The RUS: Crossrail and the Reading Question


Some rail enthusiasts pore over timetables. There are those who look at maps in great detail. Other’s dissect the minutes of meetings in the quest for information. This author, however, often finds himself looking to Route Utilisation Strategies for railway-related reading material.

Route Utilisation Strategy (RUS) will be a term not unfamiliar to regular readers of London Reconnections. They are documents that Network Rail is legally obliged to produce and the InfraCo generally breaks them down into geographical areas. Essentially, each RUS is a forecast of what planning capacity issues the railway is likely to have in the future and proposals for resolving them.

Recently Network Rail published an RUS for London and the South East for consultation, showing problem areas expected in 2031 if more than what is already approved is not done. There is a lot of information, interesting ideas and declarations of current opinion in this RUS and this will likely be the first of many articles prompted by this one document which is now in draft form for consultation.

An RUS identifies “gaps” in providing the necessary capacity that need to be filled, and looks at potential solutions. As a result, rather than simply summarising the document it is interesting to look at it from a different perspective and see how its ideas could potentially affect the current railway and planned schemes. Often, they also raise some interesting topics for discussion, sometimes as much because of the things they don’t say as the the things they do. One of the areas where the London and South East RUS does exactly that is over London’s newest major rail project – Crossrail.

If there is one question that anyone who has followed the Crossrail saga eventually seems to find themselves asking it is this – “Why isn’t Crossrail going to Reading?”

The standard reply from Crossrail is, to paraphrase, that to make the scheme affordable taking it to Reading is too expensive. It would also lead to the project becoming mired in the Reading station reconstruction and re-signalling. Maidenhead, by comparison, is two-thirds of the way to Reading and terminating Crossrail there only cuts out two stations but saves a large cost. Besides, anyone from Reading is going to want to get a fast train to Paddington and change so really going to Reading is no big deal.

At this point the mysterious phrase “performance pollution” normally also arises, and dark mutterings about Crossrail services being delayed by events out of their control at Reading also begin to appear.

All are good arguments, and on the surface they appear unbreachable, but they have not been unopposed. Those who raise their voices in opposition to these arguments often point out that it simply seems to make operational sense to go to Reading – the line is going to be electrified anyway and surely there are cost savings to be made? Besides, what about the number of people commuting into Reading each day from places like Slough?

At this point one can only see things rationally if one looks at it from Crossrail’s perspective. They are under pressure to be on time and on – if not under – budget. They really don’t want an unknown quantity, over which they have no control, being thrown in to the scheme. Their objective is to achieve what they promised to achieve. Like financial markets they like certainty. They want to know what they are dealing with and like most construction projects they don’t want last minute planning changes.

Now imagine you are Network Rail – something that the RUS helps us to do. You are thinking about what the network is going to look like in 2020 and you have identified a real big problem that is looming on the horizon.

Your problem is that there simply isn’t nearly enough capacity to supply the demand for services from Reading to London, and you are frantically looking for train paths from Reading to London Paddington. There before you, in a livery as yet undecided, stands Crossrail – a service with 10-carriage trains (extendible to 12) that starts its journey a couple of stops down the line. The infrastructure on the ground is in place to to extend this service to Reading. Not only do you get extra trains but you free up some paths from local trains taking people into Reading at the same time. You can then fill these slots with fast non-stop Reading to London commuter trains. Extending Crossrail to Reading seems like a no-brainer and thus there, proudly, sits this exact suggestion in the London and South East RUS – Crossrail should go to Reading.

At this point we have to make you aware of one big fault in Network Rail’s thinking that you may have already spotted. All this blue-sky thinking presumes that Network Rail has some kind of control over what is going on and Network Rail glibly presumes that it has. Challenged further they would probably say that this is a consultation document. They propose ideas and invite comments.

Crossrail does not, however, come under Network Rail’s remit – it is TfL who are in the driving seat and Crossrail will be run in similar way to London Overground. Even assuming TfL are happy with an extension to Reading, then there is still the political to consider. Is the London mayor really going to be keen on losing voters in Ealing who find they now have to stand? Ultimately there are no swings and roundabouts – the people who benefit live further down the line and cannot vote for the him.

Conversely, from Reading’s perspective, Crossrail services would be run by TfL presided over by the London Mayor who is elected by the citizens of Greater London and the good burghers of Reading would have no influence in their local service. Of course you can argue that this already happening at the peripherals of the Crossrail project, but Reading is a big conurbation rather than just a small town on the wrong side of the M25. At what stage does the DfT or some other government department step in and express concern and decide that there are other issues to be looked at? Or maybe the government of the day just issues a diktat and says Crossrail will go to Reading.

A straight forward Crossrail extension to Reading may be pushing at an open door, but it is not the only proposal that RUS has for relations between London and Reading. The RUS argues that there is going to be a serious lack of capacity in future for people wanting to travel from Reading to London in the peak hours. Sensibly they face up to the problem and suggest a 4 tph non-stop service from Reading to Paddington utilising 125 mph 12-car emus. Then all you have to do is find four paths an hour on the fast lines into Paddington and spare platforms for when the trains arrive.

Unfortunately, all the paths are currently taken up with long distance High Speed services, which call at Reading and are thus part of the solution – all the paths, that is, except for the four trains per hour on Heathrow Express. So all you have to do is run Heathrow Express on the slow lines (at least in the peak hours) and run it as part as Crossrail.

Whether this is likely to come to pass is uncertain – at its start, Crossrail wanted to take over the fast service to Heathrow but BAA which built, paid for and ran the service would have none of it. Maybe their new Spanish owners will think differently or sell up because they need the cash but it seems unlikely. One wonders whether Network Rail has a mindset that thinks that the Heathrow Express is just another franchise that is re-awarded every few years and conditions can be imposed on it.

To make matters worse BAA are not likely to want to do any favours for a government that cancelled their proposed third runway, and seem lukewarm at best about their Airtrack rail scheme. The RUS talks about investigating passing loops on the relief lines to enable Heathrow Express to overtake stopping trains, and they also claim it would be easier to build a station at Old Oak Common (to interchange with HS2) on the relief lines. Whilst they may persuade Heathrow Express to run on the relief lines it is going to take some serious negotiation and probably large compensatory payments to persuade BAA to abandon their dedicated self-contained shuttle service completely.

All in all, the Reading question seems one that is likely to remain a feature of Crossrail’s future for some time.

Written by Pedantic of Purley