July 4th 2017 saw the surprise announcement that the Elizabeth line would serve Terminal 5 at Heathrow. Heathrow Media Centre, the public relations department of Heathrow Airport Ltd, let the world know of this Crossrail development and appeared to be on its own in doing so although others such as the BBC were quick to pick up on the story but unable to add any significant detail.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was not the contents of their press release as such but that it was Heathrow Airport Ltd that broke the news, with the official word from TfL and DfT expected to come later. Something that suggested either a failure of co-ordination, or that Heathrow Airport Ltd was anxious to be first with the news and perhaps flouted protocol to achieve this. Instinctively, one suspects that TfL would not have been using their press release page to tell us about road changes in the Nine Elms area if they had been planning the announcement. Similarly, the Crossrail website seemed more concerned with electrification in the Crossrail tunnels – although this is possibly due to the fact that they regard this as more of a ‘sponsor announcement’ than one of their own.
Above all, one can hardly imagine the Mayor wishing to let such an opportunity pass without some kind of launch event to spread the good news. Introduction of the first Elizabeth line passenger train into service had taken place less than two weeks previously with a major press launch accompanying it (and our own photos in this piece). If it were known that an announcement about the line going to Terminal 5 was imminent, one wonders if it would have made a lot of sense to delay the launch and take the opportunity to announce the extension to Terminal 5 at the same time.
The Tring announcement incident
Out-of-place announcements similar to this one are not, of course, unknown. Indeed relatively recently there was the suggestion by the then Secretary of State for Transport that Crossrail might go to Tring. In such circumstances one has to consider the cock-up theory against the conspiracy theory. In the current case, the cock-up theory would suggest that Heathrow Airport Ltd, not familiar with national and local government protocols, did not realise that co-ordinated official announcements are the normal procedure in such circumstances. The conspiracy theory suggests that Heathrow Airport wanted to break the positive news itself and, in doing so, present its side of the story.
There were hints
Of course, the idea that the Elizabeth line would go to Terminal 5 was not exactly secret. Howard Smith, Crossrail’s operations director, went about as far as he could go several years ago by suggesting that others were disappointed that Crossrail was not going to there. On top of this, the Crossrail website has long been surprisingly non-specific about Heathrow and did its best to lump the Heathrow stations together without reference to them individually.
From May 2018, four trains an hour will run between Paddington and Heathrow terminals 2 to 4.
From December 2019, Elizabeth line trains will run from the airport through the new tunnels, providing a direct link to central London destinations including Bond Street, Liverpool Street and Canary Wharf.
Not a repeat of extending to Reading
There was also a precedent set when it came to the expansion of Crossrail. Going to Reading was not part of the plan, as specified by the Crossrail Act. With Reading, however, there really were no sensitive issues. Indeed the belief that it was going to happen was positively iron-clad in some quarters. Crossrail going to Reading and it was simply a case of “when” and waiting for the announcement.
In contrast to extension to Reading, adding Terminal 5 to the Crossrail route map was always going to be sensitive. Making it happen was far from inevitable. The obvious issues were getting Heathrow Airport onside, given that they own Heathrow Express (including the tunnels and stations at Heathrow). After that it would have been necessary to agree financial terms for traversing the tunnels and using the stations. Less obvious, but possibly also just as much of a potential deal-breaker, was getting Network Rail to agree to the extra train paths into the approach to Paddington – which is already congested.
Not quite in the public domain
The proposal put forward to the Programmes and Investment Committee in March 2017 and covered by us gave no indication that it had anything to do with Crossrail going to Terminal 5, although part of the discussion was held away from the public gaze. As the proposal involved buying new trains though, there were financial considerations that could quite legitimately require that discussions were not published, so this did not initially suggest there was more to the submission than first appeared.
The only real clue in the March proposal that could have aroused suspicions was that the order for four new trains seemed to be more than necessary for the proposed service as described. However, the publicly-available description of this proposal was lacking in detail and so one could have envisaged a train service pattern that would account for the need for them. That the proposal actually included an intention of going to Terminal 5 would go a long way to explaining why such an incredibly good financial case was suggested with a benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of 13.9:1.
