Crossrail: The whole story (sort of)

Crossrail was, in the words of its former chairman Tony Meggs, ‘the best project in Europe, indeed the world until it wasn’t’. And that transformation happened at a difficult meeting in 29th August 2018 when the sheepish Crossrail executives had to explain to the mayor, Sadiq Khan, that they were about to break the oft-repeated promise that the scheme was ‘on time and on budget’. Remarkably, they were throwing in the towel less than four months before the December 9th date when the scheme was supposed to be ready for the Queen to cut the ribbon in front of the inaugural train.

 That a £19bn railway might be late and somewhat over budget was hardly surprising. It is a very complex scheme involving nine new massive stations under London and nearly 50 kms of tunnels and crucially in relation to the difficulties, it is also Britain’s first fully digital railway, with everything being computer controlled.

 What was more surprising – actually effectively inexplicable – is that a mere few weeks before everything was supposed to be ready, the top executives , led by the then chairman Terry Morgan, still thought that the December 9 deadline, first set in 2011, was achievable. 

 I had spent much of 2018 in Crossrail’s offices in Canary Wharf researching the first edition of my book and there was a constant series of reassurances from the executive team that the railway would open in December. Even when I visited the Paddington new Crossrail Station in June 2018 and found a scene of chaos with 500 orange suited workers still on site and no sign of anything resembling a completed station, Morgan assured me that there was still an 80 per cent chance of meeting the deadline. Yet, it has taken more than three years for the line to be in a state to be opened.

 So how could these people, who all seemed competent, committed and, crucially, honest, have so deluded themselves? I have interviewed all the key players for the new edition of the book, and it is possible to discern how there was a collective belief in the impossible that was perpetuated by the failure of anyone to suggest that the emperor was, actually, naked.

 There was in fact, as far back as 2017, zero chance of meeting that deadline. In November that year there had been an explosion in a transformer at Pudding Mill Lane and as a result testing of the trains was greatly delayed. It was probably the last chance for the project team to admit defeat and accept that the December date could not be met. The desire to keep on going regardless was probably the result of concerns that abandoning the date at this stage would lead to a lengthier delay – but this was, of course, mistaken. Admitting that the project was running late at this stage would, according to Mark Wild, who took over as CEO at the end of 2018, have meant ultimately an earlier opening date. It would have been possible to restructure the work and separate out the various components rather than as happened trying to do things like testing the trains and fitting out the stations at the same time. 

 In fact Wild is convinced that even before the explosion that when he joined the board of Crossrail in September 2016, the project was too far behind to be able to catch up: ‘The opening date wasn’t achievable as in 2017 pressure increased with mitigations, interventions and then the Pudding Mill Lane explosion.’ In the autumn of 2021, I spoke to Terry Morgan, who was chairman from 2009 until 2018, about the problems with the project at this time and he accepted it had been a mistake not to call a halt: ‘If I look back, the time when we should have waved a white flag was when we had the [Pudding Mill Lane] explosion. Instead, it turned out to be a heroic exercise to try to mitigate it. It’s what we did all the time. It’s going to be late, mitigate.’ It was as useless as trying to stick fingers in a crumbling dam. 

That date of December 9th 2018 had been fixed back in 2010 when work started and it remained the key focus for all the work, distorting the reality of what was happening on the ground. This is what set the malign pattern of refusing to acknowledge that the deadline could not be met. Yet, in the summer of 2018, the project team was still confident of completing in time. They put out press releases stating that the project was 93 per cent complete but this was a fundamental mistake. When three years later, I went back to many of the people I had first spoken to in 2017/8 and interviewed the new team led by Mark Wild, it was very clear that there had been an air of unreality overhanging the project for some time.  

 Apart from the Pudding Mill Lane incident, there were other factors that made the deadline simply impossible to meet such as the lateness of the trains which have to be adapted to three different signalling systems and the sheer task of what is called ‘systems integration’ the technical term for the major task of turning the raw tunnels into a working railway.

 Tony Meggs who took over from Morgan as chairman, explained to me: ‘It meant 93 per cent of the money had been spent, not 93 per cent of the work completed.’ Wild suggests that actually they were basing their decisions on the wrong factors: ‘The truth of the programme was not in the metrics. The level of “completeness” was over-represented because we were using a measure that was mathematically accurate, which was the wrong thing.’ He explained that they were counting things that the contractors claimed to have done, rather than what was actually completed.  

 But it was the failure to recognise this reality that is so surprising. Despite talking to all the leading players, there is still an aspect that is difficult to understand – the confident certainty of many of the players in 2018 that they were nearing completion. Wild thinks that there is a strong element of the emperor’s new clothes and that ’99 people out of 100 at Crossrail knew that the timetable could not be met but did not want to be the first to put their hand up’.

 The hubris was such that key people, notably the CEO Andrew Wolstenholme, were allowed to leave the project in the early part of 2018 and remarkably Morgan was appointed as chairman of HS2, a post he had to leave hastily once the Crossrail deadline unravelled.

 This meant that when the new team took over at the end of 2018, the project was in a state of chaos and any hope of opening in the following year was a pipedream. According to Wild, when he took the top team held an assessment over that Xmas period and found that the situation they had inherited ‘was chaotic since the heads of the organisation had left and we did not have any structure really; the delivery organisation was new, the project control was new and the project had become chaotic in terms of data and knowledge. There was not enough information about what had been done and there was a lack of data because lots of the project control organisation had been let go’. 

 Therefore, the first year was ‘a period of discovery’ and under pressure from the two project sponsors, TfL and the Department for Transport, Wild – wrongly as he admits – announced that Crossrail would open between October 2020 and March 2021. Yet again, the amount of work remaining to be done had been underestimated and interestingly Wild does not blame the pandemic that broke out in March 2020. Rather, he recognises that the problems with systems integration on what is Britain’s first digital railway, the problems with the trains and their three signalling systems and the backlog of work in the stations meant there was no hope of achieving that deadline. That is why eventually in 2021, Wild would only agree to an opening date that was vague – the first half of 2022, a target which he is on track to meet.

 This terrible saga of delays and cost overruns, though, will all soon be forgotten because this is an incredible project that Londoners will appreciate for decades – indeed for centuries given the durability of the Metropolitan Railways first opened in 1863 and which also had a rather rocky start – even though it was complete in just three years. 

 Forget, for a moment, the cost, the stubbornness of those misguided executives, the three year delay and the hassle of all those building sites across the capital, and get ready to enjoy a railway experience like no other. Despite its name, the Elizabeth Line which implies it is an addition to the cramped and overcrowded Tube network, is a very different proposition from the Bakerloo or the Northern: a sleek, rapid railway protected by platform doors with stations that boast 250 metre long platforms and are so  spacious that you could forget that you are 25 metres under the biggest city in Europe. The best guess is that it will open straight after Easter, but it could be a few weeks more or less. Either way, hop on it to enjoy the ride. You will not be disappointed and you will think that £19bn was worth it.


Christian Wolmar’s book, Crossrail, The Whole Story, has just been published by Head of Zeus. Available at any good bookshop or for a signed copy, email 


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