Assume Nordic Costs: London Edition

A month ago I made maps proposing some subway and regional rail extensions in New York and noting what they would cost if New York could build as cheaply as the Scandinavian capitals. Here is the same concept, but with London rather than New York. Here is everything in a single large map:

A full-size (74 MB) map can be viewed here.

Solid lines are existing or under construction, that is Crossrail and the Battersea extension; proposed lines are dashed. Commuter rail lines, that is Thameslink, the soon-to-open Crossrail, and four additional Crossrail tunnels labeled 2 through 5, are always depicted as having separate stations from the other modes, to avoid confusion where one Crossrail station has connections to two adjacent Tube stations (such as Farringdon-Barbican and Moorgate-Liverpool Street). It has many additional interchanges between lines and branches, including some that were left out on purpose, like a Crossrail 1 connection to Oxford Circus, omitted from the under-construction line to discourage riders from using the oversubscribed Victoria line; with four more cross-city lines, the capacity problems would be lessened substantially.

The overall picture is sparser than my New York map. The total projected cost of all of these projects, including some allocated for redoing stations on commuter branches to be given to Tube lines, is £6.8 billion, compared with $37 billion for the New York maps. The reason is that unlike New York, London already has excellent coverage thanks to extensive branching – what it needs is core capacity, which consists of city center tunnels that have high cost per kilometer but need not be long.

There is considerable overbuilding planned in London. Crossrail 2 as depicted on my map is a 6.5 km tunnel between the approach to Victoria Station and the approach to Kings Cross. But as planned, Crossrail 2 extends to a long tunnel parallel to the South West Main Line, a four-track line in a right-of-way that could if truly necessary accommodate six, as well as a long tunnel going north to take over the Lea Valley Lines, which on my map go into Crossrail 5. With gratuitous suburban tunnels and extremely high British construction costs, the budget for Crossrail 2 is around £30 billion, about 20 times what Scandinavia might spend on such a project. Even allowing for the possibility that crossing under three lines at once at Bank is more complex than crossing under two at T-Centralen, this is a difference of a full order of magnitude, counting both total required tunnel length and cost per km.

In addition, there is network simplification. On the Tube this consists of segregating the Northern line’s Bank and Charing Cross branches (already in planning pending the Battersea extension and reconstruction of Camden Town) and through breaking the Circle line into separate Metropolitan and District lines. The latter was estimated by a British blogger to cost £5 billion, based on a rubric in which the Met/District transfer at Aldgate (or Tower Hill) should by itself cost £1 billion; Crossrail and Second Avenue Subway stations cost around half that much, and the more complex T-Centralen and Odenplan stations on Citybanan cost less.

On mainline rail, the service plan is supposed to be deinterlined, as is Transport for London’s long-term goal. The slow tracks of the various mainlines feeding into Central London turn into Crossrail branches, or occasionally Underground extensions, such as Hayes and the Hounslow Loop. The fast tracks stay on the surface to avoid interfering with high-frequency regional metro service. For historic reasons Thameslink mostly stays as-is, with a combination of fast and stopping services, but the curve toward London Bridge should not be used – instead, passengers should have access to Crossrail 3 plus interchanges to the City at London Bridge and a new infill station at Southwark.

London owes it to itself to understand why its construction costs are so high that instead of solving its transport capacity problems with multiple cross-city tunnels in a decade, it’s taking multiple generations to build out such a system. There’s a lot of ongoing discussion about the last-minute delays and cost overruns on Crossrail, but the absolute costs even before the overrun were very high, the highest in the world outside New York City – and Crossrail 2 is set to break that record by a margin.

18 comments

  1. Tunnelvision

    London has published s report on what it believes it’s cost problems are.

    I really enjoy reading your thoughts but as a 30 year practitioner in this area as a CM/PM, Owner, Owners Rep and currently Design builder there is no holy grail. Your never going to get US and UK costs anywhere close to Nordic costs for a while host of reasons.

    Unless you consider public works contractors and designers as not for profits as many agencies in the US seem to the simple fact of asking listed companies to bid on work to minimize their profit is simply not going to happen.

    I would be more than happy to have a separate discussion with you and give you whatever insights I may have to this debate. You can see my email and if you want a practitioners viewpoint, and one of Rosenthals sources, viewpoints feel free to reach out.