Unbeknown to us at the time, Crossrail were sufficiently confident of getting to Terminal 5 that they had their next timetable iteration (the one presented to the Programmes and Investment Committee) include the service. In all probability it was not a great risk. In the event of being unable to go to Terminal 5 they could simply reroute the 2tph involved to terminate at West Drayton. Full infrastructure provision had been made for terminating Crossrail trains at West Drayton but the revised timetable did not require any to do so on a regular basis.
Timescales and tickets
It appears that the first Crossrail trains in public use will arrive at Terminal 5 in December 2019 when the full Crossrail timetable is implemented. Totally unexpected in the announcement were details of ticketing and the future availability of Oyster on Heathrow Express. This is due to happen from May 2018. It cannot happen earlier as the storage space on the Oyster system for different fare zones is already maxed out. Up to 16 were allowed for and it is not until the back office technology changes to be the same as contactless that new fare zones can be added. This announcement, therefore, seems to suggest that TfL will have this work complete by May 2018.
The use of Oyster (and presumably other contactless cards) seems to mark a fundamental shift in the thinking on Heathrow Express. Until now it has seemingly done all it can to differentiate itself from the normal public transport in London as used by the hoi-polloi. Now it seems keen to emphasise it is part of it.
Desperate or seizing an opportunity?
The obvious interpretation is that Heathrow Airport are bowing to the inevitable and giving up on differentiating their product. Alternatively, it could be a smart pro-active move. Passengers the world over are getting wise to premium product rail services to the nearest city and are increasingly aware there is often a much cheaper product that is almost as good – or at least certainly good enough. In Barcelona, even the premium on the Metro journeys from the airport means than most budget travellers just get the express bus. After all, there is little point in taking advantage of budget airline fares if you are going to squander your saving by catching an expensive fast train to the city centre.
Use of Oyster will enable Heathrow Express to place much less emphasis on selling their tickets through agents who have to be paid significant commission. There will be the opportunity to eliminate on-board ticket checks and the staffing required to carry this out. It does seem to represent a significant opportunity for cost saving.
Accepting Oyster will also enable Heathrow Express to take advantage of the fact that, as long as prices are not extortionate, many people do not look too closely at what pay-as-you-go Oyster travel is costing them. Furthermore, it will also give them the opportunity to make money by selling Oyster cards in the first place and possibly also have the advantage of having a bespoke version with their own branding on it.
Will Heathrow Express die, flourish or stagger along?
In a similar way to the ticketing, one can regard the announcement either another step towards the inevitable demise of Heathrow Express, or as an opportunity for revival based on integrating with the alternative. If someone plans to catch an Elizabeth line train to London from Terminal 5 and misses it, then they basically have two realistic alternatives. They can wait 29 minutes for the next one or they can catch the next Heathrow Express train. If they catch the Heathrow Express train then they can stay on it or they can change at Terminals 2 & 3 and then wait there for the next Elizabeth line train originating from Terminal 4 station. Such a journey would be entirely legitimate, as travel is free between the different terminals at Heathrow. The upshot is that this may mean that a lot of passengers for Heathrow Express, who would have previously caught the Piccadilly line, now make the decision to stay on the Heathrow Express train they are already on.
Needless to say, this also brings the possible downside for Heathrow Express that passengers may well switch to the Elizabeth line. The way to look at this is that the number of Heathrow Express passengers is relatively low, whereas the number of Elizabeth line passengers is expected to be high. A small portion of passengers transferring from the Elizabeth line to Heathrow Express will probably be more significant numerically than a relatively large portion of passengers transferring the other way.
Many will be aware of the recent court case where Heathrow Express lost a claim for charging for a portion of the infrastructure construction costs against Crossrail. Something this court ruling would not appear to cover is the situation where Heathrow Express sells an existing slot that it uses to Crossrail. So, if the Crossrail service to Terminal 5 turned out to be really well used (and Heathrow Express not well used), Heathrow Express could argue that it could hand over its slots to Crossrail for a suitably high payment. Such an argument would almost certainly sidestep the court ruling and seem far more reasonable.
At the eastern end it is all so easy
Ultimately, what we now have is a far clearer picture of what the expected Elizabeth line service pattern will be. The proposed service in East London is really not in any doubt. The planned 10tph off-peak service is a near certainty given that it does not require extra rolling stock and is a very rare case of a timetable being better and more reliable by being made more frequent.
