The confident prediction that Crossrail (the Elizabeth line) would open its central core in December this year has been shattered by the recent announcement that a nine-month delay will be incurred, with the line now not expected to open until autumn 2019.
In parallel, the Policy Forum for London (under its Westminster Forum Projects organisation) recently organised a seminar to publicise the huge impact that Crossrail will have for London and to promote the need for Crossrail 2 to cope with the general growth and expansion of the city. This took place in front of an audience made up of London business interests, transport and engineering consultants, Department of Transport officials, the engineering community, politicians and the press. The assembled gathering was there to primarily learn what had gone wrong.
Elizabeth line update
A trifle embarrassed by being the opening speaker, Howard Smith, the director of operations for the Elizabeth line under TfL (Transport for London), skirted round the recent delay controversy and concentrated on the positive benefits that Crossrail will bring. A boost to the UK economy of £42 billion is predicted. London’s rail capacity will be increased by 10 per cent and an extra 1.5 million people will be within 45 minutes of their main employment base. An estimated 200 million passengers will use the line every year.
A new fleet of trains is being built (the Class 345), with some already in service on the Liverpool Street – Shenfield line and from Paddington to Hayes and Harlington (this augmenting the Heathrow Connect service). Performance figures for these sections are 95.8 and 96.1 per cent PPM (public performance measure) respectively. The trains are proving popular, with air conditioning and walk through carriage connections.
The Elizabeth line stations will be continuously staffed, have 24-hour patrols at weekends and will be accredited under the British Transport Police’s secure stations scheme.
A high-level specification for maintenance and cleaning will be put in place for both trains and stations. The Old Oak Common depot is complete, employing 140 new recruits to the industry as well as transferring engineers and technicians in from other rail companies.
Once complete, Farringdon will be a major interchange station linking to both Thameslink and the Underground, with expectations that it will become busier than Clapham Junction. The fare structure will be fully integrated to the London Oyster card structure, with Heathrow Airport being added to the zone perimeters. National rail point-to-point fares will remain.
By autumn 2019, the line should be operating as three separate sections: Paddington to Heathrow, Liverpool Street to Shenfield, Paddington to Abbey Wood. Integration of these into multi route destinations including Reading will come later with no date given.
Not covered in this seminar was how the line will be controlled for train movements – the signalling. This is complex and involves three different systems. The current signalling between Liverpool St and Shenfield is TPWS/AWS (train protection and warning system/automatic warning system), inherited from Network Rail. Westwards, from Paddington to Reading, is similar, but this does not include the Heathrow spur which will be ETCS Level 2 (European train control system) from Airport Junction and is expected to be commissioned in early 2019, hence the augmented Crossrail Heathrow Connect service is currently terminating at Hayes and Harlington.
The central core is a CBTC system (computer-based train control) with automatic train operation (ATO) being provided by Siemens, and this will extend also to Abbey Wood. Thus, when fully commissioned, trains will have to change to a different signalling system at the respective boundaries. Not an ideal situation but considered necessary to achieve the 32tph (trains per hour) throughput in the central core section.
The business impact
A number of subsequent speakers expressed their disappointment at the delay to the opening. David Leam from London First, who had been anticipating the improved connectivity between Canary Wharf, the City and Heathrow, recognised that London will have to bear the costs of the delay, but certainty and clarity are now needed on future dates and costs.
More positively, Martyn Saunders, the director for regeneration and spatial planning at real-estate advisory consultant GVA, informed that business values are already 30 per cent higher than forecast, with seven million square metres of development land being announced, of which Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street areas are the biggest. The retail area of Tottenham Court Road has been revitalised and the Museum of London at Smithfield has been expanded.
For outer London areas, the position is more complex but Stratford, Custom House and Abbey Wood are all expected to benefit. New affordable housing of around 23,000 units with a possible 42,000 additional jobs are anticipated, all on brown field sites.
Impact on airports
Airport connectivity needs to be improved in order to to get more travellers using public transport, so said Chris Joyce, the head of surface access at Heathrow. The Elizabeth line is a key ingredient of this, bringing many more direct journey opportunities to Heathrow plus its easy interchanges for Gatwick and Luton at Farringdon. The longer-term interchange at Old Oak Common for HS2 will be important.
He asked why Crossrail does not link in to London City airport, when it is only 180 metres away, and maybe a station will be provided here if funding is made available.
For Heathrow, a western link to Reading and beyond, plus a southern access from Woking and Basingstoke, are seen as vital in lifting the public transport usage.
Restricting the line to a terminus at Abbey Wood seemed short sighted, according to Paul Moore, the chief executive of the London Borough of Bexley, as this did little for strategic connectivity into Kent. The obvious extension would be to Ebbsfleet, where connections to HS1 would be achieved, with a further eight Crossrail stations in between. This was being developed as the C2E project (City to Europe,) for which a submission was being drawn up.
One of the challenges would be how to deal with an interface to the third rail 750V DC traction system when the Class 345s are not equipped for this and retro fitting would not be an option. A dual electrification system eastwards of Abbey Wood would be one solution, but quadrupling the existing line to give two tracks of 25kV is more likely to be favoured. Any solution has significant cost implications.
So why the delay?
John Crosfield, from AECOM but acting as the head of technical assurance for Crossrail, attempted to explain what had happened. The need for ‘dynamic assurance’ and thorough testing was essential if the central core is to open without any operational difficulties. This process is complex, even though it is restricted to only the central section, and needs full buy-in from the infrastructure manager and the operators.
Some design deficiencies have been found. An integration of all the design work has proved to be more difficult than anticipated, this being the prime reason for the delay. The goal of achieving a railway that is operationally reliable, is safe, is maintainable and can deliver the required performance, must be assured from Day One.
