Crossrail: Reading the Future

759 comments

At yesterday’s TfL Board Meeting “Crossrail Enhancements” were discussed, in a non-public session, and agreed. These enhancements were the extension of Crossrail to Reading, which will be officially announced today.

That Crossrail will be extended to Reading should not be a surprise. Indeed if you are a regular reader of our articles you have probably followed this ongoing saga for some time, and the only surprise is that it has taken so long for this announcement to be made.

Termminating trains at reading

Two DMUs at Reading that have probably terminated there and are waiting to go back to London. How long before they are replaced by 9-car electric Crossrail stock? Note the overhead line support girder already in position and designed to be as unobtrusive as possible when viewed from the platform. Thanks to Unravelled for this photo.

The Clues Started Appearing

For those looking for indications that Crossrail would go to Reading it did seem that there were a lot of pointers that on their own were not really significant, but which taken together made one think that, at the very least, the issue of Crossrail being extended to Reading was being actively considered. As long ago as last September the Maidenhead Advertiser reported that

Crossrail were unable to confirm whether a decision has been reached concerning talks to terminate the service at Reading.

A spokesman for Crossrail said it was a decision being reviewed by The Department of Transport and Transport for London.

Despite this, only a few months ago we began to wonder if Crossrail really would only reach Maidenhead. Slightly worryingly at the time, Network Rail announced the commencement of work at Maidenhead to build carriage sidings. These, it was universally agreed, would be needed if Crossrail terminated at Maidenhead but not if it terminated at Reading – where a new electrified depot is currently being built complete with copious electrified sidings. In fact work at this location (or the lack of it) turned out to be the first indication that it was crunch time for a decision to be made. The site was levelled certainly, but that was probably something that would need doing whatever use was subsequently found for it. No follow-on work was announced on the Crossrail website and all subsequent activity on the site itself was for a long time conspicuous by its absence.

Slough Roof resized

A glance at the roof at the west end of platforms 3 and 4 at Slough gives the only clue that there was once a very short bay platform for trains terminating from the west. There is no currently obvious satisfactory way of terminating such trains today.

Another factor which suggested the extension was coming was that, according to the Crossrail website, plans included “another TOC” providing a Reading-Slough shuttle. Normally it is a good idea to get the final track layout in place before electrification, yet Network Rail still seemed to have no track or signalling plans to accommodate terminating trains at Slough from the west – and it was not obvious how this could be satisfactorily done with the existing layout.

Due to all the above, we awaited with interest Crossrail Chairman Terry Morgan’s lecture at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET). Sure enough Reading received a mention – albeit as an apparent throwaway remark: “Who knows it might even go to Reading when electrification is done”. As an LR commenter previously correctly pointed out: “A bit too much of a throwaway line to get excited about (on its own)”. Taken with growing evidence elsewhere, however, a picture was developing.

We’ve been here before but the situation has changed

For us here at LR Towers always looking for an easy story, it seemed time to start digging up the history of Crossrail going to Maidenhead or Reading from previous articles and repackaging it. The trouble with that is similar to the story of the economics student taking an exam and realising that the questions were the same as last year. He points this out, only for the invigilator to smile and reply “yes but the answers are different this year”.

So, with the benefit of hindsight we look once again the the history of Crossrail going to Reading, before looking at some of the issues that this raises – a few of which have only surfaced in the past 12 months or so.

If not Reading why not Slough?

Slough Bay Platform resized

The bay platform facing London at Slough. Currently far too short for 9-car terminating trains but there is no reason why it could not be extended.

From the outset it was originally proposed that Crossrail would terminate in the west at Reading. Indeed it was a bit of a surprise when prior to putting a bill before parliament Crossrail proposed that the service be cut back to Maidenhead. Maidenhead would not seem to have been a sensible option as a place to terminate the service if it was not to go all the way to Reading. Slough, for example, was getting on for being almost twice as busy if you included passengers changing from the branch service to Windsor & Eton Central. Furthermore, it also had a platform that was once used for trains terminating from the east. So why Maidenhead and not Slough?

