Things that might mess up the opening of Crossrail

Things that might mess up the opening of Crossrail

We both have and have not travelled this way before. Large transport projects in London, be they major Tube upgrades or measures to keep the city moving during major events, most notably the 2012 Olympics, inevitably generate unexpected problems and fears of what the media always gleefully describe as “transport chaos”. A recent accumulation of concerns about the opening of Crossrail’s Elizabeth Line, currently scheduled for the end of this year, might therefore be thought routine. On the other hand, those concerns cannot be dismissed. We know this because the people who’ve made them public are not know-nothing hysterics. We also know this because there’s never never been a Crossrail before.

Three weeks ago, none other than Transport for London (TfL) commissioner Mike Brown told his board of “increased cost and schedule pressures” on the project. Elizabeth Line operations director Howard Smith has said that Elizabeth Line services are “on track” (as it were) to begin in December as planned and TfL will need them to stay that way, not least for financial reasons. Deputy Mayor for Transport Val Shawcross regards delays to the Elizabeth Line’s completion as “a major revenue risk” to TfL’s budgets, which are under considerable strain. As well as boosting London’s rail transport capacity by 10%, it is projected in TfL’s business plan to bring in £3bn over five years. If it doesn’t open on time, all that money will move further away.

Where could it go wrong?

Reliably, London Reconnections has pored over the detail and come up with some answers. The biggest item on its list is the part of the Crossrail line that passes through a tunnel under Heathrow. Those who recall hiccups with the Jubilee Line upgrade will know that new signalling systems, so vital to keeping trains moving through the system in swift succession, can be skittish. London Reconnections informs us that Smith has been been telling the TfL board “for months” that signalling in the Heathrow tunnel is the number one worry. The issue is complex and highly technical, but it’s to do with combining an existing system with a version of a more modern one which, though very reliable when working properly, “is known to be a fickle beast”. Testing the whole set up with the necessary rigour seems to have been hard to do so far.

What else? Well, here’s another now-traditional problem with new trains – door trouble. Tube precedent in this case is the new rolling stock introduced to the Victoria Line a few years ago. That was sorted out pretty quickly, so might not be a big worry. The same might go for certain delays to the testing of the new trains. But it is all adding to the pressure. It might also be the case that not every Elizabeth Line station is completely finished on time, with Woolwich, Paddington and Whitechapel all under scrutiny, although the main thing is that they are functional in terms of the actual service by the opening date. Shawcross acknowledged two weeks ago that the project as at “a worrying stage”. There had to be one sometime. How large and how long will it turn out to be?

Read the London Reconnections report here and read the comprehensive Crossrail reporting of City AM’s Rebecca Smith here. Photo from Crossrail Ltd.

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