Journey To The West: When Will Crossrail Open (And Does it Really Matter)?

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With Crossrail now entering a more visually impressive phase, it is easy to forget that there are still some key elements yet to be finalized. This is something that several sources have reminded us of recently, and thus the subject seems worth a visit.

The first of these was “Informed Sources” in the always-excellent Modern Railways. This month’s piece looked at different signalling systems and how they will impact on Crossrail’s opening date. Less reverently, Railway Eye showed up the confusion surrounding the proposed opening date for Crossrail and scurrilously suggested that “Opening dates for west of Paddington are, of course, still in the melting pot”.

Why are we in this state and does it matter?

Most people trying to manage a project be it building a small extension at home or creating a vast software package quickly learn that there are always issues between keeping the project on track as originally specified and accepting changes. If you are in the business of MoD procurement then the whole thing is a nightmare. If you don’t move with the times you get accused of trying to fight tomorrow’s war with yesterday’s technology. If you do then the whole thing inevitably goes over budget and you get blamed for a massive costs overrun. Fortunately on the railways there is some leeway – but not that much. How did anyone think it was a good idea, for example, to order new slam-door stock Class 312 trains in the mid-70s on the basis that it was tried and tested technology?

The Crossrail team have said for a long time that they want the project “locked down” i.e. no specification changes. The trouble is there are just too many issues have come up since Crossrail was planned that really cannot be ignored or prematurely decided. The saving grace in all this so far has been that all the issues seem to only affect services west of Paddington. Lets have a look at them.

A major cause timescales doubt must be the proposed electrification of the Great Western Main Line – at least as far as Bristol and Cardiff. In these cash-strapped times Network Rail will definitely want to spent their money carefully, and are proposing the electrification-equivalent of a Tunnel Boring Machine to ensure that wisely-spent costs upfront lead to substantial cost-savings as the work progresses. It makes sense for the wiring done as part of Crossrail to be included in this process, but this of course takes control away from the Crossrail team and places it firmly into Network Rail’s hands. Of course, Network Rail always were going to be responsible for carrying out the work on the existing network, however they are now going to be looking more at the bigger picture. Electrification also impacts on any other proposed track layout changes as it makes no sense to install the track infrastructure associated with electrification until the final track layout has been implemented.

A further consequence of this “bigger picture” approach seems to be that plans for early running of trains west of Paddington to iron out teething problems have already been abandoned, and it appears that it is now proposed to to run them in place of existing stock on the eastern section from Liverpool Street main line station to Shenfield from 2016 onwards.

The proposed regeneration of the Reading station area is in progress and Network Rail now intends to finish one year earlier than originally planned in 2015 instead of 2016. One would hardly expect this to delay Crossrail, but it does make the argument for terminating at Maidenhead even more shaky. Could it be that Crossrail could now wait for the completion of the work at Reading, then finish off any work necessary for Crossrail and avoid the cost of building terminating facilities at Maidenhead?

As has previously been reported Kensington and Chelsea have also proposed funding a new station in the Kensal Town area. The Council’s own report suggested that a final decision would be reached on this in May, but as May dawned TfL indicated to LR that, to their knowledge, this was never to be the case:

A decision will not be made in May. Crossrail Sponsors, Transport for London and the Department for Transport, are in discussions with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea on how to assess the proposal for the station against the key criteria jointly set by the Mayor and DfT. Before a decision can be made further detailed analysis of possible impacts on Great Western Main Line services and Crossrail delivery is needed.

Once again, GWML questions rear their ugly head and those, combined with the fact that we haven’t had an acceptance or rejection suggest that the decision is finely balanced. Of course one of the aforementioned criteria set by the Mayor and the DfT was that “[Construction of a Kensal Station] must not delay the Crossrail construction programme,” so ironically the longer a decision is delayed, the less likely it is to fulfil its own decision-making criteria. But supposing it did delay it, but the station was seen to be worthwhile? Would a short delay in the construction programme really matter?

As it stands then, the Kensal question remains an open one – and one that seems likely to spawn confusion and debate for some time yet (as recent comments from Councillors suggesting Kensal would allow direct links to Heathrow seem to demonstrate).

Ultimately though, the issue of a station around Kensal Town to satisfy the desires of the local council (and likely to the satisfaction of current Gasworks site developers Ballymore as well) probably becomes insignificant compared to the issue of whether there should be a station around there to interchange to HS2. This is a decision that must be got right rather than one that must be made quickly. Following from that, the idea that slow trains into Euston could be rerouted to be part of Crossrail so as to make the slow lines trackbed available for HS2 construction means we start getting major issues that rapidly become more important than opening the western arm of Crossrail on time.

Another issue which seems to have been forgotten about is Ealing Broadway station. It seems that there are various plans for the long overdue rebuilding of this station but nothing has been finally decided. Whilst this is not strictly speaking a Crossrail issue – the work really needs doing regardless of Crossrail – it would be nice if this was sorted out before Crossrail services start. Plans for Ealing Broadway station on the Crossrail site are conspicuous by their absence. Maybe more time would help this issue get resolved.

Currently, the only opening commitment appears to be to have Crossrail services running through the central section in December 2018. Many take this to mean Paddington to Abbey Wood since this part of the railway will be self-contained. If it all goes wrong then at least there aren’t knock-on effects and services existing before December 2018 will continue to run. It is the fact that this route would be self-contained and operated using Crossrail’s preferred signalling system without having to interface to any other system that is the basis for the argument put forward in Modern Railways.

So let us assume that Crossrail opens on time in the central section and that the branch up to Shenfield is implemented shortly afterwards. At that point we have a delay in extending Crossrail westwards, or maybe just a delay with the services to Hayes & Harlington and beyond (i.e. a service to Heathrow is implemented). Will anybody care? Arguably not the government if it is satisfied it can save costs as a result. It could probably handle the PR issue or even put on a positive spin (“Yes it’s delayed – but when it opens we will go all the way to Reading with less disruption and that’s a better deal for rail passengers”). If the government isn’t bothered then the various railway companies won’t be under any pressure either and will probably be grateful for a prolonged phased implementation.

So what about the passenger then?

Well, as always, some will lose out a little but others will probably get a more reliable service as a result. Even those that lose out will have electric stock to whisk them into Paddington and Crossrail from there (with an almost guaranteed seat) so they will still be better off than before.

So as it stands a slight delay may not be an entirely unsatisfactory scenario. As long as one is not talking about the Olympics, it is far more important to get a project on this scale done right than it is to get it done precisely on time.

[Bit of a joint effort between Pedantic and myself, this post – so inaccuracies are almost certainly to be blamed on me. – JB]

Written by Pedantic of Purley