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It's time to extend the Elizabeth Line to Ebbsfleet and North Kent
All aboard the No-Brainer Express
Some people are never happy. And by “some people” I, of course, mean “British people”.
On rare days of nice weather, we complain that it is too hot. When Keir Starmer sets out a relatively detailed set of strategic policy goals, we complain that we don’t know what he stands for.
And when we build a wildly successful new railway that single-handedly boosts London’s rail capacity by 10% and shortly after opening accounts for one sixth of all UK rail journeys, we complain that it is too damn successful.
It seems to be part of our national character to see not a glass that is half-empty, but one that is full of piss.
And it is this last criticism that makes me the most irrationally mad.
Earlier this year, the BBC published an article quoting commuters moaning that trips on the Elizabeth Line were often too crowded or sometimes delayed. And reading it, I just wanted to scream at them “Why can’t you be grateful that this thing exists at all?!”
This is because it is something of a miracle that the Elizabeth Line – or ‘Crossrail’, as it used to be known – was ever built.
Leaving aside the non-trivial engineering feat of actually digging tunnels under Central London and putting trains inside them, it took literally over two decades of planning to wade through the bureaucratic hurdles before building could begin.
Serious plans for the line were first made in the early 90s, with the intervening decades used to finalise the design and build the political case, with advocates having to persuade the government, local authorities, businesses and residents not just of the case for building the line, but to agree to pay for it too.
So it would be nice now that it finally exists, if people could show a little gratitude. And that includes me as I’m now going to be a massive hypocrite, and complain about the Elizabeth Line too. Because I don’t think it goes far enough.
Look at an actual geographic map of the system and you’ll see the problem on the Eastern side of the map. North of the river, the line goes all the way to Shenfield, deep into Essex. But South of the Thames, the line stops dead in Abbey Wood in Southeast London.
But it wasn’t always going to be like this.
Back in the mists of time, early proposals had pitched extending the southern branch all the way to Ebbsfleet, in North Kent. And at some point along the way, the line was curtailed, presumably to save money and to get the project over the line so that construction work could actually begin.
But viewed on a time-horizon longer than the ultra-shortermist one that Treasury beancounters tend to use, this is crazy. Because at the moment there is a big missed opportunity to grow the economy, boost productivity and improve lives. So we should really get building and actually finish the Elizabeth Line.
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The case for Kent
Right, time for some maps. Which I feel for my audience is probably as functionally clickbaity as the ‘sidebar-of-shame’ is for Mail Online.
Here’s Abbey Wood Station – where the Elizabeth Line currently terminates. And if you follow the existing railway line down via Dartford, you’ll see we land at a station called Northfleet, which is a few hundred metres away from the much larger station of Ebbsfleet International. It’s basically a Kings Cross-and-St Pancras-style situation, on a much smaller scale.
But what actually is Ebbsfleet?
At the moment, Ebbsfleet International is mostly an enormous station surrounded by fields and car parks. It actually seems almost weirdly outsized. Like if someone playing Sim City had copied-and-pasted Stratford International station out of London and dumped it in the middle of nowhere1. It’s currently on the High Speed 1 railway line, and it currently connects with Stratford in eleven minutes, and St Pancras in 18.
So why build such a large station? Because of what it will become in the future. The station is ‘International’ because of its erstwhile Eurostar connection2, and it currently sits at the nexus of what is probably the single largest development project in the country.
Like Crossrail, plans had existed to build housing there since the mid-90s. But it really kicked into gear in the mid-2010s when George Osborne re-christened the project as “Ebbsfleet Garden City”. He created a development corporation to oversee the area3, and provide some coordination over what had been more haphazard plans4.
Here’s an incredibly ugly map to illustrate what’s going on. Basically all of the non-striped sections are new housing that have been either completed or are under construction.
So far the bulk of the construction has taken place in that large central area between Ebbsfleet Station and Bluewater Shopping Centre. It’s a former chalk quarry and it is in the process of being filled with mostly suburban-style houses, but with plenty of mid-rise blocks of flats thrown in too. And that central spine running through the centre of the quarry isn’t a road for cars – but will be a fully separated bus rapid transit route that once constructed, will supposedly offer Tube-style frequencies for turn-up-and-go convenience5. It’s all Very Good Stuff, basically.
