Rail 728: Crossrail – expensive but impressive

Stung by Nigel Harris’s comment that I once wrote Crossrail would never happen – Mystic Wolmar has never been perfect – I thought I ought to go down into the tunnels to see what is being built under London. It is, indeed, amazing – superlatives are inevitable as one considers the sheer scale and size of the operation makes it possible to understand how £15bn or so is going to be spent.

Or at least, to some extent, but more on that later. First, though, the sheer awesome nature of the project. That starts with the huge 40m deep hole at Limehouse through which one enters to reach the two tunnel boring machines heading west to Farringdon and was used to take down the machines with the help of the only crane large enough in the UK.

This is the first time that full size tunnels able to take conventional railway stock have been dug deep and right under London (others such as the CTRL and the Moorgate – Drayton park line only reached halfway) which is what makes the scale far greater than anything that has preceded it. The diameter of the tunnels is double the size of the Tube borings, which means four times the amount of spoil has to be dug out to create them. Ultimately there will be 26 miles of new tunnel cut through by eight boring machines, six of which are already in operation.

So far progress has been relatively smooth. There is inevitably the odd problem to sort out. The muck, for example, is causing difficulty. It is wetter and therefore heavier than expected, and putting too much of it in the ships which are being used to take it to Wallasea Island opposite Burnham on Crouch to create a new wetland and wildlife haven. Terry Morgan, the chairman of Crossrail and formerly boss of Tube Lines, tells me that ‘the wetness makes the ships less stable and therefore they can carry less out’.

Then there is what to do with the so called ‘ticket hall’ on the fifth level down of the station at Canary Wharf. The top four levels are full of retail and, indeed, these shops will start opening in 2015, long before the completion of the line, as £150m of the station costs have been paid for by the landlords and they are eager to start recouping some of their investment, as well as providing much needed shops. However, the fifth level down, one above the trains and  which will be owned by Crossrail, is a huge area – apparently the size of the César Pelli tower that dominates Canary Wharf on its side – but clearly there will be no ticket office in this age of Oyster cards. That is a neat illustration of the pace of the development of technology and there is now a debate about whether to have some retail outlets there, too.

The delight to Morgan and his team is that Crossrail is now attracting all the right kind of publicity, as a huge building project that has not attracted the usual criticism over budget difficulties or accidents that dog such major schemes. The crucial time was the Olympics. Because so much the work was near the main Olympic site, Crossrail was under strict orders to avoid the risk of causing any disruption to the Games: ‘There was no mention of Crossrail during the Games’, said Morgan, ‘and that’s how we wanted it’. There was, though, press officer Peter MacLennan confides, the odd complaint about ‘why is the scheme not ready for the Olympics’ from uninformed members of the public which he could easily brush off.

There are no shortages of risks, however. The boring through the initial part of the eastern section is relatively straight forward, but as work progresses, the Crossrail tunnels have to avoid interfering with all the various structures under London ranging from the foundations of major buildings and various Tube lines, to ensuring that the audiences in the main hall in the Barbican do not suddenly find themselves listening to the whirr of the tunnel boring machine – or indeed, in the future, the rumble of trains and consequently special noise abatement measures are being built into the track bed there.

At times the distance between the new tunnel and existing structures like a Tube line or sewer are a metre or even less which means that the slightest mistake by those who have mapped out the route or by the engineers working on it could lead to a hugely expensive disaster.

The skill of the 20 strong team on the 140 metre long tunnel boring machine cannot be over-estimated. There is plenty of admiration in Morgan’s voice when talking about them and there’s a good reason: ‘They often are from a mining background, and as they become more experienced they move further up towards the front of the machine as those jobs are more skilled’. Indeed, while inserting the segments into the wall – each is 1m 50 wide and there are seven to each section – on straight parts of the tunnel is relatively straightforward, on the curves it becomes more difficult. While the positioning is determined by computer, there is still considerable skill required by the team to ensure that gaps between sections are kept to a minimum. The tunnel borers, who work 7 days on, three days off on 12 hour shifts are the elite of the workforce, currently 8,000 but set ultimately to rise next year to a peak of 13,800 based at no fewer than 40 worksites across London.