Maidenhead Station resized

Maidenhead station relief lines platforms looking east towards London. The wide and long platforms are typical of the Great Western relief lines between London and Reading. The station already has a fifth platform (for the Marlow branch line) and the layout means it would not be easy to add a further terminating platform for 9-car trains without making transfer from the branch shuttle quite inconvenient. Nevertheless this appears to be what will still happen. A sixth platform is still planned but the location will not be ideal. This will enable platform 5 to become a through platform and platform 4 used for terminating Crossrail trains. Despite the announcement being made, only some trains will be extended to Reading and it appears that this awkward arrangement will still be necessary.

Maidenhead is only three stations and around six miles beyond Slough. One of those intermediate stations, Taplow, is so little used it is only marginally busier than the quietest station on the London Underground. In fact if it wasn’t for Iver, which is even quieter still, it would be the least busy station due to be part of Crossrail. Taplow is situated at the outer edge of the built up area of Burnham and is surrounded by sports grounds, a sewage works and countryside. Clearly this station is not in a category for which one goes to a great effort to improve the service.

Burnham, the other intermediate station, whilst much busier than Taplow, is also not heavily used by London standards. Only Maidenhead with around 4 million passenger journeys a year starting or finishing there, as well as people changing from the local branch line to Marlow, provides any justification for Crossrail to go beyond Slough but not as far as Reading. One could either, therefore, believe that Crossrail went to Maidenhead because the figures did stack up and justified it on its own merits or, just possibly, the intention all along was to go to Reading eventually but, as Sir Humphrey would say, the timing was not right.

One disadvantage of going to Maidenhead (and no further) was that there is nowhere obvious to terminate a train. As mentioned at the start, this is the place where real money would have to be spent that would be wasted if Crossrail subsequently got approval to continue on towards Reading.

The original reasons given for terminating at Maidenhead not Reading

Many reasons have been given in the past for the decision to terminate at Maidenhead as opposed to Reading. The four that were the most prominent were as follows:

  • Reading would be unaffordable because not only would the full cost of electrification from Maidenhead to Reading have to be borne by Crossrail, it would also have to pay for the substantial costs of immunising the signalling.
  • There was little point in going to Reading as the Crossrail trains would be all-stations stoppers and attract very little custom to and from London at the only two stations affected (Twyford and Reading). This is because by the time users were this far out from London they would prefer to catch a fast train and change at Paddington if necessary.
  • Maidenhead to Reading was a third of the distance of London to Reading, so by cutting out these two stations one also cut out a lot of the cost of electrification. One would also reduce the number of trains needed by two, which on its own would save at least £20m (and probably nearer £25m).
  • Going to Reading substantially increased the complexity and risk of the project, which threatened confidence on it being delivered on time. Furthermore, even if the case could be justified on strict cost-benefit grounds, it increased the cost of the final scheme which would reduce its chances of getting government financial approval. In other words, as the project could make its case without including Reading, why risk everything by including it?

The arguments begin to fall down

All these arguments have became substantially weakened by events and changing circumstances in recent years.

The argument that, by going to Reading, Crossrail would incur considerable extra costs was probably a very reasonable one in the days of Railtrack. Railtrack were a commercial firm through and through, and were well-known for quoting astronomical prices for infrastructure upgrades. These must have included a substantial profit margin. It would take not only the replacement of Railtrack by Network Rail, but also a few years of experience and growing confidence in their way of working, for this fear to go away. Once the planned electrification of the Great Western route was announced most of these costs disappeared anyway, or at least effectively got allocated elsewhere.

The claim that few people would use Crossrail services from Twyford or Reading to go to and from London, whilst possibly true, at least for Reading, is the argument that was probably always the weakest. It seems to be generally apparent even to non-railway people that in the peak period the flow of passengers to and from Reading from these stations is just as important as the flow to London.

The slow train is an OK train

Even ignoring the above, there is the opinion held by some – notably including Crossrail Chairman Terry Morgan himself – that some passengers won’t care about journey time, and will accept the slower journey simply to get to their destination in London without having to change at Paddington.

