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What price the Camden High Line? - May 2023

There is a prospect of a ‘Camden Highline’ being built on the currently unused track-bed of the North London Line across the borough of Camden. Unlike all other highlines in the world, the land chosen is still needed for railway use in the future, possibly the near future.

Future Transport London has long opposed this Highline scheme, and it is currently running a series of adverts to that effect in the Camden New Journal (CNJ).

The Highline’s planning application says that the ‘park-in-the-sky’ is for 20 years 'or perhaps 30 years'. The first stage of the plan has been considered by Camden’s planning committee, and the council's planning report simply treats it as a permanent attraction. The Highline promoters said in the CNJ in 2018 that the park would cost £50 million to construct, although never how much to remove it, or who would pay. There is no indication if the promised later two phases would ever become planning applications. It may never go anywhere.

What would happen in any case if the business became insolvent, with no private-sector investors to bail it out? Would the London Borough of Camden finance its survival, and from which budget?

Who would pay for removal, whether long-planned or completely unexpected? There would be few physical assets for funding that. Would we see the metal staircases appearing on eBay?

When property or tourist attraction developers start to call their unrealistic schemes ‘exciting’ and ‘transformative’ we need eternal vigilance from the public and to start counting the spoons. Can anyone see similarities with Boris’s Garden Bridge and the Marble Arch Mound?

Sadiq Khan published a 2021 'London Rail Freight Strategy' with the private-sector freight industry to reopen still-existing Platform Three at Camden Road Station, instead of building the Highline. That would immediately allow 50 per cent more London Overground trains between Stratford and Camden, and also allow quicker recovery of the whole North London Line from service disruption.

There is a second issue though. Freight transport must be treated with the importance to UK prosperity that it deserves. The government has published a 2022 'National Freight Strategy', aiming to “make end-to-end journeys more efficient and reliable” and to “support wider government objectives around decarbonisation”.

It also requires ‘rail routes with under-utilised capacity [to be upgraded] to ease road congestion’. We already know that the private rail-freight companies want easier flows across London, since the capital is the only route between dozens of UK distribution centres and the east coast deep-water ports and the Channel Tunnel.

The next Amazon widget that you have delivered may likely have been made in China, passed through the Suez Canal, been unloaded at Felixstowe or Thames Gateway from a ship on its way to Rotterdam, and finally travelled through Camden Road Station (or the Hampstead Heath tunnel) on its way to a huge Midlands distribution warehouse.

A lot of UK food, drink and engineering exports go in the other direction as well.

The rail-freight industry made quite clear in 2021 that the North London Line between Maiden Lane and Camden Road Station is a major capacity bottleneck that needs sorting. With a combination of government, Transport for London and freight industry money the problem is fixable over the next few years. But that can only happen if the tourist Camden Highline is stopped here and now.

John Cox

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