Martin Vander Weyer

Is the Elizabeth line worth the cost?

Is the Elizabeth line worth the cost?
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It’s 8.16 on Tuesday morning and I’m actually writing this on a moving Elizabeth line train. Moving in the sense that we’ve just zipped from Paddington to Liverpool Street in 13 minutes – which if nothing else will be a boon for City commuters from west of London. Moving also in the sense that I’ve been writing about the project formerly known as Crossrail, first in optimism but later in frustration and rage, since its then chairman Terry Morgan gave me a personal tour of the Bond Street diggings back in June 2013. Now that the central section is open at last – even with its Bond Street station still mysteriously closed – it would be churlish not to echo the excitement of the horde of selfie-taking trainspotters (and, I surmised, at least one Chinese secret agent) who shared my inaugural journey.

Everyone knows the Elizabeth line is three and a half years late and so far £4 billion over its £15 billion budget. But is it worth it? The bland architecture, reminiscent of any international airport of the past 30 years, conceals the project’s triumph, which is its tunnel under the capital through so much existing infrastructure and sensitive archeology. The new trains are quiet and airy but not otherwise special – and what they conceal is the project’s crippling disaster, which is the tangle of incompatible signalling software that still makes it impossible to run through-trains from Heathrow to Essex.

Meanwhile, urban-transport boffins say that demand for ‘metro journeys’ is falling as work patterns change and technology evolves, so the new line may never carry the one and a half million daily commuters for which it was designed.

What lessons are there for other infrastructure projects? Avoid over-complexity of design; avoid early hype that says ‘we’re on time and on budget’ when you almost certainly won’t be; and if the thing’s worth building (like the Channel tunnel), get it built anyway, however the economic case may change.

For all its faults, the Elizabeth line is – as I said it would be in 2013 – a mighty feat of engineering as well as an enjoyable ride.

Groucho’s list

It was mischievous of the Sunday Times to insert Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty into its annual Rich List – in 222nd place, alongside Bernie Ecclestone’s ex-wife Slavica – on the basis of a supposed £730 million fortune. If the criteria are rigorous and the Sunaks meet them, we might ask, why haven’t they been there ever since Rishi became an MP in 2015?

But this gratuitous kick in the nuts for the Chancellor’s prone political career merely emphasises the monstrous nature of the list itself, with its scattering of self-made entrepreneur heroes vastly outnumbered by the dubious and undeserving. There’s also the 8 per cent year-on-year rise in combined top-250 wealth, to an unimaginable £710 billion, at a time when inflation is about to make ordinary folk painfully poorer and a lot more resentful.

No one in possession of an honest pile and a worthy profile could possibly wish to appear in it, rather as Groucho Marx said he would refuse to join any club that would have him as a member. Joe and Jess Thwaite, the modest, cheerful couple from Gloucestershire who have just scooped the Euro-Millions lottery, should be grateful their £184 million haul is less than a third of the minimum Rich List requirement.

Downbeat Davos

Another list I’m never likely to be on is the media freebie contingent at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the annual smugfest of business chiefs and eco-celebrities which convened this week. I think I ruined my chances some years ago when I wrote (truthfully) that I preferred a prior engagement speaking to the Scunthorpe Ladies Luncheon Club.

But my correspondent in the Swiss resort, our occasional contributor Edie Lush, tells me the gathering is much smaller and less self-congratulatory than it used to be, overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, and more earnestly concerned with issues such as how big business can contribute to the $4 trillion per year needed for the world’s poorer nations to achieve climate transition.

Pre-pandemic Davos majored on the corporate rhetoric of ‘ESG’ and ‘purpose before profit’. Now its sages say companies must not only clean up their act but step forward to solve the world’s problems. Well, let’s see: if governments can’t, maybe capitalism can. As for Moscow’s representation in Davos, Edie sends me a snapshot of the Russian House, formerly a soft-power ‘cultural centre’ but now renamed, with the addition of a big red sticker, ‘Russian War Crimes House’.

Holiday anxiety

Imagine your boss puts a hand on your shoulder and says: ‘Take as much holiday as you feel you need, we’re scrapping fixed entitlements.’ How much would you take? If you’re a Home Office civil servant, you’d probably reply: ‘Thanks, but I’d rather stick with the sybaritic bliss we call working from home – and I’ll have that urgent report on your desk by, er, Christmas.’ But if you’re an executive of Goldman Sachs, where ‘flexible vacation’ has just been introduced, you’re more likely to think: ‘Those bastards are testing my competitive grit: I’ll take the bare minimum and phone in twice a day.’

A UK ‘creative recruitment’ outfit called Unknown reportedly adopted unlimited leave but found no one took more than 21 days and the effect was one of ‘general anxiety’. In the gladiators’ cages of investment banking, it will cause far worse tension.

I’m reminded of a young man of my acquaintance, working for one of Goldman’s competitors in London, who put in 18-hour-day seven-day weeks with a couple of hours off on Sundays for more than a year on a single, interminable corporate deal. Eventually he asked not to take a holiday but merely to be reassigned to a different deal. ‘Of course,’ said his boss. ‘We’re totally here to help you build the career that’s right for you’ – and fired him two weeks later.