The on-off-on-off-on again-off again extension of the Croydon tram network to Crystal Palace could be… on again.
But this time, it is Croydon Council and at least two neighbouring local authorities who are pushing the scheme forward, rather than the London Mayor’s office.
It is more than a decade since Ken Livingstone, as Mayor of London, put together a fully costed and funded scheme that would have provided six trams an hour running on a line from Harrington Road through to Penge Road, to Crystal Palace railway station for the National Sports Centre, and then on to terminate at the top of Anerley Hill next to the bus station.
One of the big advantages of the extension is that, relatively speaking, it would be cheap, since the majority of the route would utilise existing but under-used railway tracks.
The scheme, which would bring another 11,000 households to within half-a-mile of their nearest tram stop, had overwhelming public support and strong backing from local businesses.
But Boris Johnson – yes, him – killed the project when he took over in City Hall in 2008, despite having promised to deliver the tram extension in his Mayoral election manifesto that year. “What, Boris Johnson lying?” we hear you say.
What’s more, with backing from Croydon Tories such as Steve O’Connell and Gavin Barwell, Johnson promised the tram extension again in 2012, before ditching the scheme a second time.
Johnson even dusted off the proposals for a third time, to help Barwell’s own parliamentary re-election campaign a couple of years later. But he never did anything about it, preferring instead to squander millions of pounds of public money – or is that “spaff it up a wall”? – on a garden bridge which was neither a satisfactory garden nor a very good bridge, on unusable water cannon, or on transport follies such as the Dangleway or the poorly designed Boris Bus.
There have not been any significant additional tracks laid on the tram network since it opened nearly 20 years ago. Other schemes have come and gone, but now sources inside Croydon’s council offices in Fisher’s Folly say that the blueprints for the Crystal Palace extension are being dusted off once more.
It would represent a remarkable comeback for a significant civil engineering project.
In 2016, when Transport for London last had a proper look at extending the reach and capacity of the tram network, in their report Trams For Growth (sub-head: “Our plan to enhance the tram network to support growth in South London”), the Crystal Palace extension did not get a look in.
Then, the talk was all about Westfield in central Croydon, making the service more resilient and dependable during periods of peak demand, and of a “South London Metro” network with links to the proposed Bakerloo Tube extension into Bromley and to the Northern Line at Morden, with an extension of the tram from Sutton to Wimbledon.
But even some of those schemes have turned to dust: a £28million loopy Dingwall Loop scheme, part-funded with development funds from Westfield so that the pesky trams wouldn’t cut across their car-driving customers as they headed for £1.4billion supermall’s car parks has been binned, not least because Westfield have pulled their funding. The Sutton-Wimbledon extension remains on the table, but with Sutton’s LibDem council unable to find investors in their Belmont cancer centre or to raise the cash necessary themselves.
There’s a second, updated volume of Trams For Growth expected from City Hall early in the New Year, though from TfL’s perspective little has really changed in prospect for significant spending on this side of the Thames.
As a City Hall source told Inside Croydon yesterday, “TfL and Londoners are a bit fucked due to the Crossrail delays. The overrun in costs, the loss of expected fare revenues for two years and also lost commercial income are hard to exaggerate.
“The Treasury are not being favourable to TfL at present and there is no national support for investment in London – indeed there is huge resentment about existing projects in the capital and south-east.”
Today’s announcement by London’s third Mayor, Sadiq Khan, that he is freezing TfL fares for a fourth year will also not help increase available funding for infrastructure projects such as the trams.
Khan has a Mayoral election coming up, and the fares freeze was a key pledge when he was first elected in 2016, so he can hardly allow bus and Tube fares to go up now. But the fares freeze, coupled with Crossrail, has put Khan in a vice when it comes to other improvements to public transport in the capital – recent cut-backs in bus services through central Croydon are a clear example of that.
Which is why the push for the Crystal Palace tram extension is coming not from City Hall, but from Croydon Town Hall.
Croydon has provisional support from neighbours in Lambeth and Bromley – where the Tory-controlled council has suddenly discovered an enthusiasm for better public transport – and the local authorities are considering ways in which between them they can raise the estimated £350million costs of the tram extension themselves.
Not that everyone within Croydon’s controlling Labour group is backing a tram extension to Crystal Palace. Paul Scott, the cabinet member for concreting over the Green Belt, wants to extend the tracks down the Purley Way to provide better public transport links for the 12,000 flats he wants to build alongside the A23 urban motorway.
But his cabinet job-sharer, Stuart King, appears to have a broader grasp of the transport requirements of the whole borough, as well as the commonsense to realise that delivering an already well-worked-out scheme, instead of working up a entirely new extension from scratch, is likely to be more deliverable.
Croydon has shown little restraint when it comes to borrowing, at historically low interest rates, from central government sources such as the Public Works Loans Board, and after talking about introducing more environmentally friendly policies, improved public transport would demonstrate a seriousness on the matter.
Croydon Council has recently appointed a tram officer for the particular purpose of soldering the Town Hall closer to the local transport system for which the area has become recognised across the world. And having hiked the residents’ parking fees last month, the council is also looking at work-place parking levy which might in time help towards the costs.
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