Richard Brown: Tube wars of 20th Century – how the Liz Line fought the Jubilee

The role of Parliamentary Assistant for the London Underground (Green Park) Bill struck me as rather exciting when the staffing agency offered it to me. Newly arrived in London at the height of the 1990s recession, I needed work and dreamed of passing notes to MPs, briefing journalists and crafting ingenious arguments about, uh, something to see with the extension of the Jubilee Line?

The reality of Sisyphus – photocopying and bundling documents, then unbundling and shredding them a few days later – was a little less glamorous. It was the fall of 1993 and the bill – the final enabling legislation for the Jubilee Line Extension (JLE) – was already in its final stages. Construction contracts had been awarded and the parliamentary team was beginning to disperse.

Many of them moved to the corner of Dacre Street to work on Crossrail, which was the next big transport project. Or at least until May the following year, when a House of Commons committee stopped the bill in its tracks. What I didn’t realize at the time was how intense the competition had been between the JLE and Crossrail, and how important that competition and its outcome would be to the evolution of London in the decades who followed.

Both crosses and the JLEs can trace their lineage to the 1970s or beyond, but gained momentum in the late 1980s, those odd years when London lost its metropolitan government but experienced resurgent economic growth and the first signs of demographic recovery after 50 years of decline. Foreword by Secretary of State Paul Channon to the Central London Rail Study, published in January 1989, referred to the capital’s economic growth “straining London’s transport system”. The study proposed an east-west “Crossrail” (along with alternative Chelsea-Hackney and Victoria-Euston-Kings Cross options), and detailed planning for the project was given the green light the following year.

But something was moving in the east. In 1981 Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for the Environment (which then included local government and urban policy), had set up the London Docklands Development Corporation to find new uses for tracts of land left derelict by the closure of the east London docks. Rail and road infrastructure – including the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) – had been a top priority, based on the loose expectation that the docks would be redeveloped for a mix of housing and light industry.

All that changed in 1984 when American banker Michael von Clemm visited Canary Wharf. Von Clemm was looking for meal prep units for Roux Brothers Restaurants, in which he was an investor, but returned to his offices at Credit Suisse First Boston to propose that the bank could build offices there rather than continue to haggle over the floor space with the deep curator of the City of London Corporation. Michael Cassidy, then the city’s chairman of policy and resources, recalled von Clemm taking him to the site and telling him, “I’m going to build my office here, and I’m going to blame you – the city – for making me do this.”

A succession of plans, ownership changes and bankruptcies ensued, but in 1987 Olympia and York (O&Y), the Canadian developers of Battery Park City in New York, signed a development agreement to build 12 million square feet offices in Canary Wharf. That would mean 50,000 daily commuters, well beyond the capacity of the DLR, so O&Y promised to build a new railway line – unofficially and sadly known as the Canaryloo Line – to run from Waterloo to Canary Wharf to ‘in Greenwich.

Margaret Thatcher’s government liked the entrepreneurial spirit of the proposal, but Department for Transport officials were wary of bringing in independent rail projects, so a separate East London rail study was commissioned to examine options for improving access to Canary Wharf. He reported in July 1989 and recommended that the Jubilee line be extended via Canary Wharf and North Greenwich to Stratford. the the total cost would be around £1 billionof which O&Y would pay the £400m they had earmarked for their own project.

From the summer of 1989, two railway megaprojects were therefore looking at each other with concern on the starting blocks. The government was committed to maximizing private sector contributions to both, which gave the JLE an advantage as private funding was already committed to it. Thus, the JLE overtook its venerable competitor to gain parliamentary approval: the main bill was introduced in Parliament at the end of 1989 and received royal assent in March 1992, while the Crossrail bill did not did not have its first reading until November 1991.

Just as many City residents viewed Canary Wharf as a threat to their pre-eminence as a financial centre, the JLE’s swift parliamentary process alarmed many Crossrail supporters – particularly central London property companies such as Hammerson, Land Securities and Grosvenor – who feared the usurping railway would energize Canary Wharf at the expense of the City. As the 1992 general election approached and the UK slipped into recession, a new coalition began to come together, galvanized by the need to prevent Crossrail from being sidelined.

This coalition, led by Sir Allen Sheppard of the Grand Metropolitan leisure conglomerate, was officially launched after the election as London First. Robert Gordon Clark, who became London First’s communications manager the following year, said their main aim of pushing for Crossrail to be built before or alongside the JLE led a property journalist to rename them “London First , Docklands Second”.

But at that time, the JLE had its own problems. The global recession had hit O&Y’s North American holdings hard, and in May 1992 its creditor banks pushed the company into administration. The JLE had received royal assent but its funding had collapsed. “I had to work very, very hard to get the Jubilee Line extension started, because at the time the Treasury just didn’t want it. We were in a recession and they were fighting very hard to avoid any capital expenditure,” recalls Steve Norris, who after the election was appointed transport minister in London.

The Treasury insisted that the banks which now owned Canary Wharf were maintaining O&Y’s £400m commitment, perhaps hoping it would kill the scheme but, as Norris observes, funding for the JLE was the only way for the banks to recoup their losses: “Their property in Canary Wharf was practically negative in value at that time. With the kind of rents you could get without decent connectivity, that was all a liability, not an asset. All the banks therefore signed up, which made it very difficult for [the Treasury] to refuse. But they were dragged kicking and shouting.

Two years behind the JLE in Parliament and with no committed private sector funding following a recession, Crossrail was more vulnerable. In May 1994, the four-person committee set up to review the Crossrail Bill rejected it. The committee’s problems with the regime included its lack of connectivity to the Channel Tunnel rail link, the decline in use of the Tube (which was 20% below its 1980s peak in 1994), and above all the lack of committed funding from the Treasury or private funding.

Transport programs never quite die, of course, so Crossrail was sent in a limbo new designs, parliamentary procedures, cost-benefit analyses, studies, spending reviews, business cases and consultations. London First kept the flame alive, particularly when Labor came to national power in 1997, followed by newly elected London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who worked closely with the city and Canary Wharf to champion the project, which started in May 2009.

As the Elizabeth line finally opens, it feels like the closure of this chapter in London’s history, even if Crossrail 2 (the old Chelsea-Hackney line) steps back into the future. The JLE stole a march on Crossrail by having a single private sector player with deep pockets and being first on parliamentary actions (although delivery of the program was beset by overruns and delays). It shouldn’t be like this, but sometimes being the first is just as important as being the best.

But it is difficult to say that the extension of the Jubilee Line should have been abandoned. Without it, the development of Canary Wharf would have been wiped out and the development of London would have been radically altered: no second financial centre, no Millennium Dome on the heavily polluted peninsula of Greenwich and perhaps no Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford. . By accident and by design, the JLE was transformational. Perhaps Crossrail would have moved faster without it, and perhaps it would have been completed in time for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. But, given the constraints on public spending in the 1990s, perhaps not.

The most enduring legacy of the rivalry between these rail systems has been the galvanizing effect they have had on businesses and local authorities in London, making them realize the urgency of coming together to put pressure on the needs of the capital – including the introduction of a directly elected mayor, later championed by London First. It is a coalition which must still speak in the name of London today.

Photograph showing passengers boarding the first Elizabeth Line train at Paddington this morning by ITV News’ Simon Harris.

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