Rail 861: Crossrail delay will be forgotten when it opens

I had been expecting an announcement delaying Crossrail for some time. As I am writing a book about the project, I have spent a lot of time in their Canary Wharf office and talked to many people involved in the scheme. It was clear for some time that the Queen had better find something else to do on December 9th, which had been earmarked for several years as the day when Londoners would get their amazing new railway.

However, I was surprised by the length of the delay as I had expected that the key part of the line, the tunnels under London, would open in May. No such luck. The suggested opening date is now ‘autumn 2019’ and from past experience it is always dodgy when governments talk of things happening in a particular season rather than a month. As Andrew Bosi pointed out in his column for the Friends of Capital Transport Campaign Newsletter, the opening is now effectively sine die, which means it could well be 2020 before the trains whizz through between Paddington and Abbey Wood.

This is a major blow to both the Government and Transport for London. It is only a few weeks ago that Jo ‘Hydrogen’ Johnson announced that the project’s budget would go up from £14.8bn to £15.4bn and while that caused some consternation, the prospect of an imminent opening which seemed to be confirmed at the time meant there was little negative coverage. Now yet again, it seems that the Government does not know what is happening on the railways. For Transport for London, the effects are even more serious as mentioned below.

So what has gone wrong? There seems to be two main issues. First, there is the sheer scale of the task with ten below the surface stations having to be fitted out simultaneously. Digging the 42km of tunnels was, in fact, the easy bit and was completed within a month of the schedule, despite some difficulties such as problems with the huge conveyor belts needed to get rid of the spoil and the restricted ventilation for those working behind the huge tunnel boring machine trains which required design changes.

The much more complex task has been the fit out of the stations. Just as an illustration of the scale of the task, there are ten new below the surface stations in London plus one on the surface – Customs House. I deliberately avoided the word underground as they are on a completely different scale to the Underground stations with which we are all familiar. Every one has platforms that are at least 200 metres long, all with platform edge doors that prevent anyone falling or jumping on the line. These are massive structures that each cost in the region of £200m – £300m – and require the installation of an array of different systems such as high voltage electricity for the trains, ventilation, PA, gating, signalling and so on. Work on the stations could not get fully underway until the tunnel boring machines had finished and then the contractors took longer to fit them out than expected. That in turn led to a delay in testing which is the underlying reason for the postponement of the opening.

If there is one issue, it is probably, as ever, signalling which is at the root of the delay. Already the new 345 trains were supposed to run into the Heathrow tunnels in the spring still cannot get in there because of problems with the ETCS (European Train Control System) Level 2 equipment. I had an entertaining Twitter discussion over precisely how many signalling systems are installed on the trains with several people, including my esteemed editor, thinking it was four but it is fact ‘just’ three if both surface sections are counted as using TPWS, even though there are slight technical differences between the East and the West.

The very fact that this discussion occurred does, of course, explain why a delay was probably inevitable. The reason for having three systems was the result of a series of necessary compromises made by the Crossrail team and takes up half a dozen pages in my book (the rest of the book is far more interesting!). In short, according to European rules, new railways need to be fitted with ETCS level 2 equipment. The trains needed this anyway for the Heathrow tunnels and therefore the obvious thing to have done would have been to install it in the long tunnels under London. However, the Crossrail team reckoned, quite rightly as it turned out, that ETCS Level 2 would not be sufficiently developed to be deployed in the tunnels because, while it has been developed sufficiently to operate well on several railways in Europe, the level of sophistication required in the tunnels was far greater. There they needed to be equipped with an ATO (Automatic Train Operation) system – which means the trains can be controlled by computers with no one in the cab actually driving the trains – and also have the capability for ‘auto reversing’ which will allow drivers to go from one cab to the other at Paddington while the train automatically moves itself from the westbound track to the eastbound one.

Therefore they chose a well-used system called CBTC ‘Communications based train control’ to control the train in the tunnels. Again, the team thought it would be too complicated to use either ETCS Level 2 or CBTC in the mixed railway outside the tunnels and too expensive to fit all the other trains with that equipment to make them all compatible. So that is why there are three signalling systems on the 345s and, inevitably, that has led to delays.

Apart from complexity, the other issue is the unknown unknowns which are bound to arise from the huge number of interfaces between the various systems. In my book, I cite a fascinating example where, because the Bombardier trains were smaller than expected, the ventilation fans in several stations had to be increased in size. That was because the trains had been expected to do more of the ventilation but the reduced size of the trains meant that they pushed along less air and consequently the fans had to do more work. It is that type of knock on effect of making a change which is very difficult to predict.

The implication of the delay for Transport for London is far more serious. TfL is incredibly cash-strapped partly because it is being squeezed by the government and partly because Sadiq Khan made the mistake of promising no fare increases (or at least those under his control) during his four year tenure. Given there was already a Tory government when he was elected, this was a step too far but he thought it necessary in order to win – in the event, his large margin of victory meant that he would have won anyway. TfL is now facing having to make cuts in bus services and its Underground investment programme may be postponed, too. The delay to Crossrail will only exacerbate its difficulties.

The big question is when will the railway open. According to Crossrail, there is still a bit of fitting out to do as ‘the remaining rail infrastructure works are due to complete this year. This ranges from removal of temporary services to completing the remaining installation of the permanent lighting and drainage pumps in the tunnels’. Therefore, ‘by the end of the year, construction schedule will no longer impact testing, thereby allowing full testing to commence’. The implication is that Crossrail has built in lots of time into the schedule to make sure that there are no further delays. As long as there are no more pesky unknown unknowns, it seems Londoners will have their railway by the end of next year…and all these delays and cost overruns will quickly be forgotten. At the end of the day, this is not, as Andrew Adonis put it, a ‘disaster’ but a blip.



HS2 hold up


It never rains, but it pours. Just after the Crossrail delay was announced, Chris Grayling, the beleaguered transport secretary who only keeps his job because he is a faithful Leaver, announced that the legislation for the eastern second phase of HS2, 2b, is going to be issued a year late – in other words not in this forthcoming Parliamentary session but in the next one.

Oddly, in a rather forlorn attempt to paint this as good news, Grayling implied that this delay was to ensure that improvements to railways in the North could proceed. This does not seem to have any logic behind it at all but let me reiterate my key point about HS2. If even a quarter of the money earmarked for HS2 was spent on ensuring fast, electric, regular trains connecting all the major cities of the North – a kind of Network SouthEast for the North – then the reward would be hundreds of thousands of votes and an unparalleled economic boost for the region. Instead, Grayling and, sadly, the Labour opposition are hung up on supporting a pointless grandiose Grand Projet which will deliver nothing like the same benefits as a genuine Northern Powerhouse project.


PS For advance signed copies of my book, at £16, email me and I will reserve one for you. Will be available early November


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