Tuesday’s opening of the central section of the Elizabeth Line, the heart of the project we have long known as Crossrail, is worthy of much celebration. After the economic woes of Covid, which have had a devastating impact on most London businesses, especially those in the night time economy and tourism sectors, its opening is just the boost London so desperately needs.
The benefits of the new line will be immense. It will transform travel across London, but also in large parts of the south east. It will cut journey times, provide much needed additional train capacity and encourage people to switch away from travelling by car. Most importantly, it will lead to a transformation in genuinely accessible travel. Passengers will be amazed by the long platforms and trains, taking rail and Tube travel to a new level.
However, as we celebrate there is no excuse for forgetting that, as a project, it has failed the basic test of being delivered on time and on budget. The central section is opening three and half years late and even then one key station, Bond Street, will not be ready. Crossrail’s total construction bill is already £4 billion over budget and its delayed opening has deprived Transport for London of much needed fare revenue. The final bill will around £20 billion.
The increased construction costs of Crossrail have resulted in many other transport schemes being delayed or even cancelled. The Bakerloo Line extension and the signalling upgrades on the Piccadilly Line are just two key projects from a very long list which have been “paused” in recent years.
Back in January 2018 the then deputy mayor for transport declared that TfL’s business plan “is completely reliant on Tube income for our revenue expenditure, any failure to deliver the project on time would be a major revenue risk, but so far, looking at it every day, as we do in detail, all is well on the Elizabeth Line and things are moving ahead very well.”
Those words were declared less than 12 months before the planned opening date of December 2018. Why so many people were so confident so close to that scheduled date for new service to start that it would do so on time is something that has still has not been fully addressed.
Of course , Boris Johnson peddles the myth that problems only began after he left City Hall. As so often, he is seeking to rewrite history in his favour. An investigation by the House of Commons public accounts committee revealed that problems with a lack of financial oversight of dated back to 2015, when it was jointly overseen by TfL and the Department for Transport – and, of course, the Prime Minister was Mayor of London and chair of TfL until May 2016.
Indeed, problems with progress on Crossrail were actually recognised by Johnson. In 2013, in response to my questioning, he stated that they were “going to have to change the supervision arrangements for Crossrail in the fairly near future.” Sadly, such changes never occurred.
The London Assembly transport committee has been at the forefront of examining what went wrong.After summonsing huge amounts of written information and many hearings, our report, Derailed: Getting Crossrail back on track, published in 2019, revealed that some TfL officers were flagging issues with the then TfL commissioner. However, these messages were watered down when presented to the current Mayor, Sadiq Khan. No one, including the then chair and chief executive of Crossrail, wanted to admit it was not going to be ready on time, clutching at straws rather than facing reality.
In addition significant concerns raised by TfL’s independent reviewer as early as January 2018, were largely ignored. We discovered that the desire to achieve the completion date overpowered any professional and critical assessment of risk. We also concluded that the Crossrail executive of that time did not have the skills required at the later stages of the project to adequately assess and understand risks as they became apparent. There are very different skill sets needed on such a project, from the early civil engineering to the complex systems integration.
In the last couple of years, under the leadership of Mark Wild, the Crossrail company has belatedly started to operate in a much more transparent manner, but there is still plenty of information that must be placed in the public domain. The full publication – with no redactions – of the monthly reports by independent consultants monitoring the scheme would be a useful start.
Celebrating the opening of the Elizabeth Line must go hand in hand with ensuring lessons are learnt for the future. We need more investment in rail across the UK, learning from the Crossrail story what went well and what so clearly didn’t. Projects such as High Speed Two in particular have much to learn from it. A failure to do so is not an option London or the UK as a whole can afford.
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