Looking at the figures, there does seem to be some validity in Terry Morgan’s argument – at least as far as Twyford. Maidenhead is the westernmost Crossrail station for which we have published expected journey times to Paddington. This is given as a very respectable 37 minutes. It is 39 minutes in the reverse direction but this clearly includes some recovery time between Taplow and Maidenhead to ensure that the trains arrive at their final destination on time. In comparison the few non-stop trains from Maidenhead to Paddington in the morning peak at the moment typically take 24 – 26 minutes. There is one, exceptionally, that takes only 20 minutes but that is an HST starting from Worcester. An all-stations (except Acton Main Line) train currently takes 50 minutes.

So, if one were to travel to the city from the Thames Valley east of Reading, one of the worst case scenarios would see you having to change from main line to Crossrail at Paddington in less than about 12 minutes to arrive any quicker than one would if travelling on an all-stations Crossrail train. On top of this the all-stations train would probably pretty much guarantee you a seat for the whole journey, whereas one may well end up standing on both legs of the journey if one chose to change at Paddington for a faster service.

Even from Reading, where the time saving by changing at Paddington amounts to around 20 minutes before taking into account the time taken to actually change at Paddington, the Crossrail service will be attractive to some passengers who value a guaranteed seat all the way (at least on the morning journey to London). For many regular commuters a seat on a direct train may rank above any marginal time saving achieved by changing at Paddington.

Making the best use of capacity

The argument about Crossrail Ltd saving costs on purchasing trains when terminating at Maidenhead does not really makes sense unless it is seen solely from the point of view of costs attributable to Crossrail. One doesn’t have to be a railway expert to understand that if the four trains per hour per hour (peak), two trains per hour (off-peak), are extended from Maidenhead to Reading one can probably safely discontinue the existing half-hourly all-stations Reading to London service and also, as an added benefit, use the slots freed up for something more useful. Trains would potentially be utilised better overall, although the fact that non-Crossrail trains could probably be much shorter and require fewer carriages would be a factor against this argument. Clearly, once electrification all the way to Reading was a done deal, the situation might arise where the question to be asked would not be what is the extra cost of Crossrail going to Reading? but what is the extra cost of Crossrail not going to Reading?

That the writing was on the wall for this particular argument also seemed to become clear when the award of the Crossrail Rolling stock contract to Bombardier was announced which, although many did not notice it at the time, included an option for another 18 units.

Risk Management

The argument about risk to the overall project of taking Crossrail to Reading also became substantially weakened when Network Rail completed work at Reading a year earlier than originally scheduled. This they achieved by practically shutting Reading station for more than a week at Easter 2013, instead of the originally planned four days. They also have a very aggressive schedule for electrification, including full electric services to Oxford by 2016. This means that infrastructure changes at Reading are no longer likely to be on the critical path. Furthermore since, from Network Rail’s perspective, London – Swansea is effectively one electrification scheme, there is no longer any reason to believe that the risk factor for Crossrail suddenly rises when one gets beyond Maidenhead.

Who was pulling the strings?

One curiosity about the decision to only go as far as Maidenhead is that it was always presented by Crossrail as an internal decision borne about by pragmatism. In fact it seems that the invisible hand of government was there in the background, warning Crossrail off both Reading and building a station at Woolwich. As has already been highlighted though, if the intention was never to go to Reading one would have thought that Crossrail would have stopped at Slough. It is hard, therefore, not to get the feeling that at least unofficially Reading was always the ultimate long-term objective. If today’s announcement wasn’t a total surprise it was perhaps a surprise that it has taken so long to be made. Network Rail have been in favour of this at least since the publication of the London and South East Route Utilisation Strategy where they stated:

Option A1:
Extend services beyond the committed Crossrail terminus of Maidenhead to Reading

This option is recommended for implementation in 2018. This is primarily due to capital cost savings in infrastructure which would otherwise be required, mainly at Maidenhead. It would also provide passenger benefits and improve train performance on the route.

