The estimated completion date of Crossrail, the new railway running under London from West to East, has now been put back to “as soon as practically possible in 2021”. Crossrail is the construction project that, when it opens, will run as the Elizabeth line – a service of full-sized trains from Reading and Heathrow in the West through to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the East.
Nine new stations are being built as part of the new line – Paddington (low level), Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street (low level), Whitechapel, Canary Wharf, Custom House and Woolwich. In addition, the existing station at Abbey Wood has been extensively redeveloped by Network Rail to be the major terminus for the Elizabeth line in southeast London and many other stations on the overground sections have been or are being extensively modified and updated.
In April, Crossrail outlined its new plan to complete the outstanding works with an expected delivery window between October 2020 and March 2021 for the start of Elizabeth line services through central London. However, the latest delay was announced on Thursday 7 November in a statement to the London Stock Exchange by Transport for London.
Crossrail chief executive Mark Wild spoke to the Railway Industry Association’s annual conference the day following the announcement to the Stock Exchange, so Rail Engineer took the opportunity to find out a bit more about the causes of the delay.
The current situation
Mark Wild was remarkably frank. He started by stating that, in his experience, the last five per cent of any major project takes 20 per cent of the time, particularly in the digital era.
“Actually, we’ve achieved a lot,” he said. “If you go back a year, this project was in a state of confusion and difficulty. Now, we’ve really turned the corner on the physical build, which is about to come to the end.
“One of the main challenges was working in the tunnels – productivity is very, very hard, it’s a complex environment where we’re testing one of the world’s most complicated signalling systems at the same time as building it.
“The good news is that, by Christmas, we’ll have finished the tunnel fit-out. It will take until January to get the tunnel ventilation system finished but, broadly, the tunnels will be complete in the very early part of 2020, with all the documentation submitted.”
That’s good news about the tunnels. But earlier information had claimed that Crossrail’s stations were far from complete.
“If you look at the stations, we used to think that Bond Street and Whitechapel were real challenges for us,” Mark explained, “but we’re really grateful for Costain, Skanska, Balfour Beatty and Vinci which have done a wonderful job to get Bond Street and Whitechapel off our critical path – we’ve really turned the corner.
“The other stations are pretty much finished, and by the time we get to January/February, all of our stations will be complete, apart from Bond Street and Whitechapel. It’s been a huge effort building these immense structures, which are typically nine-stories deep and the equivalent of two London Underground stations, because we have a massive station at each end of our platforms – LU do one or two stations a year and we are about to commission 18 of them.”
So, with the physical assets of Crossrail almost complete, apart from the final two stations mentioned, how about the signalling that will control the Elizabeth line trains as they run through the tunnels? Mark was upbeat about that too.
“In terms of software, we’ve converged the software from Siemens and Bombardier for what is genuinely one of the world’s most complex and challenging signalling systems, with the provision of ETCS and CBTC. They’ve done a wonderful job to such an extent that, by 9 December this year, we will drop the software into the central operating section ready for trial running and, ultimately, passenger service.”
Crossrail has therefore achieved a lot in 2019, and the big picture is that, in the next three or four months, it will have completed the physical installation and the functional testing.
“When we took over Crossrail, we decided we’d take two stands,” Mark continued. “One was transparency – we’d tell people exactly where we are. The second was what we called ‘owning the whole’ – owning the whole of Crossrail – and everybody has stepped up to the plate. The sponsors have backed us – the Mayor, the Secretary of State, Government and City Hall – and we’re very lucky to have had a supply chain that has come with us.
“For example, one of them is a company called Protec, which is doing all of our fire verification. It’s a very small organisation, maybe 50 to 60 people working on Crossrail, compared to Bombardier and Siemens who have hundreds, but the important thing is that we are all pulling together.
“Ultimately, a project like Crossrail is a creative process. It’s an act of will. It takes courage. It takes collegiate spirit, to achieve something that, on paper, isn’t actually possible to do.”
Why the delay?
Building and commissioning Crossrail is, without doubt, an enormous project. Mark Wild calls it “undoubtedly, the biggest railway ever built in Europe in terms of complexity”. But, even with the infrastructure practically complete, there is still an awful lot to do.
The outstanding work had been divided into two critical paths, both of which start in the new year.
The first is software reliability growth.
“Although we’ve got good-quality software being installed in the central section in December, we have a period of testing and verification to do, then we have a long period of reliability growth,” Mark explained.
“We took a stand in Crossrail, when we took this over, that we would do a ‘proper job’. When you think about the Elizabeth line generically, there’s a railway in the east that we’re running from Liverpool Street to Shenfield, there’s a railway in the west that we are running from Paddington High Level out to the west – we’ll get to Reading by Christmas and Heathrow in the first half of 2020.
“The missing bit is the bit in the middle and we need to get this third railway running metronomically from Paddington to Abbey Wood. So, we have these three railways, and the middle bit, the tunnel, what people think of as the iconic Crossrail, needs to produce a 12 trains per hour metronomic service.
“Then the magic happens when the operators manage to weave these wonderful railways together. That’s when 1.5 million people suddenly come within the catchment of Central London jobs.
“I recently met a person at Abbey Wood who said their severely disabled young son couldn’t get a job locally. Couldn’t get a job. Well, he will be able to get a job when we open Crossrail because it will be fully accessible through its whole 44-station route.
So that’s why we need to take our time to get that central section metronomically working as a metro.”
More systems than a submarine
While the first critical path will be the integration of the software, and the reliable running of a 12tph service day-in, day-out, the other will be the integration of the critical systems. With the anniversary of the King’s Cross fire fresh in Mark’s mind, it happened on 18 November 1987, he isn’t about to take any shortcuts on safety.
“We have 2.5 million digital assets to verify and integrate together. These are CCTV cameras, fire alarms and so on. We will take no shortcuts on safety. We will do it, but we will do it to the right level of safety and reliability. We will do this carefully.”
“We had thought that Christmas next year, plus or minus three months, was possible,” he continued, “but we now think that the integration of this critical software and systems will take a little bit longer so we will open in 2021 as soon as we can. I know that’s disappointing for people, but we need to be sure that we get it right and don’t take any shortcuts.
“Just so you know, a nuclear submarine will have a million digital assets. We’ve got 2.5 million to install and verify to the same standards of safety as a nuclear submarine or a nuclear power station. So, you’ll have to bear with us while we integrate them all.”
Just thinking about those numbers can make the head hurt. 2.5 million digital assets, effectively 18 new stations (nine stations with two accesses each), 70 new nine-car trains with all the on-board software to run them, signalling software for both CBTC (computer-based train control as used on metros) and ETCS (European train control system – the European standard for main-line railways) as well as the legacy systems still used at either end of the route, fire control, disabled access, passenger flows for short dwell times at stations, safety procedures for evacuating stations, more safety procedures for evacuating and recovering stranded trains, flood prevention – the list is endless.
No small surprise then that Mark says that his team has climbed one mountain in building the infrastructure, but still has another to climb in integrating, testing and commissioning it all. It’s almost a surprise he’s committing to any completion date at all!