Crossrail: Cutting it Fine

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On 11 December 2017, TfL announced that they were seeking ‘launch partners’ for the opening of the Elizabeth line. What is on offer is “a unique opportunity that will align with this historic moment for London”. For a number of reasons, the announcement raised a few eyebrows at LR Towers.

For starters, we are talking about the opening of a public transport service, not the Olympics or another major sporting event. Nor is the sponsorship directed at arts programmes that a commercial company may well want to be associated with. For another, TfL’s record on attracting sponsorship has often been patchy. It is notable that, for a couple of years now, free travel New Year’s Eve travel on the TfL network has not been sponsored.

Why would you?

What seemed most curious, however, was quite why a large company (as such sponsors would need to be) that would naturally be aware of the need for reputational management would want to risk being associated with the opening of a transport service. Worldwide, such events hardly have a stellar track record of passing without a hitch. Indeed the opening of the Terminal 5 building at Heathrow shows just how badly these can go wrong on launch day. On the railways, both c2c and Thameslink have shown that the introduction of a new rail service pattern can be problematic.

The risks are multiplied when new infrastructure is involved. With the opening of Terminal 5 and the January 2015 Thameslink change to London Bridge, an underlying cause was the use of new infrastructure without any opportunity for a gradual build-up of activity (a ‘big bang’ approach as opposed to a phased approach).

On a crude analysis then, based on historical precedent, the opening of Crossrail (from a brand perspective at least) is by no means a ‘dead cert’.

Any company interested in such an opportunity would no doubt wish to do their homework first. If they stumbled across a report on Elizabeth Line Operational Readiness and Integration, issued just a few days earlier in anticipation of a TfL Board committee meeting on the following day, then they may well have started to experience nagging doubts. The report and the meeting that followed were relatively frank and open about progress on both the Crossrail (construction) and Elizabeth line (signals and commissioning, broadly) sides of the project.

It is fair to say that on both sides of the project there are currently some issues, the most ear-pricking of which was perhaps the “failure of high voltage transformer equipment at Pudding Mill Lane during initial testing”. Even the most non-rail minded person might suspect that such an event was not exactly normal, however much it was played down. A few innocent questions about what that meant exactly and what the consequences were might quickly persuade any interested company that there might be safer ways of achieving positive publicity.

The halcyon days of September

Just a few months earlier, in September 2017, the picture looked very different. At Whitechapel station we witnessed the symbolic tightening of the final rail of the Crossrail tracks. Then things seemed well on the way to successful completion and project members clearly looking forward to the testing of the first Class 345 train, under its own power, in the tunnels. With a generous amount of testing time available and few apparent concerns, things were looking good. This wasn’t to say that progress was being taken for granted. Most critically, there was still the question of signalling in the Heathrow tunnels, long seen as the riskiest issue of the project. No such doubts were expressed, however, about being able to switch on the high voltage supply to the central tunnel catenary.

Indeed the biggest issue in September 2017 appeared to be that Network Rail’s programme would see certain above-ground station works only completed shortly before the opening of the complete Elizabeth line in December 2019 (Phase 5). Ideally, these should have been finished months ahead of this date to enable follow-on urban realm work to commence.

And now…

It is clear from the most recent TfL Board meeting that the going has started to get tough on Crossrail. Sir Terry Morgan, Chairman of Crossrail was present as an invitee to explain the current situation. Howard Smith, Chief Operating Officer for Rail at TfL was also present to talk about current operational issues. Thanks to the clear and informative testimony given, combined with other information available, it is now possible to build up a hyperbole-free account of where Crossrail stands in relation to various launch phases.

Phase 1: Initial launch

The first stage of a five-stage Crossrail launch was supposed to take place in May 2017, with the phased introduction of the Class 345 on the existing TfL Rail Liverpool St – Shenfield route. This was, in many ways, an artificial deadline and indeed the launch date did slip slightly. In the end, the first train carried passengers in June and (initially at least) only did one or two trips, additional to the standard timetable, each day.