But this isn’t all that is planned. The purple area on the map, around the train station, is destined to become a development known as “Ebbsfleet Central” and the plan is to build a much denser, dare-I-say-London-style core, that feels vaguely reminiscent of both the Olympic Park and Kings Cross redevelopments6.
Here’s some pretty renders made by the developers showing some nice, dense, walkable streets, built around active travel and public transport.
In total, it should mean 15,0007 new homes, just outside of London, built relatively sustainably. People will be able to live, work and commute without the need to own a car. It will bring much-needed investment to what is currently a rather down-at-heel area (nearby Swanscombe, Greenhithe and Gravesend are struggling on a number of metrics). And it will help make a dent in the housing crisis.
So basically, it’s going to be really fucking great if the vision can be fully realised.
I think it is pretty easy to see the case for extending the Elizabeth Line here: The population is set to increase dramatically, and another major rail connection would unlock even more of Ebbsfleet’s potential for future development and as a hub for local development and growth.
And it is possible to imagine that further potential. Because only looking at what the Development Corporation has domain over actually understates the scale of the opportunity in the area.
If we zoom out, we can see a little more of the route that the Elizabeth Line would take to Ebbsfleet. And here I think there’s plenty of scope for building housing and densifying even further.
For example, following the route of the existing railway, one of the stops en route could be at Stone Crossing station, which sits between Greenhithe-for-Bluewater8 and Northfleet. At the moment, this is basically the middle of nowhere. It’s next to a dowdy Burger King, on a rather desolate dual-carriage way, across from a business park and some warehouses. It currently serves only 82,000 people a year9.
Now imagine if the Elizabeth Line was plugged into it – and suddenly the area has a direct, reasonably quick connection with Liverpool Street, Tottenham Court Road, Bond, Street, Paddington and Heathrow. All of a sudden – holy shit – you have a desirable place to live and connections for business and commerce with a much wider area.
We could replace all of the low-density warehouses with flats, and we’d have a tonne of new homes for people to live in that are well connected to places that people actually want to be.
And you can make a similar arguments for other parts of the slightly-wider-area too.
For example, the pointy peninsula in the middle was long planned to be the location of a new theme park10, but the developers were forced to call in the administrators. So instead, we could put even more more housing there.
And similarly, existing locales like Swanscombe, Greenhithe and nearby Gravesend (which is also occasionally talked about as an Elizabeth Line terminus) could revive their fortunes with the injection of interest and investment that the Elizabeth Line would bring with it, as well as improving connections and opportunities for existing residents.
It also seems inevitable that in the next decade or so, Bluewater Shopping Centre will be forced to reinvent itself as even anchor stores begin to fail. And that will likely involve developing its acres of carparks into flats, and moving from being a ‘destination’ to being a place with shops for people who actually live nearby. And if this happens, then those people will still want to occasionally travel to other places too.
And according to estimates from people who actually know what they’re talking about, once you take the entire extension into account, including the bits of London it would snake through would take the estimated total new homes to 55,000, and new jobs to 50,000.
So this is all to say that, extending the Elizabeth Line could do an awful lot of good for North Kent and the rest of Southeast London too. And more broadly, it could help Britain mitigate some of its most annoying strategic challenges (ie: housing and nerds whining on Substack) too.
Off the rails
I’m sure at this point you’re completely sold. Of course extending the Elizabeth Line makes sense. So why didn’t they do it originally? It wasn’t just money, but it also comes down to railway engineering11.
According to this Crossrail Information Paper, one worry was that there would be an “unacceptable risk of disruption”, as the plan was that Elizabeth Line trains would share their tracks with other Southeastern railway services12.
More broadly, according to this extremely detailed article on the excellent London Reconnections website, there are various byzantine operational reasons why it wouldn’t be particularly easy to intermingle Elizabeth Line trains on the existing railway line from a technical perspective.
So the upshot of it is that if an extension is desired, the only really feasible way to do it would be to build a new set of tracks that run alongside the existing ones, for Elizabeth Line trains only. And this is, unsurprisingly, where things start to get expensive. As one figure that has been put on the cost of the extension is £1.5bn, and another is £3.2bn. And both were presumably calculated before we lived in a world where a weekly shop in Sainsbury’s costs £150.
