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Is Ken's plan on track?

AGENDA

As the Government commits over £37 billion to transport in its spending review, Ken Livingstone's plans to serve the capital's rapidly growing population may not be as ambitious as they seem.

Tom Cullen reports

ONE COULD forgive a business development manager for acting like a child in a sweet shop when first browsing through Ken Livingstone's plan to improve the capital's transport network by building more tram and tube lines and improving main line railway routes.

The newly re-elected mayor proposes £18 billion-worth of work in the city by 2016 and the projects aren't going to build themselves.

But the industry is likely to season Mr Livingstone's spaghetti-like map of proposals with a pinch of salt.

Not all the schemes will be built and many, the cynic might say, will bust their deadlines.Look no further than the recent and imaginative renaming of Thameslink 2000, the grand plan to upgrade the Brighton to Bedford route via the City of London.

The scheme, which was supposed to have begun easing train bottlenecks around the London Bridge area, bullishly confronts a 12-year delay with the new moniker 'Thameslink 2012' - a new title with all the old uncertainty of its predecessor.'Thameslink whenever' is just as appropriate.

But the proposals do whet the appetite for what could prove to be a number of big contracts in the capital. And, as any Londoner will tell you, there's no such thing as too much transport. Since 1989 London has been the swiftest growing city in Europe, adding 500,000 people in 15 years - the equivalent of the population of Sheffield.

A series of projects to enhance transport capacity and provide the access necessary to expand employment and housing will pack some punch and can hardly be ignored by the decision-makers at Number 10.

Indeed, the Department of Transport is currently looking at the mayor's proposals in light of Monday's spending review, in which the Government committed itself to an annual average rise in transport expenditure of 4.5 per cent between 2005/06 and 2007/08.

These increases mean the Department for Transport's expenditure in 2007/08 will be over £2.4 billion higher than in 2004/05.The total expenditure by the department over the spending review period now exceeds £37 billion.

Looking to benefit will be the largest - and most controversial - scheme, Crossrail.Transport for London hopes the east-west London rail link will provide the backbone of the City's financial and business services district.But the line is likely to cost £10 billion and the Treasury is reluctant to commit more than £2 billion of public funds, arguing that the rest should come from the private sector.

Other projects touted in the plan include extensions to the Docklands Light Railway, river crossings to open up the Thames Gateway and the continued expansion of the bus network.

But £18 billion does not grow in trees.

Cap in hand, TfL was, before the spending review, asking Government to increase its grant by about £1 billion for 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08.

Speaking before the review, a TfL spokesman said: 'If Government makes the necessary grants to all of the projects represented on the 2016 map then, yes, these schemes will happen.

'Public Private Partnership doesn't allow for the major capital projects and although TfL has the ability to prudently borrow, repayments will place an additional burden on Government grants and the fare box over the term of a loan.'

But on Tuesday, TfL was unwilling to comment because the full implications of the review were not yet known.

Uncertainty abounds and the likelihood is that only a handful of the proposals will advance from the drawing board. So which projects are likely to take precedence?

Crossrail, Thameslink and the East London Line extension have waited patiently for funding for a decade or more.Two of these have been acknowledged as being of high priority.

The TfL spokesman said: 'It's fair to say Crossrail and East London stand out.

After all, it is projected that Crossrail will provide more than 20 per cent of the capital's transport capacity when complete.

'But the smaller projects with shorter completion timelines are just as key.

Projects like the Docklands Light Rail extensions and West London Tram could come on line well before 2016.'

And there it is.The 'T'word. Contractors will shuffle uncomfortably at the regular mention of trams in the proposals. Indeed light rail takes centre stage in the planned network overhaul.Mr Livingstone has earmarked four major new routes across London but interest in these may prove to be slow at best.

Firms that have had their fingers burned by light rail will take some convincing before the gloves come off again.

The only other body more wary of trams than the construction industry is the Government itself - and it has already said it will not subsidise the running of tram systems apart from a contribution to the original start-up costs.

But the capital already has the Croydon Tramlink and its relative success has encouraged TfL to extend it further into south London to reach Sutton, Tooting, Streatham, Purley and Crystal Palace at a cost of over £500 million.

Several of the mayor's schemes have already been given the nod.The Piccadilly line extension to Heathrow T5 will begin in January for completion in 2008.

There will be no shortage of takers for the £30 million job, jointly financed with airport authority BAA.The Government is also thought to be close to agreeing the £1 billion East London line extension.This will provide services that will extend north to Highbury & Islington, south to West Croydon and west to Clapham Junction and in future could allow orbital journeys of the capital to made by the tube.

Led by the Strategic Rail Authority, in collaboration with TfL, London Underground and Network Rail, assuming it gets finance, the project will be delivered before the end of the decade.

Money has also been committed for an extension to the Docklands Light Railway, which will see it run from King George V station at north Woolwich to Woolwich Arsenal in a £150 million scheme.The line will be operational by 2008.The project is likely to attract the attention of Mowlem, which has worked on earlier DLR projects, and Amec, which is currently carrying out a £140 million extension to London City Airport, to name but a few.

By 2016 London's population will top eight million and, whatever the outcome of the mayor's masterplan, contractors would be wise to keep a close eye on how the capital will cope. Most will treat Mr Livingstone's proposals with prudence - but overlook them at your risk, some will say, otherwise you could miss the boat. . .or the tram. . . or the Tube. . .

The mayor's proposals

Crossrail: To link Heathrow in the west to Stratford and the Isle of Dogs in the east, extending out of London north-east and south-east

Thameslink 2012: To incorporate Finsbury Park and expand north to Cambridge

Croydon Tramlink: To link suburbs in south London and connect the District and Northern lines

Docklands Light Rail: To extend to Woolwich Arsenal, Dagenham Dock and Stratford International, where it will link with Eurostar services and the proposed Olympic Village

Cross River Transit: Tram line from Camden to Peckham and Brixton via Waterloo Bridge

East London Transit: Tram linking north-east London to underground network nGreenwich Waterfront Transit: Guided bus or tram linking Greenwich to Gallions Reach via new Thames crossing

West London Transit: Tram link for Uxbridge to Shepherds Bush

East London Line: Extension north to Highbury & Islington and south to West Croydon, Crystal Palace and Clapham Junction

Metropolitan Line: Extension north to Watford Junction to link up with mainline trains

Piccadilly Line: Extension west to Heathrow T5