  2. theslibbert

    Two things I don’t understand here, more out of a lack of knowledge than a disagreement. First, the West Anglia quad track: this gives you six tracks (eight counting the Enfield branch) feeding four tracks through Hackney, and if I understand correctly, two tracks in the tunnel to Vauxhall. Are the additional tracks just for express or intercity service, and are there enough intercity trains to justify it? What happens at the narrows? Second, the Metropolitan Line: are there really four western branches? With the first branch point at Baker Street I don’t see how this can provide acceptable service to points west; even given the redundancy with Bakerloo/Jubilee/Crossrail 3 towards Watford, the lines to Hammersmith and Kensington seem like they deserve better service. And four branches on a rapid line surely reduces the room for error…

    • Eric

      To solve this problem, I had the idea of continuing the DLR west to Baker Street and then taking over the Metropolitan Line Watford branch. Yes it would require replacing the signalling on the Watford branch and lengthening the platforms on much of the DLR, but these should be relatively cheap. From Uxbridge to Harrow-On-The-Hill would become a Blue Line reverse branch, or else a branch of the Jubilee Line. Then Tower Gateway DLR station could be closed, further simplifying the network.

    • Alon Levy

      The two extra tracks on the West Anglia line are for intercity service, yeah. It’s also a wide right-of-way that IIRC used to have four tracks before being cut back to two, so the cost should not be onerous – I estimated it at twice the cost of double-tracking a single-track line in Sweden or Denmark. I can be convinced it’s not necessary because Cambridge trains can go via KX, but I feel uncomfortable with giving an entire line to Crossrail without some ebypass tracks for fast trains.

      Ad the Met line, all of the depicted branches exist today and feed the same tracks between Baker Street and Aldgate, but some of them are called Circle or Hammercity and not Met. One possibility if the mainline is still too crowded is to transfer everything to XR 3, making it in effect the new Met line, presumably extended to Aylesbury. Then the inner London line would be called Hammercity (or even keep the Met name?) and go from Abbey Wood to either Hammersmith or Gloucester Road.

      • theslibbert

        Doesn’t the line from South Kensington (and Earl’s Court) to Edgware Road terminate at Edgware Road, making that part of Circle line effectively an eastern branch, rather than a western branch, of the Baker Street-Aldgate trunk? Obviously that’s not ideal because of the interlining between the Circle and District lines, but it at least provides acceptable service. It seems like you propose abandoning the District line branch to Ealing Broadway; if that’s the case, that opens the opportunity to have South Kensington to Edgware Road as a branch of the District line, more or less the same as existing Circle line service. That moves the issue of four western branches to the District rather than the Met, which to me seems a touch better; South Kensington/Gloucester Road is a bit further west than Baker Street, and since one of the branches is to Kensington Olympia, it’s not that big of a deal. Not an ideal solution, but I can’t think of a better one without another trunk.

        XR3 taking over all of the Met to Watford, Chesham, Rayners Lane, and Amersham/Aylesbury as an alternative makes enough sense. You end up with a glut of tracks but that gives you the opportunity for some serious express service, maybe locals to Rayners Lane, expresses to Watford, and super-expresses to Chesham and Aylesbury. Make the branch point from two tracks to six at Neasden Depot to leave the inner line to Marleybone alone and you don’t even conflict with the Chiltern Main Line. Worth a shot.

        Unrelated, why not keep Euston-Queens Park as an Overground shuttle instead of abandoning it altogether?

  3. Eric

    If this plan can be accomplished for £6.8 billion at Nordic prices, it should be affordably accomplishable even at London prices, given the benefits.

    There are two things I would have added to the plan:
    1) It seems you do nothing to touch the Overground. I would have invested a bit in station relocation and such to make it a more viable circumferential part of the rapid transit network.

    2) I would have invested in lengthening stations. London stations tend to be ~120m long from what I remember (compared to up to 200m in NYC). This does a lot to explain the Underground’s low ridership per km compared to peer cities’ metros. Nevertheless, my friends report that their Underground trips are packed at rush hour and well patronized at midday, and it strikes me this is limiting building in currently low-density inner suburbs where the Underground is nevertheless overloaded, and thus directly causing London’s housing crisis. 45% of the Underground is above ground where station lengthening should be trivially cheap. The central stations would be much more expensive to lengthen, but still probably much cheaper than an entirely new line.

