Outgoing Transport for London chief Andy Byford yesterday signed off from his final meeting of the network’s Elizabeth Line committee with a paean to what he said was “the most amazing railway in the world”.
The Elizabeth Line opened under Byford’s watch in May this year, just in time for the royal platinum jubilee celebrations, and some 18 months after he took full control of the much-delayed and over-budget project in October 2020.
“It has been my absolute honour and privilege just to be associated with this railway,” the transit veteran said, thanking the TfL board “for backing me when I said we needed to bring this in house to drive it to the finishing line”.
Connecting Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east to Reading and Heathrow in the west via central London, and billed by TfL as “the most significant” addition to the capital’s transport network in a generation”, the Elizabeth line was “just beautiful”, Byford added. “It’s amazing. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that.”
The project, originally called Crossrail, had been jointly overseen by TfL and the government until 2020, when escalating delays and cost overruns saw it at least two years behind schedule and some £4 billion over budget. At that point, as Centre for London chief executive and former City Hall adviser Nick Bowes said earlier this year, it “suddenly stopped being a joint project”.
“Blame and the job of finishing the thing became London’s problem,” he added. “Almost all the burden of extra costs was shifted to the city. To get it finished, London has had to mortgage itself.”
But if Whitehall insiders had harboured thoughts of ridding themselves of a poisoned chalice by giving full control of the project to TfL and the newly-appointed Byford, they would have been proved wrong, the committee heard.
Passenger numbers on the new line are consistently higher than budgeted for, regularly exceeding two million a week and coming in to date at 14 million more than expected, the committee heard – delivering £20 million more in fares than estimated and putting the line on track to break even next year.
Bond Street, the final new central London station on the line to open, will welcome its first passengers on 24 October in “another boost to London’s recovery from the pandemic”, and full seven-day through services from Reading and Heathrow to Abbey Wood and Shenfield to Paddington will run from 6 November. The line also had the highest reliability scores in the country, at 94.6%.
Byford confirmed that the project remains on target to come in under the final budget he inherited from the outgoing Crossrail board. “In summary,” he said, “despite many problems and issues to be resolved, we are in good shape. We’ve calmly got on with it.”
The commissioner will, though, not be in post to see the next steps for the line. Having fulfilled what some saw as a foolhardy pledge to finish the project with no further delays or cost overruns, he announced in a surprise statement just over a week ago that he will depart at the end of the month.
Budget pressures still remain, with the latest funding deal between TfL, City Hall and the government requiring an extra £48.5 million from mayoral funds to get the line completed, with no government cash on offer for further shortfalls, and TfL as a whole still on a tight rein, with spending plans agreed only through to March 2024.
The Mayor is already required to pay back £825 million borrowed from the Department for Transport for the project in 2020, and budget overruns have meant City Hall dipping into business rate monies and cash for infrastructure raised from developers which would otherwise have helped fund other projects.
But the Elizabeth Line funding model overall, a unique approach which saw capital costs shared between fare payers, national government, developers and businesses, could be a significant blueprint for future projects, the committee heard.
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