Doors. It’s always the doors

It has to be said that even Phase 1 has not gone entirely smoothly. Problems have been encountered during the introduction of a completely new class of rolling stock – something that isn’t likely to surprise anyone who has followed recent rolling stock introduction in London and elsewhere. Not for the first time, some of these related to doors, as here TfL are pushing the state of the art once again. More specifically, door closure and software issues with Driver Only Operation (DOO) and monitoring that process.

These are a repeat of the issues that happened on the Victoria line with the 2009 Tube stock (with the door closure) and on the London Overground class 378 (with the DOO software), but of course with different stock and a different set of circumstances, albeit – like the 345s – by the same manufacturer, Bombardier. As Terry Morgan was at pains to point out to the TfL Board though, this is a risk one has to accept when you strive for the best.

The ‘best’ in this case largely relates to the width of the doors, seen as a key feature of the Class 345. It also makes sense to make them ultimately as reliable as possible. The challenge appears to be getting the software to distinguish effectively between critical indications of a problem (such as a scarf trapped in the doors and being pulled from the outside) and non-critical indications (such as clothing being pulled from the inside or someone leaning on the doors).

Whilst a bit concerning, the Victoria line has shown that this is a solvable problem – and a problem well worth tackling head-on. Today, the Victoria line regularly achieves previously unheard of reliability, without compromising safety, and the development of the hardware and software related to door closing no doubt paved the way for Bombardier and TfL to push the envelope even further here.

In a similar manner, DOO needs to be as reliable and as safe as possible. Whilst the RMT will doubtless disagree, there is no reason why DOO cannot be far safer than having the guard give a starting signal, as long as it is implemented properly. The method adopted on Crossrail of monitoring the doors with platform-mounted cameras and in-cab displays is novel on Network Rail, but standard on London Underground. It is not cutting-edge technology but it does rely on getting the basics right – such as the station lighting.

Station lighting is a decidedly low-tech area, but it was with this that issues occurred. Fixing it wasn’t helped by the delayed start to various station rebuilding contracts. One of the frustrations here is that not only do you have to get the lighting sorted out on all the Crossrail platforms, but you also need the work completed on the fast lines in case the signaller has to reroute the train for any reason.

Troublesome on introduction: the new normal

Such problematic introduction of a new class of rolling stock seems to be the norm in this day and age. This may be even more so with TfL than with conventional Train Operating Companies (TOCs). TfL are a naturally picky client, as they now will have to deal with any long-term consequences of build-failures over the lifetime of the fleet. Most TOCs only really need to look as far ahead as the end of their current franchise.

As trains get more complex, and long-term safety and reliability become paramount, it is increasingly important for TfL’s fleet rollouts to be right, rather than fast. Indeed, in retrospect, it is surprising that TfL hoped to have six Class 345 trains in service by September 2017 and, at one stage, even expected the whole weekend service to consist of Class 345 trains by that date.

The reality is that the trains are still bedding in and consequently any issue is absolutely pounced on. With Ilford depot being very conveniently situated and plenty of spare trains about, trains are withdrawn for the investigation of the slightest imperfection.

Not fake news but possibly misleading

All that said, the paper presented to the December 2017 TfL Board Programmes & Investment committee meeting reports that:

In total 31 new 345 trains have been built. Twelve of the 160 metre long units have been accepted for passenger service on the Liverpool Street to Shenfield line with up to nine trains in passenger service each day.

Note the very careful wording. Accepted for passenger service does not mean having been run in passenger service. They may well be stored elsewhere, pending withdrawal of Class 315 units when confident enough to do so. ‘Up to nine trains’ could also mean none at times, and there have been occasions when a concern has certainly meant that this is the case. For example, no 345s were running on the morning of February 1st 2018, causing problems for the service pattern.

Note too that nine trains in passenger service on a particular day does not mean nine trains in passenger service at the same time. This is much more likely to mean four or five in service at any one time. It could even mean that only three are in service at a given point, with each train being swapped over twice during the day.

The trouble may not be over soon

Despite the problems with the launch of Phase 1, there do not appear to be any underlying problems here that cannot be fixed with the time available. The slow rate of progress is slightly concerning though, not least because East London really could do with the extra capacity on the class 345 on all its peak hour services.