Putting Reading on the Crossrail Map

Changing the plan and terminating at Reading is bound to raise some issues. A little realised fact (mentioned earlier) was that, under the proposals to terminate at Maidenhead, the Crossrail off-peak service to its western outer limit was only intended to be 2tph. This would admittedly have been supplemented by a further 2tph involving other local services. No doubt many people will now be looking for at least a 4tph Crossrail service throughout the day to Reading. Just as Croydon Council heavily supported and encouraged the 4tph London Overground service to West Croydon to “put Croydon on the (tube) map” we can expect the council at Reading to be very keen to see their town featured on the Crossrail route diagram. Even in the unlikely event that no-one actually catches a Crossrail train all the way from Reading to London, and instead uses the fast services, the diagram will serve to publicise Reading’s accessibility from London. Crossrail will symbolise a frequent metro service and 2tph to Reading isn’t going to do it justice.

A question of accountability

The question of jurisdiction and accountability will of course also become far more relevant. With Crossrail terminating at Maidenhead one could just about accept the need for Crossrail to be run by TfL with no local input or say on the service. As my colleague John Bull has previously pointed out, Crossrail’s fuzzy jurisdictions are a potential point of contention between TfL and the DfT. Similarly, whilst Reading Council have been broadly supportive of the proposals one would expect them to have some sort of representation concerning Crossrail decision making and not be reliant on the Mayor of London to act in their best interests.

Fortunately this may in fact be less of an issue than it might at first seem. Despite the distance, Reading Council and TfL have a history of positive dialogue. Indeed for a time the two bodies were in negotiation to allow Reading to use Oyster as the smartcarding system for their buses, a plan which was ultimately vetoed by the DfT. Nevertheless there will no doubt be instances where their priorities diverge.

Branch Issues

Crossrail with branches

Branches at the western end of Crossrail. A decision will need to be made about the existing peak-hour through trains on these branches as well as who is in the best position to run them.

The question of accountability will certainly be relevant when one looks at the Henley-on-Thames branch (to Twyford) and the Marlow branch (to Maidenhead). These will effectively become Crossrail feeder branches as the vast majority of passengers will continue their journey by Crossrail in either the London or the Reading direction.

Both branches currently have a limited number of through trains to and from London. Henley has two departures in the morning and three arrivals in the evening. On the Marlow Branch there are none to or from Marlow but there are two departing from Bourne End in the morning and two arriving in the evening. One presumes that there will be a local desire to see these services retained but they will probably have to be short trains because of restricted power supply on the branches as well as short platforms. It would seem to be an inefficient use of train paths to allow these to continue in the peaks.

Whilst it is difficult to see the off-peak hourly service to Marlow being substantially altered after electrification it should be possible in future to run a half-hourly service (currently hourly off-peak) on the Henley-on-Thames branch assuming that electrification would allow the present end-to-end running time of 12 minutes to be reduced by a couple of minutes.

What could become very interesting and controversial is any proposal to treat these two branches as Crossrail feeder services, such as the rumoured plan for Greenford – West Ealing. With some justification the DfT could argue that really these branches ought logically to come under the Crossrail umbrella but this becomes very difficult to justify if Crossrail continues to be solely run by TfL. Nonetheless, it is tempting to wonder whether one – or both – of these lines will be shifted to Crossrail in the official announcement.

Oyster – or ITSO?

Finally, on the subject of issues raised, it was always promised that Oyster would be available at all Crossrail stations. Whilst Maidenhead was probably pushing the Oyster scheme to its limit, Reading will probably be seen as a step too far. If someone is commuting from, say, Burnham to Reading and using local buses at one or both ends, a London-based Oystercard really is not the appropriate smartcard solution. At the same time it would seem a retrograde step and certainly out of keeping with its image if Crossrail users were forced to buy paper tickets. Possibly ticketing will be the most contentious issue and probably one that was not envisaged when Reading was originally dropped from the scheme to avoid risk to the project. It must be remembered though that Crossrail is not due to reach the Great Western Main Line (GWML) until 2019, so they are quite a few years left for ITSO (a DfT-led smart card) to be successfully implemented in the Reading area.

What Next?

