Mayor calls for new orbital railway to keep London moving

The Greater London Authority (GLA) yesterday published a wishlist of the infrastructure it says the city needs to keep functioning over the next 36 years, and the $2.2 trillion bill of works includes superimposing a fast orbital railroad that would link the Capital’s inner boroughs.

Approval of this new orbital line, known to London planners as the R25, should be approved "as a matter of urgency", said Boris Johnson, the mayor of London.

Without a long-term plan for investment and the political will to implement it, this city will falter– London Mayor, Boris Johnson

At present rail lines are organised like the spokes of a wheel, so that commuters usually have to go into the centre of the city if they want to make a lateral journey. The R25 would be an overground equivalent to the Underground’s Circle Line. 

The mayor also reiterated his wish to build a series of new river crossings and an inner orbital road tunnel that would be used to get freight lorries off the capital’s overground roads.

According to yesterday’s "London Infrastructure Plan 2050", about $760bn of investment in rail, road and air facilities will be needed to keep the capital mobile by 2050, by when its population is forecast to grow from a little over 8 million now to somewhere around 11.3 million.

The London Infrastructure Plan 2050, drawn up with the help of consulting engineer Arup, is the first attempt to devise a strategic investment programme for London since the Second World War. 

It sets out a $2.2 trillion bill of works that would renew the capital’s houses and schools, upgrade its electricity supply system, strengthen its flood defences and install a number of new rail lines. As well as the new orbital railway, the report calls for: 

  • 1.5 million extra homes
  • 600 schools and colleges
  • A 20% increase in electricity generating capacity
  • 40 waste handling facilities
  • 70% increase in public transport capacity
  • 200km of "cycle highways
  • Six river crossings, including a "Garden Bridge" that would link the South Bank with the Temple Underground station

Johnson, who is also hoping to sponsor a four-runway airport in the Thames estuary, said the infrastructure plan was a "wake-up call to the stark needs that face London over the next half century". 

London’s population density, which varies from 75 to 2,000 resident per hectare (source Transport for London)

"Without a long-term plan for investment and the political will to implement it, this city will falter," he said. "Londoners need to know they will get the homes, water, energy, schools, transport, digital connectivity and better quality of life that they expect." 

Where will the money come from?

The UK public sector’s track record as a construction client over the past 15 years has been mixed. For example, Building Schools for the Future, the government’s attempt to carry out a $76bn renewal of the English and Welsh secondary school system, was widely considered a failure, and was abandoned after five years. 

But it has a better reputation when it comes to schemes with a more defined scope that can be carried out with the construction industry’s programme managers. The High Speed 1 rail line and the Olympic estate are generally considered to have been successful projects, and Crossrail 1 is progressing on time and budget. 

However, the scale of the spending envisaged by the Arup report is unprecedented in London’s history, and twice the rate of expenditure over the past 20 years. 

The report estimates that the public sector will have to pay for about 60% of the cost of the construction.

Alexander Jan, Arup’s director of transaction advice, says this means there will have to be an increase in the tax raising powers of the GLA. In a recent opinion piece he pointed out that that the mayor and London boroughs "will need to be given greater control of London’s local taxes and to have much more say in how utilities are planned and delivered". 

He said just 7% of London’s taxes are controlled by the mayor and the boroughs compared with nearly 50% in New York.

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