Delays in testing trains in the core

At the Board meeting the incident causing the ‘failure of high voltage transformer equipment” was described as an explosion. Clearly the time for pussy-footing had passed. Terry Morgan explained that this just should not have happened. Indeed from his tone it seemed likely that the relevant contractors – in this case, an Alstom TSO/Costain Joint Venture – may have found themselves been on the receiving end of a verbal explosion from Crossrail’s Chairman. What amounted to a standard piece of equipment had been ordered, and it (or rather the installation of it) had been substandard.

It is perhaps not surprising that this ‘explosion’ was one of the few things from the Board meeting that seemed to get some notice in the press and on Twitter the next day. That it was perhaps less dramatic than the description suggests, however, can probably be deduced from the fact that the incident itself actually happened back in November 2017 at Pudding Mill Lane substation. There, power is taken from the nearby National Grid super grid transformers and stepped down from 400kV to 25kV and passed through two feeder cables into the substation. In the substation itself, there are three bays of switching – two intended for the Great Eastern Main Line (GEML) for Network Rail and one for Crossrail.

There are a series of voltage transformers which step the 25kV down to 110V for use in the circuitry protection system. Only the Crossrail side of things should have been connected up, as the Network Rail setup was not ready to be commissioned. Unfortunately, it turned out that this wasn’t actually true. When the Crossrail side was energised, the Network Rail cabinet – which had been connected – shorted, causing the attached voltage transformer to overheat… aggressively.

The failure was certainly unexpected. There is a limit to how much one can scrutinise one’s suppliers, and Crossrail themselves will no doubt have been writing ‘supplier quality assurance issue’ in bold letters on their own internal progress reports to TfL. The truth is, sometimes things happen that are simply bad luck.

That failure did, however, have consequences. Most crucially, it meant the previously stated optimism of being able to get the power switched on in January 2018 didn’t happen. It was a solvable problem and the voltage transformer was easily replaced, but no doubt extra checks were made prior to any planned switch-on which, sources suggest, led to a conservative approach to attempting to turn everything on again, as a further critical failure could not be afforded.

Think of it as analogous to a space launch. Crossrail experienced one launch failure and several occasions when the subsequent launch was aborted during the countdown, which meant that further issues needed to be resolved.

One such date for a planned switch-on was the evening before the Board meeting – clearly Crossrail really wanted to turn up with some good news. Unfortunately for them, it was not to be and the switch-on was delayed. A further attempt was planned for 31 January 2018, no doubt in the knowledge that there was an Assembly Transport Committee meeting the next day. In the end, this too was missed – but only by a matter of hours. It must have been a great relief to all within Crossrail when, in the early hours of the 1 February, the power to the central section was finally, successfully, switched on.

Explosions tend to be dramatic and the disruption to the test programme for Crossrail must have been substantial. Not only was the eastern end of Crossrail affected, but progress would have come to a halt on commissioning practically identical switchgear in the Old Oak Common area. Nevertheless, in one sense, this is probably now not something Crossrail are losing sleep over. The science behind electrical supplies is well-known and predictable. Testing will always identify the problem and the problem can be resolved.

Indeed its impact will likely end up being financial, rather than logistical, as it has disrupted the finely balanced work schedule. As the test programme is compressed to try to catch up, a lot of overtime is now going to have to be budgeted.

Trouble in the Heathrow Tunnel

Whilst the thought of the phrase ‘explosion on Crossrail’ appearing in print probably gave Crossrail’s engineers (or at least their Press Office) a few sleepless nights, the problem really worth watching seems to have been emerging further down the line for TfL.

For months, Howard Smith has been telling the TfL Board that the biggest concern is the signalling in the Heathrow tunnel. Part of the concern was the lack of engineering possessions available for testing the tunnel-based European Train Control System (ETCS) signalling equipment.

