The gap in London's exciting rail plans

By Sir Peter Hall Monday, 23 March 2009

Londoners, wearily resigned to the weekend closures of whole sections of their tube for upgrading - plus the total shutdown of the East London line - are now hit by a double whammy in the heart of the City. Blackfriars station just shut for two-and-a-half years. Soon, after 141 years, a whole section of rail line from Farringdon to Moorgate will close permanently to trains. It all marks the start of the biggest London railway building bonanza for over a century. The consequences for regeneration could be immense - and yet there's no strategic plan.

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The closures are needed for a huge engineering job: the upgrade of the north-south Thameslink line that is part of the national rail network. Remodelled stations will take longer trains running three times as often as now, with new links from Cambridge and Peterborough. At Blackfriars, the new station will stretch across the river to a new South Bank entrance, close to Tate Modern. New tracks will be built over the historic Borough Market. The result, by 2014, will be London's first regional metro system, linking cities and towns up to 80 miles away under the heart of the capital.

Next year, if mayor Boris Johnson can plug a financial hole, work will start on an even more ambitious project: Crossrail, the east-west express line, interchanging with Thameslink at Farringdon. Likewise designed as a regional metro, from Ebbsfleet in Kent to Reading in the west, it will open more modestly as a kind of express tube line. But, eventually, it could run even further out to places such as Southend, Chatham or Guildford.

Both lines offer massive potential regeneration benefits and some are already happening ahead of construction. And when the East London line reopens next year, it will form part of a third new line, Orbirail. Completed through south London in time for the 2012 Olympics, it will offer huge further regeneration opportunities.

There's one oddity: Orbirail has virtually no linkages to the other two lines. Whitechapel, with Crossrail, and West Hampstead, with half of Thameslink, are the sole exceptions. The Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham has rumbled this. It is calling for a west London Crossrail/Orbirail interchange at Old Oak Common, which could also serve the proposed super-fast line to Birmingham and Manchester.

Old Oak offers huge opportunities for regeneration. So do other potential interchange points on the new lines, such as Bermondsey - but at the moment they do not form part of the plans. It's high time for Boris to grasp this nettle.

Sir Peter Hall is (Bartlett) Professor of Planning and Regeneration, University College London. Email: sir.peter.hall@haymarket.com.

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