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Opponents line up to attack Thameslink at public inquiry

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Formidable opposition to Railtrack’s Thameslink 2000 (aj 27.11.97) has emerged in the run-up to the public inquiry into the scheme. The two main opponents are the City of London, which objects to the impact on commuter services into the Square Mile, and defenders of the historic Borough Market area, who say its whole character and regeneration prospects could be destroyed.

Commuters who travel daily over the Borough Market viaducts, west of London Bridge Station, see only a jumble of roofs and the odd idiosyncratic building uncomfortably nudging the railway’s parapets. From below, the view is more attractive - which is why the makers of Howard’s End, 101 Dalmatians and two dozen other films have shot sequences there, and one reason why residents and small businesses are fighting for it.

The area’s medieval street pattern and Georgian streetscape were savaged by the nineteenth-century railway companies, who pushed the first viaduct through the eighteenth-century market building, horrifically close to Southwark Cathedral. Despite this, argues Jackie Power, chair of the Cathedral Area Residents Association, what remains is too valuable to lose. This view is supported by the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society, who have both lodged objections to Railtrack’s Transport & Works Act application, and by Southwark’s Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes.

Another powerful objection comes from the market trustees. Director Philip Obeney explains that the market, taking its cue from the wider South Bank regeneration, has recently embarked on a five-year plan, ‘London’s Larder’, to bring back a daytime retail food use, signing up specialist vendors of oysters and cheeses, and a bakery. Unless radically amended, the Thameslink scheme may close the market, he says.

Few of the objectors question the scheme’s purpose: to turn the present limited north-south rail link through King’s Cross and Blackfriars into a high-capacity regional metro. It is the method that infuriates them. To provide a second pair of tracks west of London Bridge station, Railtrack proposes to weave a second viaduct through Borough Market, demolishing many of the buildings that give the area its character. These include a terrace by Smirke, the 1840s Wheatsheaf pub, and the rear of a picturesque 1830s terrace in Park Street, a particular favourite with film-makers.

The present scheme avoids demolishing one building previously under threat, the ornate 1870s Globe public house, but destroys its setting and every decent view of it. All these buildings have now been listed - which, says Power, gives the association hope in its David and Goliath fight.

Power says the scheme will devastate the area, destroy businesses and homes, and blight regeneration prospects. Obeney points out it has taken a battering from the Jubilee Line works: ‘This could kill it.’ Ward councillor Hilary Wines agrees, but Southwark council has been more equivocal. It has now objected, but might not have done so if Railtrack had been willing to build new stations elsewhere in the borough.

Solicitor Ben Birnberg, based in Borough High Street, has worked on residents’ objections. He stresses that they support the regional metro idea, but want it go either on a different route (via Herne Hill) or in tunnel, with the cost partly defrayed by property development on the surface route this would replace. ‘The present scheme is completely unnecessary,’ he says.

The City Corporation has three main objections. Firstly, it objects to the loss of through peak-hour services to Moorgate. This is necessitated by Thameslink’s 12-car trains - which city planning officer Peter Rees argues are unnecessary. Secondly, it objects to the reduction in Cannon Street and terminating Blackfriars services implied by an ambitious Thameslink schedule. Lastly, the City, like the Royal Fine Art Commission, wants a lower-profile station at Blackfriars which, unlike Will Alsop’s design, would not interrupt views of St Paul’s and the river. All these objections, says Rees, could be met by amending the present scheme.

The Borough Market residents’ case raises broader issues. Could property development along a discarded surface route really make an underground route affordable? Is Herne Hill an acceptable alternative? And, above all, would the delay involved in a rethink be acceptable? Thameslink 2000 has been promoted as an exceptionally low-cost way of providing a regional metro (£600 million in contrast to £2.5 billion for CrossRail). The objectors will need to convince the inquiry that letting the railmen cut a second trail of destruction through an undoubtedly historic area is, in the twenty- first century, an unacceptable price for a major and much-needed improvement in London’s public transport.

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