ETCS is a European signalling specification for the safe operation of trains. In fact it is used throughout the world, especially in China. The current National Rail standard, Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS), is very safe. TPWS is largely responsible for the incredible safety record achieved in recent years. It is not, however, 100% fail-safe in all circumstances and does not always protect against human error. For example, it won’t always prevent a buffer stop collision at a terminal – not the sort of thing you want to happen on a terminal platform in an underground tunnel at, say, Terminal 4.

The problem is that whilst very reliable once working properly, ETCS is known to be a fickle beast. Like all electronic signalling systems, it is very susceptible to hostile electrical environments. Unfortunately, it seems that a hostile electrical environment is exactly the sort of thing one finds in a round bored tunnel with a 25kV, 50Hz AC catenary running alongside it, with the added complication of a similar but different signalling system already present. Which is an accurate description of the Heathrow tunnels.

To make matters worse, the ETCS system installed at Heathrow is not exactly the ‘out-of-the-box’ version typically installed on a brand new railway today. Heathrow has the bolt-on edition tacked onto an existing signalling system (ATP) and ETCS was not around when it (ATP) was first conceived. The new track to train signalling being put in place for Crossrail also still needs to work in conjunction with existing trains that know nothing about ETCS and which were built in the days when regulations concerning electromagnetic interference were a world away from today’s tight, rigorously-enforced standards.

It seems this has indeed caused issues. Howard Smith’s comment to the TfL Board perhaps sums the current situation perfectly:

It performed as expected as in functionally it works, but the reliability needs a lot of work before we’d be happy with it as a passenger service.

Worryingly, the impression given is that things now work when adverse factors (such as other trains) are isolated out, but they just don’t in the real-world environment. These means that even if these initial tests had worked perfectly, there would have still been a long way to go.

The only game in town

The problem for TfL is that, when it comes to signalling systems in the Heathrow Tunnel for the Elizabeth line, ETCS really is the only game in town. True, there is the existing system (Automatic Train Protection – ATP) on which the newer setup is overlaid. ATP is an old system, however, based on an even older one brought in on the Great Western Railway (GWR) as a consequence of the 1988 Clapham Junction railway accident. Indeed it was largely introduced to abate political pressure following the resulting public inquiry and subsequent publication of the Hidden Report into the derailment. That report urged the government to pressurise British Rail to trial in operation a truly safe signalling system as soon as possible. ATP itself is due to be phased out over much of GWR and no replacement system other than ETCS is likely to be approved as a successor.

Perhaps, a few years ago, there would have been the possible alternative of attempting to fit ATP onto Crossrail trains, but even then it would likely have been regarded as unrealistic. The fact that there are already two leading-edge signalling systems (ETCS and CBTC) that the trains need to support is hardly likely to be helping the current situation. Adding further complexity would have been impractical – indeed the need to do so is one of the things the push towards ETCS is supposed to eliminate. At least TPWS and ETCS can be peacefully co-existing bedfellows. The same cannot be said for ATP.

Tracking the problem down

Wherever the problem lies in the Heathrow tunnels, the issue does not appear to be with the train (or at least not with the train on its own). Sources suggest the 345s are working fine on the test track. Given that ETCS is used in tunnels worldwide, the physical constraints at Heathrow shouldn’t be a fundamental problem either. What is unique to the Heathrow tunnels is the ATP signalling already there. This is not to say that this is necessarily the cause of the problem, and all manner of other electrical factors, from WiFi provision to something associated with the airport, could be causing issues.

Whatever it is, it is as-yet undiagnosed and for the signals engineers involved this is a serious problem. Unlike wiring in power supplies, signalling is something of a black art. Indeed the problems at London Bridge in January 2015 showed just how difficult it can be to detect faults, no matter how hard you try. At Heathrow, the situation is likely made more challenging by the fact that not only do TfL not own the track, but Network Rail don’t either (although they did commission and install the current system). It belongs to Heathrow themselves. This means that getting substantial amounts of time to investigate is going to be very hard indeed.