Not all of this rang true with the assembled gathering and Crossrail admitted that the project did not contain any significant innovation. The tunnels and station facilities engineering had all been done before, the track was laid and being used by test trains, the trains were already in daily service on the Liverpool Street and Paddington outer routes and the signalling system was a well proven product on other metro railways.
Couple this to the fact that the Paddington to Abbey Wood section is essentially a self-contained railway, the testing and assurance process ought to be relatively straightforward.
The methodology being used for assurance appeared very bureaucratic and overly risk averse. Could there be other factors behind this enigma? Maybe there exists a lack of trained station staff and train crew and getting the necessary staffing levels agreed with the Unions? If all is well on this front, what are the staff going to be doing for the next 12 months? This session left a degree of unease as to whether the reasons stated were entirely true.
The problems of the Elizabeth line have not helped the case for developing the Crossrail 2 scheme, so acknowledged Michèle Dix, the managing director for the project, but nonetheless the inexorable growth of London means that planning its future transport needs have to be faced.
The city’s population is expected to be 10.5 million by 2041, a 22 per cent increase from 2015, and significant congestion on London Underground’s Victoria, Jubilee, District and Northern lines and on South West routes into Waterloo will be experienced if nothing is done.
The SW-NE corridor capacity increase is the reasoning behind Crossrail 2, which, when built, will ease congestion at several of the existing interchanges and will link around 800 stations with only one interchange. The line will basically connect Broxbourne on the GE line Cambridge route (and by implication Stansted Airport) to the Epsom, Chessington and Shepperton lines in SW London. The latter will complicate the electrification arrangements as this is 3rd Rail territory and dual voltage trains may become necessary. That’s not really a problem, as Thameslink already lives with this constraint.
Funding is crucial and ‘London’ will be expected to pay half. At a current estimate of £30 billion, it is acknowledged to be too expensive and ways of reducing the cost are urgently being investigated. Savings in the engineering will be possible by using digital technology, optimised engagement with the supply chain and by manufacturing as much as possible off site.
The property value uplift is expected to be £87 billion, which might be tapped into along with private sector borrowing. The route is expected to be finalised in 2019 with the early 2020s for a Hybrid Bill in Parliament, construction to start in the mid 2020s and an opening in 2030.
Network Rail interfacing
Crossrail 2 will interface with, and may take over, some Network Rail lines. Chris Curtis, the head of Crossrail 2 in Network Rail, said that lessons from the Elizabeth line and Thameslink are invaluable as it is not just about building an underground railway. To succeed, a joint team of Crossrail 2, Network Rail and the supply chain will be set up. The resources and skill base built up for Crossrail 1 are already being tapped into and the existence of the Tunnelling Academy is a vital asset that must not be lost.
The engineering of the line will follow standard practice but land space, utility diversion and access issues will always be challenging. The complication of three signalling systems experienced on the Elizabeth line will be avoided and it is expected that ETCS will be used throughout.
The standard methodology of risk, benchmarking, assurance and unified management will be used in the development of the service specification and the design for both operation and maintenance.
National Infrastructure implications
Crossrail 2 is a big element of the National Infrastructure Commission’s plans for the whole of the UK, so said Greg McClymont from the NIC. Seen as a priority back in 2016, with a Hybrid Bill due by 2019, the project has clearly slipped, but continuance with Crossrail 2 was re-affirmed in 2018. The funding has been set at £27.7 billion over the 2023 – 2036 period, which roughly aligns with the project plans.
However, many other projects come within the NIC portfolio – suburban railways, bus networks, cycling pathways to name but a few – with £43 billion being allocated for cities outside of London. The demands of others can be very vocal, and Crossrail 2 is not immune from funding competition.
Getting the people
Engineers are in short supply, particularly home-grown ones. Neil Robertson, the chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), told of the dominance of non-UK people in offshore wind turbine projects and the heavy reliance on overseas engineers for Crossrail 1. This situation could worsen if the wrong deal on Brexit results.
Overcoming the engineering deficiency is a challenge for everyone, and much is happening to recruit young people into the industry. However, ways of easing the present difficulties are there to be had, which include avoiding the stop/start culture by having a long-term project rollout programme that ensures continuity of people, taking the right risks to avoid excessive design redundancy, use of digital technology wherever applicable and planning projects with a whole life asset management philosophy.
This seminar was inevitably overshadowed by the delay and cost increases associated with Crossrail 1, which was a pity as the importance of having fast cross-city rail links is vital to the business continuity of London.
The reasons for the delay to the opening of the Elizabeth line central core have to be taken with a degree of scepticism. Yes, assurance and design finalisation are important, but for these to emerge as deficient with only four months before service introduction is hard to believe. Maybe a postponement until early 2019 would have been accepted without too much comment, but a whole year?
The bad press from the timetable problems of Thameslink back in May, which incidentally had very little to do with the infrastructure or its engineering but was all about late timetable compilation and train crew rostering, may be a factor in declaring the delay so as ‘not to have this happen to us’.
That the Elizabeth line will be a success is not in doubt, and fortunately people have short memories. When the line is up and running, the troubles of 2018 will be forgotten.
Crossrail 2 must not be stigmatised as a result of the recent problems, but does it need to take so long when other European cities appear to build these types of links in a quicker timeframe? Some may dispute this, but just look at the Paris RER network to see what can be achieved.
Another factor, not really explored, is the impact of Brexit, whatever this may mean for the UK, London and major projects in general. It can only be hoped that the UK will ultimately benefit from Brexit, so that its impact will not negate the need for Crossrail 2. A subject for a further article in due course no doubt…
Read more: An update on the West Midlands Metro