x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

London forced apart by very rail system designed to bring it together

As a west Londoner born and bred but with seven years in the UAE under my belt, I¿d forgotten what a great city London is, especially when the sun is shining and the living is easy.

As a west Londoner born and bred but with seven years in the UAE under my belt, I'd forgotten what a great city London is, especially when the sun is shining and the living is easy.

After a splendid dinner with some old friends in Westminster the other night, I took a gentle meander past Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Downing Street, and it was absolutely serene.

On a balmy summer's evening, with little traffic on the roads at that time of night, I was enveloped in many hundreds of years of history. I nodded gratefully to the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, who probably did more than any other Briton to ensure London was able to preserve that heritage.

In his day, London was the biggest city in Europe and one of the biggest in the world, and already the planners were trying to work out how to keep the capital's huge population on the move.

In 1943, when German bombers were still attacking London, the County of London Plan suggested an underground cross-city transport system to link west with east, alongside the old Tube system.

Through various permutations and transformations, that plan became what is now called Crossrail, and is the biggest construction programme in Europe with a budget of £15 billion (Dh83.44bn).

Crossrail, still years away from opening, is already leaving its mark on the city, and not always in a positive way.

Every city has to develop, of course, and living in Dubai makes you familiar with the tribulations of infrastructure evolution.

But now I find London a much harder city to negotiate than it was seven years ago, before Crossrail was in full swing.

There is also a danger, I suspect, of the construction works splitting the city down the middle, dividing east and west like a less sinister version of the Berlin Wall. The main obstacle is the area around Tottenham Court Road, which was a big interchange on the convergence of north-south and east-west roadways.

That major crossroads has been closed for some time to allow the construction of a Crossrail station, and road traffic is squeezed to the south, around the already busy and partly pedestrianised area of Trafalgar Square.

West-east traffic often hits gridlock in this area. I took a taxi from Kensington in the west to Hatton Garden in the centre-east, and spent 45 minutes, and £35, for a trip that would have taken 10 minutes and as many pounds seven years ago. Many friends, lifelong Londoners, report the same. East-west travel has become expensive and time-consuming, to be avoided in all but absolute necessity.

There is always the Tube, of course, which is quick and relatively cheap, but crowded underground travel in the summer with no air-conditioning is not a pleasant experience.

East and west London always were distinct places, with their own character and culture.

We in the west always thought that we were a bit better than the barrow-boys of the east; they in turn, true cockneys, looked down on us effete "other enders".

In the financial world too, the division has become more noticeable, with the growth of the "posh" private equity and hedge fund business in the west around Mayfair contrasting with the "trader" mentality of the Square Mile and Canary Wharf to the east.

The Crossrail project, ironically a scheme that was specifically designed to facilitate travel across the city, risks institutionalising this divide, at least for the remaining years it will take to complete the project.

I don't think Winston, by inclination a west-ender but famed for his trips eastward, would have approved.

 

fkane@thenational.ae