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London and Paris were already large cities at the beginning of the railway age. So when 19th-century magnates built lines radiating from the capital to the provinces they constructed the termini on the edge of the central area. The results remain obvious today. Commuters are deposited each morning at congested hubs and mostly transfer to other forms of transport to complete their journeys.

More than a century later, tunnels were bored under Paris to enable passengers on the suburban rail network, the RER, to travel directly through the city. So today you can journey quickly by train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Notre Dame, or from Les Halles to the modern commercial centre at La Défense, more quickly than in the cab of even the most frenzied Parisian driver.

There have for many years been proposals that London should do something similar. In the 1980s, clever improvisation exploited an old postal tunnel near St Paul’s Cathedral to create a north-south link from Bedford to Brighton. But the main axis of central London runs from east to west. Crossrail would create a new tunnel along this axis to link commuter railways on each side.

The current plan was first proposed in the 1980s. A bill to promote it was rejected in parliament in 1995, but a new version is before the legislature today. The government has promised support but funding plans are vague. The future of the scheme is uncertain, but brighter than for many years.

At first glance, the saga seems another contrast between the French commitment to grands projets and the English inability to manage big infrastructure schemes. That observation is justified but the issues are more complex. Crossrail was never a good, or viable, scheme and its attractions have diminished, not increased, with time.

The need for a rail link from London’s main western rail terminal at Paddington to the City of London was anticipated by the Victorians. They built it, too, although what is now the Hammersmith and City line is one of the least reliable parts of the Underground system and needs substantial upgrading. Perhaps for these reasons, it is not among the most congested parts of the London transport network. The bottlenecks are elsewhere and Crossrail is almost irrelevant to them.

And while the proposal has stalled for 20 years, the development of London has not. The main focus of new housing development around London is the north-west corridor to Milton Keynes and Northampton, to which Crossrail does not connect. Links to another large planned centre, the Thames Gateway, have been almost eliminated in the despairing attempts to make the project politically, technically and financially feasible. A new international rail terminal for London will open next month at St Pancras, but Crossrail does not go there. The fast route to Heathrow that Crossrail was intended to provide has already been built. A rail link from the City to the airport that stops at all stations but not at British Airways’ new terminal will not persuade bankers to abandon their limousines. The fast-growing airport at Stansted requires better connections to central London, which Crossrail does not provide.

London desperately needs better public transport but Crossrail is not the better public transport it needs. There is an improved Crossrail proposal called Superlink, but it might be better to scrap the whole scheme and build the long-envisaged Underground from Chelsea to Hackney or, better yet, to spend the money on more piecemeal improvements. There is wide but privately lukewarm support for Crossrail, only because no one can bear the prospect of going back to the drawing board and beginning another 20 years of inconclusive discussion.

The imperative requirement is for processes that both require and allow elected politicians to make choices and implement them. Institutions that have no effective processes for making good decisions drift into bad ones. There is a real danger that through two schemes whose costs are disproportionate to their benefits – Crossrail and the 2012 Olympics – London in 2020 will have spent £25bn without getting the infrastructure that a 21st-century city needs.

johnkay@johnkay.com

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