The increased reliability of the more frequent timetable on the eastern arms of Crossrail comes from a very fortunate alignment of trains when a service pattern of 10tph with equal intervals is used. If the service is arranged so that there is a simultaneous gap on both the up and down services at Forest Gate Junction which will enable freight to cross, then a similar gap appears at Ilford depot to ease access there for non-TfL services. Arrival and departure times at Shenfield are also almost perfect to maximise reliability – although a minute or two will be needed to added to the schedule between Brentwood and Shenfield in the down direction to achieve this. As if all this was not good enough, 10tph also works better on the Abbey Wood branch, as one can then have an optimal nine-minute layover at Abbey Wood.
Likely intended service pattern
In the west of London, we presume that the plan to take over the GWR semi-fast services to Reading comes to fruition. This will lead to a Crossrail peak hour service west of Paddington which will likely consist of:
- 4tph to Terminal 4
- 2tph to Terminal 5
- 4tph to Reading semi-fast
- 2tph all stations to Maidenhead
All these trains will terminate in the east at Abbey Wood, meaning that in peak hours all Shenfield services will terminate at Paddington.
Off-peak, little change
The off-peak service west of Paddington is less certain, but it is believed to be the case that the Reading trains go down from 4tph to 2tph, with other services unaltered. However, in order to maintain the regular pattern, it will be necessary for the calling pattern to be more complicated, with half the trains going to Abbey Wood and half to Shenfield.
State of play
If Crossrail can pull this new timetable off then they will have achieved quite a remarkable coup – because they will have made the eventual Elizabeth line service even better than it was originally planned to be. So far, on the operational side, they have hardly put a foot wrong. The introduction of the Elizabeth line trains into service was delayed slightly due to some software issues with the cameras and door opening but the planned first day of service was ambitious and entirely arbitrary. The Crossrail team will be well aware that subsequent dates of phased opening will not be so easily moveable.
On the planning side, there has been a slight delay in rebuilding some of the stations west of Paddington. The team will argue this is a delay from an internal date rather than the public opening, but the delay to the work (carried out by Network Rail) is unfortunate and will cause local councils some headaches. Their plans for public realm redevelopment around the stations now become delayed.
On a more positive note, preparations appear to be progressing well with electrification already in place and in use by GWR as far as Maidenhead. Indeed the Prime Minister formally opened Maidenhead sidings at the end of June 2017.
It is reported that good progress is being made with electrification between Maidenhead and Reading, so maybe we will see a Reading – Paddington electric service by the end of 2017.
Grow, grow together
A further small-but-positive development is that GWR haven’t waited for electrification to run a half hourly service on the Henley-on-Thames branch throughout the day. This will eventually be a feeder branch into Crossrail at Twyford. GWR have had to reduce the number of stops at the lightly used intermediate stations to achieve their half-hourly service, but it is hoped that these can be reinstated once the line is electrified.
One does wonder what other opportunities may lurk to improve Elizabeth line services even further. The obvious one is its addition to the increasingly misnamed ‘Night Tube’. One suspects that to provide this from day one would be hugely ambitious and somewhat risky, but it will surely follow within a few years of opening.
Other than that, without new infrastructure, sensible opportunities seem limited and it is hard to imagine anything further that can be added in the short term. The press release mentions a joint feasibility study to see if an extra 2tph can be run to Terminal 5, but one cannot see this happening until after the initial service has been seen to work well.
Beyond 4tph to Terminal 5 there must be the desire in the medium-to-long term to eliminate the few intended Elizabeth line peak hour workings into Liverpool Street high-level station. This would probably need a 30tph timetable through the central core, with 15tph on each eastern branch. It would either require extra trains or for some of the current Shenfield trains to be terminated further down the line.
It is good to see the Crossrail team determined to maximise the benefits given by the infrastructure and not to restrict themselves to the original plan. If Crossrail 2 continues to get delayed, supporters will be looking to Crossrail 1 to point out what can be achieved and hope it will add further impetus to get the government to approve Crossrail 2.
So, no pressure then…
Finally, on July 13th 2017, the TfL sent out a press release confirming that the Elizabeth line would service Terminal 5, there would be an enhanced service to Reading and the off-peak service would increase to 10tph to Abbey Wood and Shenfield. Despite plenty of time to prepare for this, the Crossrail website, at the time of writing still has not be updated to reflect these major changes.
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