Should the problems persist, then the only possible light on the horizon is that from May 2018, TfL will be responsible for all services between Terminals 2&3 and Terminal 4. This may at least mean they can curtail the hours of operation to get more time on track, although this will probably not go down well with Heathrow Airport. To say that Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd (HAHL) have form for being both commercially aggressive and sensitive about their rail link would be something of an understatement. Indeed, having lost an application for increasing track access charges, Heathrow are now proposing a levy of 60-90p per passenger for all services that use the Heathrow tunnels. With TfL probably feeling that HAHL should have accepted their original legal defeat with good grace and HAHL seemingly convinced that TfL will not be paying their fair share of the costs, one suspects the airport’s owners aren’t necessarily inclined to be a good neighbour right now.

Does a solution exist?

The worst-case scenario, of course, is that the signalling issue is never resolved. There are precedents for this. TfL’s predecessor had to abandon the signalling system intended for the Jubilee line very late on in the day and retrofit conventional Underground signalling. In the past, Network Rail has had small signalling schemes that were supposed to take a few days to commission but actually took months, during which alternative arrangements had to be made.

Even if a technical solution is eventually found the budgetary consequences of any delay would be severe for TfL. The pressures on TfL’s budget line right now, primarily from massive cuts in the government subsidy, but also due to life within a capped fares regime, are intense. As TfL’s recent business plan highlighted, they are now highly dependent on all of the Crossrail phases opening on time, within the total funding envelope and delivering a reliable and revenue earning service from day one. If a solution is not possible within the current setup then retrofitting a new signalling system into Crossrail is going to ensure that those three funding objectives are going to be well and truly breached.

The contingency plan

The good news is that TfL do have a short-term contingency plan in case they can’t get the signalling in the Heathrow tunnel working and signed off before May 2018. And if you can find a bookmaker willing to give you odds on that happening, then the betting advice from LR Towers is that you take them.

That plan is simply to continue running the existing Heathrow Connect service using the existing Class 360 rolling stock into the airport, presumably with the swift application of some Elizabeth line decals. This would then be supplemented by a new half-hourly service using new Elizabeth line Class 345s between Paddington and the bay platform at Hayes & Harlington. This would replace the existing GWR service currently operating with their Class 387 trains between these two stations.

Such a service would still have many benefits, both for passengers and from the point of view of phasing in the Elizabeth line. It would mean that Old Oak Common depot would be operational and building up experience servicing and maintaining trains for passenger service. If implemented as currently planned, these would also be the first 9-car 345s running in service, which will help identify faults that may not manifest themselves in the existing (temporarily 7-car) fleet operating in East London. It would also mean that, for the first time, Selective Door Operation would be used – another vital operation that needs testing thoroughly prior to full fleet introduction.

Unfortunately, it seems that even this contingency plan is in some doubt. Although the trackwork and signalling are complete at the bay platform at Hayes & Harlington, the platform extension isn’t. Network Rail is due to complete the work in April 2018, which we suspect all involved would agree is potentially cutting it rather fine.

Luckily for TfL, it seems that Howard Smith is the only person who could out-plan Batman. There is… wait for it… a contingency plan for the contingency plan.

This involves shifting ‘spare’ 7-car Class 345 trains from East London out west, where they will fit somewhat snuggly into the (un-extended) 8-car bay at Hayes & Harlington. Critics would no doubt point to this as a further failure to stick to the plan, but it’s not something that TfL would be likely to lose much sleep over. At present, they are not short of trains of either the 7-car or 9-car variety. They would probably argue that, right now, it’s not the length that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

Which begs the question, of course, as to exactly how such a contingency service would run. It would certainly retain a half-hourly stopping service to Heathrow. Currently this terminates at Heathrow Terminals 2&3 Monday to Saturday, but it is presumed that it will be extended to Terminal 4 to replicate the intended future service. This would mean various other Heathrow Express shuttles between Terminals 2&3 and Terminal 4 would be withdrawn. Perhaps the TfL-rebadged class 360 trains will run Paddington – Terminal 4 – Terminals 2&3 – Terminal 4 – Paddington to mimic the existing service. One would also like to think that TfL would run this service on Sunday as well. Currently Heathrow Connect run just one train an hour on Sundays.