    • Alon Levy

      1. I do in fact propose station relocation and a lot of infill to build new interchanges, it’s just not depicted clearly unlike on the Berlin map, where I do distinguish new and existing stations and not just new and existing lines.

      2. This is slowly being done on mainlines in South London, allowing ever-longer trains; Crossrail should allow 12-car trains, I believe, each car 20 meters long. The places where I’m proposing replacing long mainline trains with shorter Tube trains, like the Hayes line, have middling frequency, e.g. 4 tph to Hayes, so overall capacity would rise – and all of these lines involve some major entanglements with the rest of the system, often with flat junctions, so it’s nontrivial to just run more long trains.

    • yuuka

      I understand they already did platform extensions on the subsurface lines when the S7 stock was introduced, but heritage preservation requirements prevented them from doing more. Quite a few Circle line stations have to use selective door operation for this reason, so any further extension is definitely out of the question.

      Honestly, given the Tube’s capacity constraints, it’s better to just leave the Tube as is and have mainline trains provide the needed cross-city capacity.

      • Eric

        “Honestly, given the Tube’s capacity constraints, it’s better to just leave the Tube as is and have mainline trains provide the needed cross-city capacity.”

        But there are Tube lines that are overloaded and have no nearby mainline tracks to split the load. And have low-density surrounding neighborhoods which could be massively densified if the Tube allowed for it.

        • Alon Levy

          Wait, which Tube lines are you thinking of? The busiest at the peak right now are the Central from the east, the Vic from the south (i.e. Victoria -> Green Park), the W&C, and the Northern’s Bank branch from the south. The last of the four can get a lot more peak tph with deinterlining, so really the problem is for the other three. Central is about to get paralleled by Crossrail, Vic gets Crossrail 2, and I’m deliberately including a W&C-parallel Crossrail 4 on my map.

          The most desirable areas in London are specifically where the Tube is less crowded, like the Vic line to the north or the Met line, so they can be densified without adding new capacity. The problem, as in Park Slope and the local stations on the Upper West Side, is NIMBYism.

          • Eric

            I have friends who live in Hendon (Northern Line), they complain about the Tube being overloaded at rush hour. They said that a rather modest redevelopment in Colindale the last few years caused the line to be crowded before they got on, rather than a few stops later.

            I know based on the statistics that the Northern Line is not the most crowded, so I have to assume several of the other lines are the same way.

          • Alon Levy

            The Northern line is weird because of reverse-branching artifacts plus crowding at the Camden Town interchange (which is the reason the line isn’t being deinterlined yet – they need to add passageways for transfer capacity). Once that’s done they should be able to run 36 tph to Bank, up from 28 today.

  4. df1982

    I’m a fan of the Victoria line extensions, especially to Swanley, which I had mused about often myself. The objections always come that these can’t be done because the Victoria line is already over-capacity (and this seems to be TfL’s view). But this ignores a couple of things:
    1. a lot of the potential passengers would be transferring onto the Victoria line anyway; this would make their journey much easier
    2. Crossrail 2 would presumably take a lot of patronage away from the Victoria line, as it hits its major destinations and would be somewhat faster and more comfortable.

    As for the subsurface lines, would you still be using the Baker St terminating platforms for the Watford branch of the Met? Why not consider adopting the “Wimbleware” line to further reduce branching? What has happened to the Ealing Broadway branch of the District (there are proposals to give it to the Piccadilly, but your map doesn’t have anything)? Why does Uxbridge get assigned to the Piccadilly and not the Met?

    An idea of proposed frequencies for the branches might help a bit to conceptualise the system.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the way TfL is building long-term infrastructure to make it harder to use the Vic line due to capacity problems that are supposedly going away in 15 years is grating.

      Wimbleware feels weird to me – it can run as an operating pattern but then about 100% of Wimbledon passengers would transfer at Earl’s Court.

      Ealing Broadway can go to the Picc, but Central is more direct and passengers who really need the Pic can transfer at the new interchange.

      Uxbridge goes to the Picc because I thought that was where most ridership was? But on checking O&D pairs, Uxbridge has around 5,500 weekday boardings to Met station and 1,900 to Picc stations (and 3,300 to shared stations from Rayners Lane west), so yeah, it should be Met.

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