although my own corner of SE London would be looking very different for it. The present Abbey Wood Crossrail branch runs via Canary Wharf and the Royal Docks (using some of the old North London Line and stopping at Custom House), before coming across the river at the Royal Arsenal. However, the other option on the table was to run via Canary Wharf, then across the river to join up with the mainline at Charlton. It was certainly cheaper – a Greenwich Council document from 2002 estimated it’d be £700m cheaper, Building magazine in 2003 put the saving at £400m. Greenwich Council mounted a big campaign in favour of the Charlton option, only to see the Royal Docks win out – with even Ken Livingstone admitting “the Treasury has gone for the high-cost route into the Thames Gateway”.

Part of the thinking behind this was that the Royal Docks still needs a lot of work (and a bit of track would come free when the North Woolwich rail line closed), another part was to keep the Crossrail service efficient by keeping it off the knackered south-east London rail network and solely on its shiny new tracks (if you’ve caught the new London Overground south of New Cross Gate, you’ll see how it can get hit by delays as soon as it joins the old Southern Region). But while things have certainly changed since then (a public inquiry is yet to report back on a new housing development off Victoria Way, the Greenwich peninsula is much more developed now), I wonder if reviving the Charlton scheme could be Crossrail’s saviour?

(See also: Dave Hill, Brockley Central.)