It’s a good idea though
Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to think of doing this. Generations of overweight men with beards, drawing coloured lines on maps have existed before me.
The possibility of extension has been debated in Parliament, and in 2019, five Housing Secretaries ago, the late James Brokenshire even chucked in some government cash to study the extension.
Similarly, Transport for the South East has included the extension in their grand strategy for transport across the entire region. I’m told work is “still ongoing" to developer the business case further”, in their case.
And then there’s the Abbey Wood to Ebbsfleet group, which was formed by a bunch of local councils that would benefit from the extension. A few years ago, they organised a ‘consultation’ on the upgrade – though this was really little more than putting together a plan to send to central government to ask nicely, because they don’t have the money themselves.
They sent their plan to the government in 2021, and since then, not much seems to have happened publicly, though I’m told that the members of the group “continue to work towards the completion of the Elizabeth Line between Abbey Wood and North Kent as originally intended”. Which has a nice, snarky air of historical grievance about it.
However, the reason I wanted to write about it today is not just because trains and maps are cool, but because there basically doesn’t appear to be much movement on the proposals. Maybe a lot is going on behind the scenes – but the government, TfL, Network Rail, and others are depressingly silent. And yet… this is important.
Why? Because everyone knows that big infrastructure projects take a long time realise.
There are people who were fresh-faced thirty-somethings when Crossrail was first planned, who had to wait until they were nearing retirement to actually ride on the railway. It’s likely that many of the middle-aged decision-makers on HS2 today will be literally dead by the time the line ever reaches Manchester, let alone Glasgow.
The lobby groups promoting extending the Elizabeth Line, who have an interest in providing the most optimistic possible estimates, reckon such an extension might take ten years. So who knows how long it will actually take.
So even if politicians today are nervous about the upfront costs of extending the railways, they should try to think more about the long-term.
Extending the Elizabeth Line to Ebbsfleet and the rest of North Kent is not just logical when looking at a map. If we want infrastructure in the future that is going to grow the economy, decarbonise our atmosphere, and increase productivity, we need to start building it now. So we should actually do it.
Then perhaps one day if we’re lucky, the British people will be able to ride the Elizabeth Line out to Ebbsfleet and beyond into North Kent – and then complain about it being too crowded on the train there too.
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Yes I know you can’t copy and paste in Sim City. At least you couldn’t in Sim City 2000, which is the only one that counts.
The station didn’t have a couple of Eurostars stop every day up until the pandemic, when services were cut. And maddeningly, there are still no signs of Eurostar resuming services, with the company have ruled coming back to the station in 2023 and 2024. Aside from this being infuriating for obvious reasons, I can’t help but wonder if it is also a big missed opportunity to mitigate the post-Brexit problems at St Pancras. At the moment, trains are leaving essentially a third empty, because the station doesn’t have the staff capacity or physical space to get people through customs quick enough, with the new post-Brexit checks. So surely there is a strong case for shifting some of that departure traffic to Ebbsfleet, which does have the capacity and space?
Perhaps not unlike Labour’s current plans for Development Corporations to drive housing.
I imagine the Development Corporation having ultimate control of planning permissions instead of local councils helps tremendously too.
Insert a note of scepticism here.
I suspect the actual developers would be nervous to imply London-style densities but that’s what’s happening here.
Remember that’s 15,000 homes, not people – so you’re looking at a population increase of. I don’t know, 50,000 if you assume most people are couples and some have kids?
Basically it’s a parkway where you can catch a bus for the five minute journey down to the shopping centre.
That’s fewer people than have read my brutal take-down of beloved national treasure Captain Tom.
It was going to have rides based on IP from the likes of Paramount, the BBC and ITV. So the world has been tragically denied Godfather-themed laser quest, a roller-coaster based on the Weatherfield Tram, and a singing robot Paddy McGuinness in the Hall of failed Top Gear Presenters.
I can’t believe my subscribers are mostly men either.
Sharing tracks is a normal thing. In fact, the western end of the Elizabeth Line out to Reading, of course, shares its tracks with other National Rail services that go in that direction.
Yeah I’m still trying to make this a thing.