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A tale of two transformers

As the government prepares to make a decision on what could be her biggest achievement yet, Stewart Thorpe takes a look at how veteran transport planner Michèle Dix, and the mega project she now oversees, have both progressed since the 1970s


When Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid announced the autumn spending review would be pushed back until 2020, it marked the latest in a long list of delayed decisions on Crossrail 2. Former rail minister Andrew Jones previously said the Department for Transport (DfT) would consider the next steps for the proposed railway at the spending review.

The need to prepare for the looming Brexit deadline has changed those plans.

Nevertheless, after submitting its fifth business case in as many years, next year Crossrail 2 should receive the clearest indication yet of its future. Should the project get the go ahead, it will become the latest, and perhaps greatest, transformational transport project on the résumé of its managing director Dr Michèle Dix CBE, whose working life began around the same time the mega project was first mooted. 


What is Crossrail 2?

A proposed railway that will increase London’s rail capacity by 10 per cent by linking the national rail networks in Surrey and Hertfordshire via a tunnel through the capital. Crossrail 2, estimated to cost £30 billion in 2014, will enable the development of 200,000 new homes and support 200,000 jobs once it’s completed. 


Origins

The trajectory of Michèle’s career and the development of Crossrail 2 can both be traced back to the 1970s.

Michèle, whose dad was a master navigator in the RAF and her mum a teacher, joined Leeds University in 1973. Under the guidance of a careers advisor at her all-girls school, she combined her love for the arts, maths and science to enrol on a civil engineering course.

While Michèle was getting to grips with university life, in 1974 the London Rail Study was published. Backed by British Railways and London Transport, it identified Crossrail as well as the Chelsea-Hackney line – which later became Crossrail 2 – as possible schemes to serve future demand. 

After completing her civil engineering degree, Michèle returned to complete a PhD in transport and land use planning with the aim of becoming an academic. She decided that “a good lecturer is one that’s done some work” and successfully applied to join Greater London Council’s (GLC) transport planning graduate scheme in 1979.

GLC was the highest level of local government for Greater London and its planning department introduced Michèle to many major projects that have since come to fruition.

Her department worked on the Fleet line, which became the Jubilee line, and East London river crossings, numerous studies of which have resulted in the Silvertown Road tunnel project. It also considered how to unlock development opportunities at Battersea, a question which was eventually answered with the Northern line extension from Kennington. 

After her working day at the GLC, Michèle would travel to Thames Polytechnica, Woolwich, to teach civil engineering part-time, such was her determination to pursue a career in academia.

Through the GLC’s graduate scheme, she became a chartered civil engineer and realised she loved her transport planning work more than lecturing.

1980s

After six years at the GLC, Michèle left shortly before it was abolished and its powers dissolved to the London boroughs and government office for London.

“When I was at the GLC, lots of people complained about consultants and how they just took money off you,” said Michèle. “I thought, if I’m leaving, I might as well see what consultancy is like. So, I joined Halcrow Fox.”

Halcrow Fox was part of Halcrow Group, one of the UK’s biggest engineering consultancies before it was taken over by CH2M (which has since itself been taken over by Jacobs).

For 15 years, she worked on all manner of transport schemes, from river crossings and bus priority schemes to airport strategies and regional transport studies. She also undertook work abroad on the understanding she would be home in time for tea and eventually become a board director for urban transport.

While she recalls Halcrow Fox working on early proposals for Crossrail, one project she doesn’t remember passing across her desk is the Chelsea-Hackney line.

In 1989, against the backdrop of overcrowding on the London Underground, the government commissioned the Central London Rail Study, which once more identified this line, as well as East-West Crossrail and Thameslink, as solutions to meeting a forecast increase in passenger numbers.

Transport secretary Paul Shannon called on estimates from the report to be refined before moving ahead. At that time, the Chelsea-Hackney line was estimated at £1.3 billion, with funding expected to come from passengers and developers benefitting from the project.

Two years later, the route for the proposed Chelsea-Hackney line, from Parsons Green to Leytonstone, Grosvenor Road to Ebury Bridge and at Wimbledon and Putney Bridge, was legally safeguarded to ensure it was protected from conflicting developments in the future. 

The millennium 

The year 2000 saw further backing for the Chelsea-Hackney line, this time in the form of the London East-West study. Published by the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority (sSRA), it recommended that a joint feasibility study be launched by the sSRA and Transport for London (TfL) to allow construction to start “as soon as possible” after Crossrail. 

TfL was created months earlier when the Greater London Authority was established, marking the return of devolved governance for Greater London which was lost following the demise of the GLC. Ken Livingstone, who had been the leader of the GLC, was elected as the Mayor of London.

At TfL, Michèle was recruited for the role of director of congestion charging, which she shared with friend and former GLC graduate Malcolm Murray-Clark. 

While she was at Halcrow, Michèle worked on the Road Charging Options for London study (ROCOL), to decide what powers mayors and local authority heads should have to implement road usage charging, which influenced her decision to join TfL. 

“It was because I did that work for ROCOL that I was very keen when Ken Livingstone became mayor and wanted to introduce the congestion charging schemes to come to TfL to implement it,” she said.

