Nearly 20 years ago, government transport planners came up with with the idea of a super-duper railway line straight through the middle of London. Crossrail would speed passengers across town in minutes flat. It would link places like Slough and Heathrow in the west to Romford and Canary Wharf in the east. It would be a futuristic railway with extra-long high capacity trains. It would help hundreds of thousands of people to go to work in the City or shopping in the West End. And it would cost a heck of a lot of money. So it was never built.
It's not easy to find fifteen billion quid for a railway. Governments aren't generally happy at stumping up that sort of money for a transport link which most of the electorate will never use. The total cost is even higher than the entire Olympic budget, and we all know how popular that's been. But you can't dig tunnels under central London without spending money, and without pledged cash this project is doomed to fail.
Things were a lot easier 100 years ago. The Central, Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly lines were all constructed within a single decade, using private finance, back in an era when there was far less infrastructure buried under the capital. Only two more tube lines have been built across London since, and Crossrail is doomed not to be the third. Which is why the government is going back to private finance, to the major corporations based in the City, and grovelling for cash. Pay up, or we won't build the railway you so desperately need in order to stay profitable. So far, no response.
Problems at Woolwich demonstrate the mess this project is in. The original plans for Crossrail included a proper big station at Woolwich, on the southeast Canary Wharf branch. Trouble was, this new subterranean station was going to be terribly expensive, so the planners dropped it. Sorry to the local population, all tens of thousands of them, but the new railway was destined to burrow straight underneath them without stopping. A wholly wasted opportunity, and all because the investment wasn't "affordable". But at the last moment a building company stepped in and offered to pay for the station so long as they were allowed to build lots and lots of new homes on top. Result. They'll get a stonking profit later on, and the good citizens of Woolwich are no longer sidelined.
But Crossrail as a whole is still stalled until somebody finds the remainder of the money to pay for it. Ken Livingstone reckons the project just needs "the last few hundred million pounds", but nobody seems to have them. Big business isn't interested, because they have their eyes on short term profit rather than long term gain. And the Treasury isn't interested, because spending money doesn't win votes. Some people have a very blinkered view of the future.
So it looks like we, the people, are going to have to find the last few hundred million pounds ourselves. If everybody in the UK contributed five pounds to the Crossrail project, we'd have the money in no time. A fiver's not much. It's one meal out, or half a round in the pub on a Friday night, all to be paid back (with interest) next time you want to get to Heathrow in a hurry. Or if everybody in London donated fifty quid, that'd reach the total too. It might mean forgoing a few DVDs, or a nice pair of shoes, but it's all for the common good. And we might just have ourselves a transport lifeline by 2015.