The Hillary Step is so congested that they are thinking of installing a ladder. In fact, there are so many octogenarians climbing Everest to raise money for the church roof that they might as well fit one of those chair-lifts you see in colour supplements.
As a monument to derring-do, Everest no longer qualifies; so what does that leave? We have plumbed the sea; we have probed the darkest recesses of the rainforest; we have circumnavigated the globe – even now there are probably gap yah students criss-crossing the oceans blindfolded in a pedalo to raise money for some good cause or other.
Perhaps we should make sure a Briton is on the next trip to Mars (and perhaps we could all club together to sponsor Ed Balls). Or instead, perhaps we should concentrate on the amazing things we are already doing, and that we hardly even notice – things right under our feet.
Last week I went to see the Crossrail excavations at Canary Wharf, four years after we had officially got them going, and I remembered how fragile the project had seemed. There was a time when we had to fight for Crossrail, when senior cabinet ministers were denouncing it as a mad plan to build a pointless trench across London. It was an easy way to save £16 billion, they said. Axe it now, they said, and no one will even miss it.
Well, thank heavens we didn’t listen to that guff. Crossrail’s tunnel is now a giant and growing fact, that will revolutionise east-west transit in the greatest city on earth, pinging you from Heathrow to the City in about half an hour. Its fast air-conditioned network will run from Maidenhead in the west to Shenfield in the east.
Crossrail will increase London’s rail capacity by about 10 per cent, and generate an estimated £42 billion worth of growth across the country. Even in its construction phase, Crossrail is good for the whole of Britain. Of its 1,600 contracts, 62 per cent have gone to firms outside London – more than half of them small and medium enterprises (SMEs). There are bridges from Shropshire, cranes from Derbyshire, grouting from Coventry, piling from Oldham, lifts from Preston and vast quantities of lubrication from Bournemouth.
The project is responsible for about 55,000 jobs across the country, and it would have been utter insanity to cancel it – not just because of the jobs it creates, but because it is essential if we are to cope with the demands on our transport network.
London will have a million more people in the next 10 years, and without Crossrail the Central line would become so packed and overheated that it would not be fit, under EU rules, for the transport of live animals. It is a vivid and powerful lesson in the vital importance of investing in transport infrastructure, and of driving on ruthlessly with essential schemes: the
Tube upgrades, new river crossings, Crossrail Two, and others. They are not just good for London, but for the whole of Britain.
And yet none of these Crossrail statistics do justice to what is being achieved. When Patrick McLoughlin, the Secretary of State for Transport, and I went into the new station box at Canary Wharf, I felt a sense of primeval awe, like a Neanderthal stumbling into the gloom of Lascaux. It is akin to a gigantic subterranean cathedral several times the size of Chartres. The boring machine is like a colossal steel-toothed remora or lamprey, grinding her way through the clay.
I stood beneath her jaws, and fingered some of that thick black Bournemouth lube, and they told me how the machine had driven with such accuracy that when she entered the station box she was only 5mm off target. This is the biggest engineering project in Europe, an amazing advertisement for British construction; and when you look at it you wonder why we are sometimes so prone to self-doubt.
When the next coronation rolls round, we won’t need a new mountain to climb. We’ll have the joy and excitement of Crossrail Two, as she chomps her way from Hackney to Chelsea; and unlike climbing Everest, the scheme will be of practical benefit to all.
In the meantime, we need a proper name for Crossrail, the vast new line on London’s underground network – and who better to give her name to that line than someone who has served her country so unfailingly and well for 60 years?