Crossrail, therefore, is on its way but there is still a nagging question at the bottom of my mind. When the first major series of tunnels, the Metropolitan Railway between Farringdon and Paddington was completed 150 years ago, it was constructed in three years by a team of men that was probably half the size and without today’s modern equipment. The cost was £1m, perhaps £250m – £300m in today’s money for nearly 5 miles of railway. Now I know it is a silly comparison, and the Crossrail tunnels are of a different order of magnitude but £15bn for 26miles of railway is a lot more expensive given the advances in technology and building methods that should make it relatively cheaper. There is, though, health and safety (though actually as far as I could ascertain when researching my book, The Subterranean Railway,, no one died on the construction of the Metropolitan) and all kinds of environmental requirements that the Victorians did not have to contend with, but nevertheless as with HS2, one wonders quite how the bill becomes so huge.

I might baulk at the cost and argue that we should have had the Chelsea – Hackney line, now subsumed into the longer Crossrail 2 project as it would have better served the needs of Londoners rather than Crossrail which was prompted by the need to boost Canary Wharf, but is impossible to be churlish about the advent of this fabulous new railway line. It is, too, coming sooner than expected, or at least Crossrail branded (old) trains on the Shenfield services out of Liverpool Street will be running when the franchise, being let by Transport for London, starts in 2015. The franchise process has already started with four companies shortlisted: – National Express, Keolis/Go-Ahead, Arriva and MTR. The omissions, incidentally, of FirstGroup which already runs the services out of Paddington, and of RATP, the state owned French operator of the RER trains in Paris, were surprising. The new rolling stock will not start coming on stream until 2017, and while some services will start operating in the tunnels in 2018, it will not be until 2019 that the trains right through from Maidenhead to Abbey Wood will be running. Still a long time to wait until all those ribbons are cut. And let’s hope that by then Crossrail 2 will have been given the go ahead.


The other extreme


A couple of days before going down into the subterranean depths of Crossrail, I had enjoyed a ride in the cab on the world’s first preserved railway, the Talyllyn in north Wales. An old slate quarry line just seven miles long with  a terminus next to the Pwllheli – Machynlleth line at Tywyn, it was that amazing polymath, LTC (Tom) Rolt, author of dozens of books including one the best account of railway disasters Red for Danger  who saved the railway, a story told in his charming book Railway Adventure (now available from Amazon on Kindle). He also, incidentally, founded the Inland Waterways Association, and was a vintage car enthusiast.

The line was opened in 1865 on the strange gauge of 2ft 3ins (the nearby Festiniog is 2ft) but when it was threatened with closure when the owner died in 1950, Rolt, who became general manager, and a group of enthusiasts saved it and started running services for tourists. It was no mean feat as the two locomotives were in a parlous condition – though two others were quickly acquired – and the track was overgrown and equally dangerous. Now the line carries around 45,000 people per year, down from its peak of 80,000, but nevertheless a healthy total given there are so many rival railways in the area.

One of the problems it faces is the very success of the industry that Rolt created. There are, as David Mitchell, a director and volunteer for the line since the 1950s, told me ‘plenty of other preserved railways in the area’. Indeed, counting the Festiniog and the Welsh Highland as separate ones, there are three alone at Porthmadog near where I was staying.

I am not, as regular readers will know, much of a steam buff and I would not be confident about explaining how a steam locomotive works to my grandson (when he is old enough).  However, it was well worth the the trip as the ride is up a lovely valley, and I was in the cab of one of the two 1860s engines still operating (though much renewed, of course).  As ever it is the dedication – and indeed patent enjoyment – of the volunteers that makes the line viable and it was very heartening to see so many younger people giving their time to the cause. Rolt – whose wife Sonia, incidentally, is still flourishing in her nineties – would have been delighted.

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