“When I was at Halcrow and I had my first child, I said to my boss that I’d come back after maternity but only if I could do four days a week and they said yes. It meant I could better balance my work and home life. 

“Then, when I saw the job for congestion charging, I really wanted it but it wasn’t a job I could do part-time. It would be full-on in terms of the media, stakeholders and the time that would be required. So, I persuaded Malcolm Murray-Clark, who was then at Westminster City Council, and who had also worked on ROCOL, to do it as well.”

The position wasn’t advertised as a job share but Michèle and Malcolm submitted a joint application.

Michèle admits their working arrangement was “quite unique” at the time. She added: “When we were interviewed, each time they asked one of us a question, even if they asked us a follow-on question, the other one would answer. So we answered alternatively, showing that we could be one person. 

“I think they realised they were getting more skills and experience than they could get from one person. And because it was such a full-on job, getting two people to do it turned out good.”

Working three days each – they would overlap on Wednesdays, when all the key management and stakeholder meetings would take place – the pair devised, developed, obtained powers for and then implemented congestion charging in London in 2003 – one of the biggest schemes in the world. 

“We had worked together all of those years so we totally trusted each other and our work ethic was the same,” she added.

Promotion

In 2007, Michèle and Malcolm were promoted to the position of managing director of planning and were tasked with leading TfL’s strategic thinking on the city’s future transport needs.

Malcolm retired three years later but Michèle continued in the role. It was this same year that she first started working on plans for Crossrail 2, when, after years of limited feasibility work, planning was becoming more extensive to determine the route that best addressed transport and growth challenges. 

Michèle explained the Chelsea-Hackney line had been safeguarded in 1991 but had to be regularly reviewed and was looked at for the mayor’s 2010 transport strategy, to establish if there was still a need for a south-west north-east rail scheme through central London. 

“We concluded that a regional scheme that went from Wimbledon to Tottenham Hale, with branches up to New Southgate and up to Broxbourne and branches beyond Wimbledon was a better scheme,” she said. “We consulted on that, along with another option, and the public came back saying yes they supported the regional scheme and that was preferred over other alignments.”

It wasn’t the only major scheme being looked at to support growth, but it became the most important.

She added: “Crossrail 2 was the priority scheme to get implemented because of the needs, not only to relieve problems that exist at present, particularly on the south west rail into London, but also problems that would accrue over time, because of increased congestion on the Tube network in central London and opening up of areas that aren’t very accessible in north east London.”

A breakthrough moment came in 2014, when the project’s first business case was submitted to the DfT. In 2015, after being named CBE in the New Year’s Honours list for services to transport, Michèle was tasked with turning plans for Crossrail 2 into reality as she became the project’s managing director. It was at that point that she went up to four days a week.

Although the project is yet to receive the go ahead, it has progressed considerably with Michèle at the helm:

2015: A full strategic outline business case was submitted to DfT while the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was set up with the remit to review Crossrail 2.

2016: NIC published its first report – Transport for a World City – which stressed that Crossrail 2 should be taken forward as a priority. It recommended that a bill should be introduced to parliament by 2019 to allow the line to open by 2033. In response, the government gave the green light for Crossrail 2 to proceed to the next stage, supported by £80 million match funding by the mayor to help support the drafting of a hybrid bill.

2017: A revised strategic business case was submitted to DfT, taking into account NIC recommendations, but a snap general election was called in April, delaying a response to it.

2018: Transport secretary Chris Grayling announced that an Independent Affordability Review is being established for Crossrail 2 to ensure it demonstrates value for money. He also announced that progress on the Transpennine Route Upgrade and Crossrail 2 are to “advance in lockstep”. A delay to the opening of Crossrail caused money that was earmarked for Crossrail 2 to be diverted.

2019: Ongoing work to revise and submit the project’s fifth business case, taking into account the Independent Affordability Review.

A career of success

In her 40 years as a transport planner, Michèle has seen a shift in culture, with many more women entering the engineering profession – “but not enough”, she said.

During her early career, she would often be the only woman in meetings. Previously she has also spoken about being asked to make coffee when she attended meetings with Malcolm Murray-Clark, others assuming she was his personal assistant. 

“It’s changed enormously,” she said. “And I think it’s changed because businesses have recognised the importance of having a diverse workforce. It leads to better decisions, it leads to a better business and it’s important where there is a skills shortage.”

What makes Michèle’s story stand out is the number of projects she has been involved with that have transformed London’s transport infrastructure. 

Her proudest? “Seeing the congestion charge go live, it working and the whole world going ‘wow’ because everyone expected it to fail,” said Michèle.

“The [Emirates Air Line] cable car too. The cable car was probably the quickest thing we’ve ever got powers for and built and it is paid for through sponsorship and doesn’t cost us to operate, it generates an income that covers its operating costs. 

“The Northern line extension because that has undone the stalemate that existed in terms of how you took that development forward and it was unique in terms of how it was funded – i.e. the developers needed it in and helped to pay for it.

“And my next proudest thing will be getting Crossrail 2 over the line, hopefully!” 

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