Had it not been for the Covid-19 crisis, the further delays and extra costs of the Crossrail project would have attracted far more publicity than they did when the latest announcement was made in August.
Not surprisingly, the media coverage that did emerge was wholly negative, focussing on the fact that the cost had risen by another £1bn or so and a project that had been promised for December 2018 would not open till 2022. The statement by Crossrail did not really help matters as it was pretty vague about the reasons for the delay and cost overruns. The statement largely blamed the effects of the Covid-19 crisis but also hinted at other technical issues.
I must confess that there is a personal aspect when I hear about further delays. When I researched my book, The Crossrail Story (I have copies available…) in 2018, I spent several months visiting the headquarters of the Crossrail team in Canary Wharf and was impressed by the thorough and well-thought out way they had approached the project. Throughout the period from January to July that year when I must have made a dozen visits to the office and to various sites, all the senior managers were adamant that the target date of opening on December 9 2018 would be met and that the budget would not be exceeded by very much – they did admit there would be some overspending.
While I was not entirely convinced their optimism was realistic, I was somewhat taken in by it. I was impressed by the huge lists of tasks which remained to be done but which seemed to be in hand. The figure of 93 per cent complete kept on coming up, even though with hindsight that is rather a meaningless concept. The evidence in front of me when I visited a several sites, notably Paddington which seemed in a real mess, did rather suggest that they were somewhat over confident.
Now we know that my misgivings were not misplaced. Quite the opposite. Fortunately, the book did not go to print until after the announcement in August 2018 that the December deadline would not be met but re-reading it, there is no doubt that a bit too much of their Panglossian view was reflected in my writing. I promise that when it comes to updating the book for the paperback edition, there will be a considerable bit of rewriting to do!
So to some extent I feel every delay and cost overrun personally. I worry that I rather set aside my journalistic instincts and was swept up by the positive public relations. I am still at a loss to understand how, for example, in June 2018, Terry Morgan, then the very active chairman of Crossrail, could have given a talk to the Retired Railway Officers Society in which he expressed confidence on the December 2018 opening, or more widely, how there could have been so much positivity so late in the process? Just to take one example: there was an expectation that the dynamic testing of the rolling stock in the tunnels (i.e. performing as if in service) could be carried out in six weeks. Absolutely impossible.
Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I set up a half an hour chat with Mark Wild, the current chief executive – inevitably via Zoom – to try to find out the current state of the project. I explained that I was still rather embarrassed by parts of the book but he said that no one really knew just how difficult it was to complete such a project. ‘I was on the board of TfL at the time, and I didn’t realise what was happening’, he told me. ‘None of us did’.
He ascribes the delays and overruns to two fundamental mistakes. First, he reckons, the project was a trailblazer in terms of delivering a fully digitalised railway with far more complexity than any predecessor. I suggested the Jubilee Line Extension, completed in 2000, was comparable but he responded: ‘There are around 60,000 outputs in the various systems of Crossrail. The JLE probably had around 500. No railway built here has been as complex.’
The mistake, he says, was to try to deliver the whole completed package in one go. Instead, he reckons that a key lesson from such a megaproject is that initially the managers should aim for a ‘minimum viable product’ and then steadily upgrade it over time. For example, while clearly you need ‘condition based monitoring’ – in others word, permanent oversight – of the escalators, you don’t need it for every light bulb in the system. But those kind of details have been incorporated into the design.
The second mistake, he reckons, was that the wrong people were in charge at the end. The big issue, once the tunnels had been bored, was ‘systems integration’ – ensuring that all the various functions – electricity supply, ventilation, lighting, announcements, fire prevention, platform doors and so on – work together. In my book, I cite the example of how an alteration to the weight and size of the trains led to the need to make fundamental changes to the ventilation system. Crossrail, as Wild emphasises, ‘is by far the most complex railway ever to be built in the UK’ and critics, who are far too quick to criticise the project, fail to recognise the sheer scale and complexity of the task. The interaction between these systems means there is an aggregation of risk that is far greater than the sum of its parts. This is Britain’s first entirely digitised railway in which all these systems must interplay and it is not surprising that there have been delays and overspends. As Wild puts it neatly, ‘systems integration is a contact sport’.
Therefore, the lesson for future schemes is that rather than, as with Crossrail, having engineers dominating projects in their ‘fit-out’ stage, there should have been people like him who are aware of all the complexities of ‘systems integration’.
This is not to exonerate the management that was in charge in 2018. They had succumbed to an atmosphere of optimism stimulated by the success of the tunnelling completed in 2015, just three years after the dig started. Creating the tunnels had seemed the most difficult task but was completed within a few weeks of the schedule and it is the fit out that has proved far harder. The success of the 2012 Olympics, centred around Stratford, added to the feeling among the top team that anything was possible.
The present management point, too, to Covid as part of the cause of delay but Wild is honest enough to recognise that this is only part of the story and that there have been mistakes even among the new team. Covid cost the project around 9-12 weeks, but fitting out the shafts has taken longer than expected, too.
The opening date has now been set as the beginning of 2022 but there are still hopes that it will happen before that even if the most troublesome station, Bond Street, is not ready to be open. Transport for London has now taken over total control of the project and while that is good news, these are tough times for the organisation given the loss in revenue caused by the pandemic and the subsequent reliance of a hostile government’s wallet.
In the face of all these difficulties, however, the key point must not be forgotten. This is a magnificent project, with nine huge below the ground stations in our capital city, and it will be the source of great pride for Londoners when it opens. This is a railway like no other in the country – and indeed it will have few peers in the world – and Londoners and visitors will both be blown away by its size, design, scale and comfort. All these trials and tribulations will soon be forgotten once Crossrail becomes the Elizabeth Line.
A quarter of a century of Wolmar
This column marks the 25th anniversary of writing this column, which started when Nigel Harris (who he?) came to Canary Wharf where at the time I worked for The Independent and suggested the idea for my fortnightly contribution. ‘Nah’, I famously told him, ‘I am a reporter not a columnist’. Over a glass of Chablis on a warm late summer lunchtime, he persuaded me otherwise. And I am deeply grateful as it has been one of the most rewarding work experiences of my life which has enabled me to learn so much about the railways and to write columns that have, on occasion, made a difference.
Re-reading those first ones – all 500+ since issue 383 are online on my website, www.christianwolmar.co.uk but the first 120 or so are only in my scrapbook – goes to show how, as ever, politics and the railways are inseparable. There are so many of the same themes that are being discussed today, such as the structure of the industry, devolution, safety concerns and financial constraints. Indeed, it is almost as if we have turned full circle, given that much of the railway which was subsequently sold off has, in one way or another, returned to state control. The names of the various organisations have changed – anyone remember CRUCC, OPRAF or the HSE? – but the issues remain the same. There is still the ongoing search and debate around what is the best model of how to run a railway. Perhaps, over the next 25 years, one will be discovered, but I will not hold my breath.