Back to the future launch

We now get back to the primary theme of this article and the launch of the Elizabeth line between Paddington and Abbey Wood in December 2018. We have already seen how testing has been delayed and this means that the programme is starting to look very tight indeed. To quote Mark Wild, head of London Underground, on 30th January 2018:

We can still do it but it is very hard and complex and of course it brings with it cost pressures as well.

This did seem to a recurring theme – ‘it can still be done’. The trouble is, the assertation does now seem to carry an unspoken addendum ‘provided nothing else major goes wrong‘. The level of uncertainty must be worse because the delay to the testing programme caused by the power issues means that the signalling for the central tunnel section, Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC), still hasn’t been tested in the tunnel at all. Commissioning and testing are now underway, but it is a complex process. There are only 10 months to get it fully working, operational and signed off. By way of contrast, the Automatic Train Operation (ATO) signalling for Four Lines Modernisation now being installed, admittedly on a range of existing operational Underground lines, is scheduled to take another six years.

Crucially this also means having the same trains – with the same software that is proving tricky out to Heathrow – fully tested on the core, and staff fully familiarised with them. Theoretically, that CBTC-to-train interface should be much easier than the situation at Heathrow, but only time will tell. No doubt if issues occur fingers will be pointed in Bombardier’s direction, but this is one occasion on which they would likely be able to plead mitigating circumstances. Designing train software that works perfectly with one signalling system is hard enough. On the 345s they’ve got to make it work perfectly with three.

Finishing the build

Another telling comment from Terry Morgan at the Board meeting referred to both the line and the stations on it:

I’m satisfied in terms of construction, from a schedule point of view, that we will have an operating railway between Paddington and Abbey Wood at the end of the year – there’s going to be a fair amount of scrambling about at the end. I could equally take you to a station at Tottenham Court Road which looks ready to open and looks absolutely wonderful. But I could take you to another station at Whitechapel, a complicated station, very difficult ground conditions and which has proved to be very difficult to get on time and similarly at Bond Street.

From our September 2017 visit to Whitechapel we cannot say we are fully surprised at the issues being experienced at that station, which were known early on. The suggestion that Bond Street (far more important) is in a similar situation though is a bit of a concern. The good news for potential passengers is that information from elsewhere suggests that Terry Morgan highlighted Bond Street more because the costs will go up in ‘the fair amount of scrambling about at the end’, rather than a fear the station would not be completed on time. Indeed, if asked, Morgan would probably point out that even if the cost did overrun slightly, it would still be well below the high-end-of £15 billion price tag originally put on Crossrail back in 2007. This will hardly be good news for TfL’s accountants, however, for now-obvious reasons.

What about Woolwich?

Somewhat more worrying is the almost complete lack of any pictures detailing any work at Woolwich station. Construction here had the considerable advantage, unique amongst the stations Crossrail is responsible for building, of being an underground station that doesn’t have to interface with an existing one. It also lacked the site constraints that other stations had. All this means that ‘no news’ here is probably not good news. One really would have expected it to be an early showcase station and the lack of any real mention in, for example, in the Crossrail Quarterly Updates, seems to suggest that this station is behind schedule.

The only real saving grace with any level of incompleteness at Woolwich – if this turns out to be the case – is that it is not a critical interchange, so the number of people affected will be reduced. Indeed, one must remember that originally there was not going to be a station at Woolwich at all, as there was no real transport imperative for it to exist.

As is often the case, it is the need to facilitate housing that was the reason that Woolwich Crossrail Station was built. In a rare piece of good news for TfL, they may not even suffer much revenue loss from a delayed opening here, as a large portion of the passenger traffic at Woolwich was expected to be passengers abstracted away from nearby Woolwich Arsenal DLR station. Their accountants will be less worried about a lack of money from Peter, when they know that most of that money was just going to come from Paul.

Problems at Paddington?

Terry Morgan might have been somewhat cagey as to exactly which stations are of concern, but Paddington has for a long time been one of them. This was not so much a case of the work not being ready for the opening, more that all of the contingency time was rapidly being eaten up. There have certainly been past reports of problems to do with the electrical fit-out and industrial unrest in this area.

