Here is the news: Crossrail is happening. Yes, of course it is late and the most recent announcement, which has kicked the opening date further forward to the autumn of 2021 is a disappointment. The cost is now expected to be £18.5bn, nearly £3bn more than the budget fixed by George Osborne (remember him) nearly a decade ago.
And keeping with the negatives, it still strikes me as incomprehensible that until the summer of 2018, the management team of Crossrail was still insisting that it would open on time on December 9th 2018 and on budget. As I have mentioned before, in writing my book The Crossrail Story , I spent a lot of time in Crossrail’s offices in the first half of 2018 and was impressed with the confidence of the management team that they would overcome all the complex problems and open on time. I was never entirely convinced and became less so every time I went on a visit to one of the stations. I remember in particular going to Paddington in June that year when more than 500 people were still working on the station and absolutely nothing seemed ready for testing, let along nearing completion.
Enough mea culpa. I decided to pay another visit to a couple of stations to see how much progress has been made. Of course the PR team chose which ones and kept me away from Bond Street where, even now, there are still doubts about whether it will open in time for passengers to use it in 2021. However, I did visit Whitechapel, one of the stations that has caused most difficulty and Farringdon, which even when I visited in 2018 was in a very advanced state.
In fact, seeing how much progress has been made at both stations merely reinforces my incredulity about what happened in 2018. Surely, if the management team had visited any of the station sites then, they must have realised that they were nowhere near ready. I remember going to Paddington in June 2018 and the place was a chaotic worksite with virtually nothing in place and more than 500 people working there. The platforms doors were not in place, there had been no dynamic testing and there was no sign of any escalators – how on earth could they have imagined it could be opened six months later? It is an issue I will explore in the second edition of my Crossrail book but I still cannot fathom out what was happening in the minds of the senior management.
Visiting Whitechapel early in the New Year was a completely different experience. It was still very much a worksite with an enormously complex series of temporary buildings, narrow passageways and blocked off streets which still require considerable work. There is, for example, a now disused cement batching plant that will have to be taken away and a temporary entrance, created on a bridge across the District line in early 2016, is still being used as the northern side of the station, known as the lower concourse, is still a mass of scaffolding and temporary framework.
However, much has been done and what I saw was a project in its final stages of completion, not work in progress. The beautiful curved roof over the refurbished and expanded station is in place, and already the grass which has been planted on the central section as a way of reducing drainage problems and to add to Crossrail’s green credentials is flourishing.
Seven levels down, the Crossrail platforms, each 250 metre long, are pretty much ready for use. The platform doors, which reach up to the roof unlike those on Jubilee Line are all in place and the advertising signs placed at regular intervals on them are ready for use. The lengthy escalator, the second longest on Crossrail, is all but complete, with just the advertising panels to be added.
The station looks so close to being ready that one could ask why it is still going to be another 18 months before trains rumble – or rather glide – through the central section of what, ridiculously, is going to be known as the Elizabeth Line. The biggest delay has been caused by the difficulties of operating a railway with three different signalling systems and of ensuring the central section, which uses Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) that enables automatic train control is functioning safely.
However, the two senior engineers showing me around, gave a good example of how a station that looks finished may still require considerable work in these high tech days. Every station needs a fire certificate and to get it, the Crossrail team will have to develop a series of procedures to ensure that every eventuality is catered for. Therefore, they have to consider what should be done if a fire breaks out in any part of the station and the action to be taken may vary according to whether say, the fire has originated in electrical equipment or through an object carried by a passenger. Different evacuation and ventilation procedures may be used according to the type and location, and each of these has to be set out in guidance. Of course some of this work can be undertaken by computer programmes but at the end of the day there is no substitute for human analysis to ensure all eventualities have been covered. This is painstaking and complex work that will take time, and there are other similar procedures that must be undertaken before the public is finally let on to the railway. The Daily Mail might it red tape but they would be the first to scream if lives were lost because of a failure to make these assessments. I remember covering the disaster at Kaprun in Austria in 2000 when 155 were killed in a modern funicular railway because of a series of procedural errors after a fire started in the bottom section of the train. The implementation of a series of recommendations resulting from the 1987 Kings Cross fire will ensure that such a catastrophic outcome from what started as a very small event should never be repeated. But it costs money, time and vigilance.
Whitechapel has, in fact, been one of the stations to cause most difficulties. The increase in cost revealed in the National Audit Office report last year is quite shocking. The original budget for the station was £110m but the final cost, according to the NAO, is likely to be around £660m, a staggering sixfold increase. Although one visit and a chat with some very competent engineers is not really sufficient to assess the situation properly, the station does look on course to open when the central tunnel section finally opens, now scheduled for autumn 2021.
I also visited Farringdon and that station is virtually finished. (I was kept away from Bond Street which has proved to be extremely difficult because of the narrow working space available and there is a risk it will not be finished in time).
Visiting these stations is an amazing experience. The project is grand in every respect, and it is railway that will be celebrated the world over as an example to be followed. It is, indeed, almost impossible to exaggerate its magnificence with the massive cross tunnels, far more spacious than anything on the Underground, the 250m long platforms with doors right up to the roof separating off the tracks, the lengthy escalators and a ventilation scheme that will ensure a mild temperature whatever the weather outside. The only comparison I can think of is the Moscow Metro and that was built partly with slave labour by an evil regime.
The adjective ‘world class’ is overused but in this case thoroughly deserved. So be patient, dear readers, and make sure that you come to see it the day it opens. It is only the wait that is disappointing.
Northern difficulties for Johnson
Boris Johnson’s tactic of postponing any decision about HS2 until after the election looked like a rather clever move at the time, as it meant he did not have to anger one side or the other. However, ironically the fact that the victory was achieved through significant gains in Labour’s Midlands and Northern heartlands makes any decision on the line even harder.
The good news for HS2’s supporters is that a quick decision to kill off the project, which Johnson may well have had in mind before the election is now impossible as he cannot afford to alienate those new supporters so soon after having achieved his large majority.
However, it does not mean that cancellation has been ruled out. However, instead, any move to scrap or even curtail the project would have to come with significant goodies for the North and Midlands. These would have to be specific and rail-based. Relief may be on hand for those benighted commuters in Manchester, Leeds, Birmigham and so on but it may come at the price of losing HS2.