It is generally the temptation when one scheme is approved to look and think “what next?” Those looking for a change from a metro scheme to a longer distance solution (more like Thameslink) should bear in mind that, as already stated, the original plan always was to go to Reading. The town is an obvious outer limit to Crossrail services and it is hard to envisage any scenario where a good case can be made to go further westwards. It would make far more sense to develop Reading as a hub than it would to extend Crossrail services.

Extending from Abbey Wood?

The other temptation is to look at an extension from Abbey Wood. Abbey Wood, like Maidenhead, was not the first choice of terminus which was Ebbsfleet. Part of the reason for the decision to terminate at Abbey Wood was the same as for Maidenhead – to make Crossrail as a whole more affordable and more acceptable to parliament.

We really cannot expect any decision soon on extending beyond Abbey Wood. The situation is much more complex and would either involve a lot of sharing services with the intensive South-Eastern services or major new line building to double the line (i.e. four track) at least as far as Dartford. There is also the issue of the power supply, which is presently third rail and incompatible with Crossrail trains. Whilst various scenarios are possible one suspects that Network Rail are more than happy to bide their time and see how the idea of converting existing third rail tracks works out. TfL would no doubt be concerned about reliability and would probably like to see segregated tracks or, at the very least, have substantial say in the running of South-Eastern services before seeing Crossrail extended beyond Abbey Wood. One must bear in mind that, unlike Reading, nothing has changed here to justify a reconsideration.

At the previously-mentioned IET lecture Terry Morgan commented on extending from Abbey Wood and his unsolicited comments look at the issue with a fresh perspective. He is no dyed-in-the-wool railwayman, but someone with an engineering and project management background. One of his early achievements was at Land Rover with the development of the Land Rover Discovery model. Morgan is a man who only believes in railways when they do something useful – such as revitalising economies and basically enabling commerce to function. He is also well-known for strongly resisting “specification creep”.

Whilst making it clear that any extension beyond Abbey Wood should not begin until after the project has been completed and delivered, Terry Morgan expressed surprise that there had not been more campaigning in North Kent for Crossrail to be extended as an enabler to enhance the local economy. The implication was that he would like to see early progress made on this extension as soon as the initial scheme was complete and handed over.

There are, of course, other schemes for Crossrail being talked about, such as the idea of taking over some of the West Coast Main Line services into the Home Counties. This is believed to be favoured by the mayor and various proponents of HS2 (Network Rail included) who see this of benefit – either in the construction phase by re-routing traffic away from where the disruption is taking place or because an HS2 approach to Euston with reduced impact is then possible.

Another Route to Heathrow?

Of possible relevance to the future of Crossrail west of London is the Western Rail Access to Heathrow (WRAtH aka WRAP). Like all proposals related to Heathrow it is of course dependent on a decision on the future of Heathrow airport itself. In essence the scheme involves creating a tunnel so that trains can approach from the west. The proposal involves two trains per hour, non-stop, Heathrow to Reading and two further trains per hour to Reading calling at Slough and Maidenhead. Under current plans this would be built in Network Rail’s Control Period 6 (2019-2024). Given that Crossrail will by then already be serving both Heathrow (from the east) and Reading, as well as Slough and Maidenhead it might be decided that it would make operational sense for Crossrail to run this service. Yet again though we come back to the issue that if the service comes under the sole control of TfL, there will be no local accountability.

Alternatively Heathrow Express have made it clear that they are keen to run WRAtH. With Crossrail threatening some of their Paddington Heathrow revenue and the uncertainty of what happens after their concession expires in 2023 it is not surprising that Heathrow Express is looking for new markets and consider this one an as one particularly suited to the company.

Summing it all up

When all factors are considered one can see that, whilst the coming official confirmation and announcement will answer a lot of outstanding issues that have been raised, it also raises a lot more issues and opportunities. We at London Reconnections always did believe that we would be reporting on Crossrail developments for many years yet. Today’s announcement is just the next step for Crossrail, signalling the start of opportunities for yet more development rather than being the final part of the project. When it comes to Crossrail, it seems there is plenty still to come.

Unravelled has taken many photographs of Reading station during rebuilding.
They can be found here.

Written by Pedantic of Purley