What Does The Future Hold For London? We Asked An Engineer

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 86 months ago

Last Updated 22 March 2017

What Does The Future Hold For London? We Asked An Engineer
Bechtel celebrates the end of tunneling on Crossrail.

If you want to know what the future holds for London, ask an engineer. Which is precisely what we did recently: the engineer in question being Ailie MacAdam, who is Bechtel’s regional manager for infrastructure in Europe and Africa. She’s worked on HS1, the renovation of St Pancras and was also project director at Crossrail.

Crossrail is a good place to start. Trains will start running through central London in 2018, so what will this line really do for the city? “It will add 10% capacity to London Underground just like that,” says Ailie, snapping her fingers. “Which is extraordinary.

"It’s going to be more connected to the overland services and de-bottleneck the stations where you currently have to get off an overland train onto an underground train. People don’t have to get off at Paddington. They can get on a train all the way through and get off at Liverpool Street, and the same from Shenfield.”

So, we ask, is new infrastructure the answer to London’s growing population and transport needs? “I think that’s part of the answer,” she says. “Crossrail 2 is a prime example. Crossrail 1 obviously helps out east to west, Crossrail 2 helps out from north east to south west.”

Another part of the answer is upgrading existing infrastructure, as London Underground is doing on its various signalling upgrade projects. “You can see the increased throughput every day,” says Ailie. “They can get different types of trains, higher capacity trains.”

But there are also indirect ways to improve how we get around. “There’s a bit of an answer on smoothing out the peak, the way we come to work between 7.30am and 9.30am. The system has to be able to cope with those peaks. We should think about better using the capacity without having to accommodate these big peaks.”

Ailie sees public transport as important to the growth of London in the future but deciding what to do with it will depend on housing. “Will the cost of housing in London just drive everybody out so more people have to commute in? I don’t know and I wouldn’t like to make a call on that. I think housing, whether people can afford to live inside London or commute to London, will have a dramatic impact on what London looks like. Huge. I don’t know what housing’s going to look like but I do know transportation is going to be key.”

Ailie MacAdam.

We then started talking about some specific innovations that could bring change to the city we live in. Some are subtle changes, some less subtle. She thinks there will be far fewer cars in the future, and driverless cars are on the way. “Car manufacturers are saying 2019, 2020, 2021. But there’s the technology bit — can car manufacturers build something they’ve got confidence is going to be safe — and the other bit is us. Will we as a travelling public take to it? Do we want to be in control? That will be interesting.

“Another bit is the whole legal liability, if there’s a crash and someone gets killed, who’s liable? Is it the person in the car, the car manufacturer, the road maker, the software developer? It sounds really tactical, but until that lot’s cleared up you’re not going to see the momentum and that stuff can really hold back these kind of innovations.”

Apart from fleets of driverless cars shuttling us around from point to point, what else will push this change away from car use? "I think it’s a big question of will," she says, giving credit to Boris Johnson for championing cycle superhighways, before moving on to the example of Copenhagen.

Crossrail will add 10% capacity to London Underground just like that

"They pushed bicycles and public transportation and found they turned around people's whole mindset," Ailie says. "Cars are now really frowned on. Every other type of transportation has been made more convenient. It’s little things, like not putting parking outside offices, shops or sports clubs. That forces people to find a different way and they say ‘actually this isn’t so bad’. You get over the initial fury of not being able to park your car."

What’s also exciting about a future shift away from private car use is the potential for using the space currently reserved for car parking. Londonist may have a fondness for certain car parks, but imagine those spaces used for housing, or parks.

The future also holds the potential for the ground beneath our feet to provide clean energy. For Crossrail 1, Bechtel and its partners looked into the possibility of casting radiators into the concrete linings of the tunnels to take advantage of heat in the earth. “You pump water through these linings, the water heats up and then you take the water up to the buildings above and use it to heat the building,” Ailie explains. The engineers didn’t have the confidence it would be robust enough to incorporate into those works, but the hope is that it may find its way into the designs for Crossrail 2. Who thought geothermal energy was confined to Iceland?

And for a more immediate tip for the future of London? Bechtel has been working on Vauxhall station, increasing capacity and making it step-free, so Ailie’s spent quite a lot of time there in her previous role as the head of the company’s rail business. “I’d keep an eye on Vauxhall,” she says. “In five years’ time — well even now — it’s amazing. Particularly some of the residential buildings, that’s going to drive Vauxhall and change the whole look and feel of that place.”