London's track star: TfL boss Mike Brown talks money, mayors and clean air
"The secret to improving rail transport,” Boris Johnson said the other day, “is you need to find the right arse to kick.”
One of the bottoms in the firing line belongs to Mike Brown — the man Johnson put in charge of London’s transport system in 2015, his last year as Mayor.
Four years on, Brown is running the capital’s Tube, buses and roads for Sadiq Khan, whose management style is less boisterous — there are no signs of big posterior dents in the shiny orange safety suit Brown wears as I follow him through the latest extension being added to the Tube network.
But if Johnson takes over No 10 this month, Brown will need to watch out for prime ministerial kicks.
Everyone in politics says we need to invest more in infrastructure, and from the estuary airport to Crossrail 2 to the controversial cableway over the Thames in east London, Johnson had his favourite schemes as Mayor. Now Brown is getting ready to make a big pitch to the next PM.
“In the Eighties, London was in decline … now it is seen as the most fantastic, diverse world city there is,” he argues, with investment turning things around. “Let’s not squander that.”
One result of that transformation is the dark underground concrete box where we meet. In about two years’ time it should be a busy station on a smart new section of the Northern line, right next to Battersea Power Station, which is now a sea of cranes and soaring glass towers mostly containing expensive homes of the sort investors might not want to buy because of Brexit.
Already the tunnels are finished, and the track — squeal-free rails on special noise-cancelling rubber mountings — is in place on the route, which dives off the current Northern line at Kennington and stops along the way near the new US Embassy at Nine Elms.
As we walk there’s a smell of wet cement and the noise of builders at work — familiar to Brown, who as London’s Transport Commissioner is overseeing a stunning expansion of the capital’s rail network.
As well as Crossrail and the £1.1 billion Northern line route (£1 billion of which he promises will be reclaimed over time through taxes on the new Battersea development), new tunnels and escalators are being built to take the pressure off Bank station, and there are massive projects to re-signal routes such as the District and Metropolitan lines, as well as buy a new fleet of trains to replace ones on the Piccadilly, which are nearly 50 years old.
It’s a big list but if Johnson does become PM, Brown will be at his door asking for more. “The important thing is we keep the momentum going.” He’s alarmed that the Government has given Transport for London no clarity about funding after next year.
That’s left schemes such as Crossrail 2 — which is supposed to run from north-east London past Euston and out to the south-west — in the lurch. A few years ago everyone talked about it. Has it been dumped?
“It requires some re-loving,” Brown replies, “it’s essential… this is a mega-project that London should be ambitious enough to achieve.” He says he will “redouble our efforts with a new prime minister and a new government”.
Also on Brown’s shopping list are schemes such as the Silvertown road tunnel under the Thames, which would relieve the clogged Blackwall route; a southern extension of the Bakerloo line; and a rebuilding of congested Holborn and Camden Town stations.
The latter project — still unfunded — would allow more trains to run and easy interchange so the Northern line’s twin routes could be split into separate services, ending years of trying to work out if the one you are on is heading to Edgware or High Barnet.
But if all this is going to happen, Brown needs to persuade investors he won’t mess up. It doesn’t help that some of his current crop of schemes are running late. Crossrail — which was jointly managed between London and central government — was supposed to be running last year but we still don’t even have an opening date and Brown isn’t ready to promise one yet.
“I think there are still some challenges ahead if I’m honest,” he says. “The scale of issues … has been gradually revealing themselves.” He says he has confidence in his new team, but it still doesn’t sound certain that the line will be running by 2021, as TfL hopes.
Brown tries to bat this away as a forgivable wobble. “Our track record of delivery is actually a very impressive one,” he says. “Cities … from around the world come to us now to advise them on how we have done it in London.
“I tell you this city will feel great when Crossrail does open as the Elizabeth line” — and he says he wants to use that as a springboard to get backing for a new wave of projects. By then the Northern line extension should be running too — its construction has gone smoothly after an early scrap with the developers over the scale of a new block which will be built on top of the Tube station.
It’s an impressive sight, which makes it odd that the current Mayor hasn’t been down to see it. You might think that after failing to spot that Crossrail was crashing off track, he’d want to check for himself how his multi-billion schemes are going. Or maybe he just trusts Brown.
For lots of Londoners, of course, tomorrow’s mega-projects don’t matter as much as getting today’s journey’s sorted. That means things like getting Hammersmith Bridge open again —owned by a local council not TfL, it is now unusable to traffic, cutting off a chunk of south-west London. Brown doesn’t know when or if it will reopen or who will pay for repairs.
He also bats aside big cuts to bus routes in central London, promising “new routes and new service opportunities in outer London because that’s where we need to be getting people out of their cars for short journeys” — not least to improve air quality.
He praises the “seamless” way the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) was introduced in central London this year. People have been following the rules more “than even our most optimistic forecasts would have projected”.
The next step is supposed to be “the extension to the North and South Circular Roads”, which Brown admits will be “a different dynamic”, with more people using cars and lots of short trips which might catch people out as they stray over the border.
That’s why Khan’s Tory opponent in next year’s election, Shaun Bailey, says he’d delay the bigger scheme. Brown defends the plan as “workable and robust” and says he’d only stay in his job if “I fundamentally believe in the principles that the Mayor, whoever he or she is, is following. I happen to have that at the moment, I fundamentally believe in the air quality agenda,” he says.
That could be taken as a threat to quit if the Ulez plan is scrapped. Regardless, he’s got enough other battles to fight. There’s a mayoral election next year: the last one brought a fares freeze on some tickets which left a hole in his budget. Brown says his business plan requires the freeze to go.
He’s batting, too, on behalf of HS2 — a rail project Johnson has often said should be scrapped and now promises to review if he wins. “I think it is really imperative that no government starts thinking [of] somehow truncating the route of HS2 ... suboptimal options create suboptimal cities and let’s not do that.”
On top of this, he needs to get polluting old diesel cabs off London’s streets — Brown says he’s only used “one within the last six months” and never claims them on expenses. Then there’s promoting cycling and dealing with the new private-hire schemes now competing with TfL’s own system (whose user numbers “keep on cracking records”).
As we emerge into the daylight from what will one day be just another entrance to the Tube, he zips off his orange gear, unclips his helmet and heads off into a London he keeps on the move.
Source: Evening Standard
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