Given the relative openness with which Morgan approached the Board, it is perhaps something of a relief that there was no suggestion that any of the stations – presumably including Paddington – wouldn’t at least be operational on time. Paddington will be the final station on the line for the present, so a lack of operational capacity here would be extremely challenging. The remaining area of concern is that, with no through trains until December 2019, Paddington (Elizabeth line) station is probably going to be busiest in its first year of operation – so the year you really do not want inaccessible areas or workmen in fenced-off sections completing the cosmetic station fit-out. One also suspects that, with its large central platform located within its very spacious station box, itself below a massive concourse, Paddington may have been lightly pencilled in as the ideal station in which to have Her Majesty formally open the line that bears her name.

The opening of St Pancras International may have given us some idea of what to expect. When St Pancras International was opened by the Queen the station was partially incomplete and many of the retail units were little more than shells. More likely, a half-finished Paddington station would see to a switch to an alternative venue – Farringdon or Canary Wharf perhaps –  with its reduced size necessitating a rapid scrubbing of many names from the opening ceremony’s guest list.

The likely reality

Ultimately, one can see where all this is going. If a Crossrail station can be safely opened when the railway is due to open, then there is no doubt that it will be. Some stations may not be in a pristine state, and there may still be further work to do, but ultimately if they are functional then that’s all that really matters.

This will undoubtedly be a disappointment but is not unusual, and given the scale and complexity of the project, it would still represent a significant victory for all those involved. Indeed it is worth remembering that on the day the Victoria line opened in 1968, the entrance to Walthamstow (Hoe St) station was via a muddy car park. Similarly, when Vauxhall Underground station opened in 1971 the smell of concrete was almost overpowering, with nearly all the walls still in a bare state.

The real downside to stations not being finished prior to opening is simply that the finishing work gets a lot more expensive. Work has to be done in the few engineering hours available at night instead of in the daytime. Wage costs go up, as does the cost of plant hire because the job takes longer. Worse still, some options to do the work in a particular manner are no longer available and time can be wasted repeatedly getting out equipment then securing it away again at the end of the short work shift. There is the alternative of closing the station at weekends, of course, but this wouldn’t be a good look for TfL – and it would also mean a potential loss of revenue.

Change in tone

Until now, the message concerning Crossrail and its transition to the Elizabeth line have been highly positive. It is perhaps for this reason that a shift to a more cautious tone is so worthy of note. If all goes well then London will still get its new line, on time, although most likely now pushing that rescoped funding envelope (if not moving slightly beyond). Phase 1 delays can be shrugged off. The voltage transformer explosion has taken away almost all the contingency from the testing schedule, meaning the Crossrail team are exposed to risk on that front that they really were not expecting. Dealing with that risk and getting the project over the line when things get tight though is, ultimately, what Chief Engineer (and Thameslink veteran) Chris Binns would be likely to say he and his teams are being paid to do.

What is more worrying is that a fundamental aim of Crossrail was to link Heathrow directly with the West End and Canary Wharf. A delay would not be too serious, though it would have financial implications, and again dealing with this is likely what Howard Smith would claim he too is paid to do. But at present, it is not known whether the signalling issues at Heathrow can be resolved, at least as long as the current Heathrow Express trains are still running. Or – which would be even more serious – whether they hint at wider train-to-track issues with Bombardier’s 345s that will manifest with CBTC on the core tunnel section as well.

At the end of the day, the current consensus within LR Towers is that the Elizabeth line will still open on time – a fact helped by the exact date still not yet being announced. Some stations will not be in the state that one might desire, but they will be capable of serving their purpose. All that can be rectified. We do wonder, however, if it will be possible to catch a new Elizabeth line train from Heathrow to Canary Wharf in December 2019.

What would be the loss of a bet for us, should this not happen, however, would result in far larger consequences for TfL. Financially, they need the Elizabeth line to open on time – and not just to secure those curious sponsor monies that it would apparently accrue. They need Lizzie paying her way sooner rather than later, or the TfL Finance Department’s 2018 Christmas party will be a sombre one indeed.

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The considerable input from ngh, Jonathan Roberts and John Bull is acknowledged and appreciated.

Written by Pedantic of Purley