Crossrail: The Western Approach?

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At the beginning of the year it seemed that Crossrail was experiencing something of an information blackout. At a TfL board meeting in late January, the Mayor, its chairman, moved all further discussion about the project into ‘part 2’ (public excluded) at the earliest opportunity.

The sound of silence

At the more recent Programme and Investment Committee meeting in February the Crossrail progress report must have been the shortest on record. There wasn’t even an attempt to discuss anything about the project in the public part of the meeting (other than a very brief resumé of the short document already issued) before the members took sanctuary in part 2.

The near silence at board and committee level was subsequently reflected in the lack of any substantial public news about the project. There were certainly issues that legitimately should not or need not have been made public at that stage, but reluctance to feed the public with information was surprising at a stage of a major construction project when one would expect publicity to be ramped up prior to its planned opening.

Winding down

One plausible explanation for this near silence is that Crossrail Ltd (the construction company and custodian of the Crossrail website) is winding down. Major players, such as long-standing chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme are preparing to stand down. In parallel with this, TfL, more specifically TfL Rail, is taking more and more direct control for the project.

Construction is a fairly predictable and one can predict with a fair amount of confidence what the future may bring. Introducing a state-of-the-art railway, which is inevitably pushing at the limits of technology, is usually fraught with problems that need to be solved. One can understand the desire not to announce news until one is sure it will happen. In the case of bad news one generally wants to wait until there is some reassuring information to give, or at least that one can properly inform the public of the exact situation.

Crossrail Ltd has gallantly attempted to provide some genuine construction news with details of forthcoming open days of future Elizabeth line stations. The trouble is that the only visits arranged so far are for Canary Wharf station and Custom House. Canary Wharf station is the one station in the central section that Crossrail did not build itself. It has been largely complete for many years and has featured in previous ‘Open House’ weekends. Custom House is the only completely new above-ground station and, uniquely, built in kit form using pre-formed concrete castings.

Some Actual Crossrail news

In late March, Crossrail released pictures showing progress being made in various areas. This includes stations. The pictures are encouraging, but one wonders what there is still to do in other parts of the station. Also encouraging was a picture of Old Oak Common depot and a somewhat badly-captioned photo purporting to show the catenary being installed in the main tunnels. In the tunnels there is no catenary, as the copper wire is held in a horizontal position within a rigid bar.

Rigid overhead conducting bar being fitted in a tunnel

Art for art’s sake

Slightly concerning was the February ‘quarterly’ update – published about four months after the previous one. At a time when one would expect it to be packed with the latest news, it appears to concentrate, for the large part, on the artwork associated with the project. This is a subject that has been well-covered before. One has a feeling that there is an unwritten rule in the Crossrail press office ‘if you can’t find anything you are allowed to say, talk about the art’.

It is worth remembering, of course, that one of the press office’s roles is to talk about subjects their audience wants to hear. Not everyone is interested in construction or railway operating details. At LR Towers we think Crossrail might be doing itself a disservice – the documentary on Crossrail construction on BBC2 drew the biggest audiences of any programme on that channel. Arts projects matter, but the public can be interested in railways too.

Going west

At this point you are probably wondering what this specifically has to do with Crossrail’s western progress. The problem for those wishing to avoid the subject of Crossrail in public meetings is that there is plenty of highly visible work going on between Acton Main Line and West Drayton. Or rather, there are plenty of highly visible construction sites with some work going on. Tellingly, there is also not a lot happening in various areas – most notably station reconstruction.

Also highly visible is the impact, or lack of impact, of TfL taking control of these stations. In contrast to the impressive reputation that goes before them, the impression is one of reluctance to do anything more than the minimum necessary at this stage. With TfL services and some class 345 trains serving these stations from May, it is going to look a sorry sight at some to see the latest state-of-the-art trains serving stations that are neglected, or building sites, or both.

One can understand that TfL Rail management may have more serious things to worry about at the moment and they are perhaps not inclined to focus on a few stations in the west of London that they have recently taken over. Nevertheless the takeover of stations from other operators should be the execution of a standard procedure by now for TfL. The shortcomings are thus not likely to be down to incompetence. One cannot help feeling that money is playing a large part in this. This cannot tell the whole story because some of the things that let down the latest TfL stations are things that could be easily put right with a bit of tender loving care.

TfL Rail almost in denial

Until now, when TfL took over a National Rail station, they wanted the world to know it. ‘Under new management’ was the subliminal message with the implicit suggestion that things can only get better. Of course, you can’t instantly transform a station that needs major structural improvements, but you can do a lot of small things that make a difference. Chris Green of Network SouthEast fame showed that just by applying a bit of paint in the first few weeks of ownership you can send out the message that improvements are coming.

Station sign with no indication as to who runs the station

In contrast, on stations between Acton Main Line, Hayes & Harlington and beyond, it would appear that TfL are anxious to do as little as possible to highlight the fact that they run the stations. Almost all references to the previous management have been eradicated, with white paint suitably applied to station name boards (and even on platform number signs) leaving the passenger with no idea as to who runs the station.

Temporary ticket office at Hayes & Harlington. The sign has the Heathrow Connect logo and there is nothing to show that it is actually run by TfL

Spot the uniformed member of staff

Of course, you cannot completely hide your identity when running a station. The first giveaway has to be the uniform the staff wear – assuming you can see them. It is not clear whether this phase of station takeovers is supposed to be covered by TfL’s legendary ‘staffed from first train in the morning to last train at night’ policy, but at stations like Acton Main Line or Hanwell it is inevitable that even when the staff are there they are not always visible. Staff do, in fact, wear the distinctive TfL Rail uniform, but one wonders whether the average member of the public would even notice that.

The ticket machine test

Another area that is generally a giveaway as to who runs the station is the ticket machine. It is clear that the original machines have had their software updated for TfL use. The labelling on the machine has also been updated to be consistent with TfL ticket machines. In a small omission of detail, the original framing of some of the functions with a First Great Western pink border has been allowed to remain.

Ticket machine still with First Great Western pink border

Like the issue of spotting staff, one wonders in these days of Oystercard and other contactless payment whether many people even look at the ticket machine.

The alcohol test

Incongruous notice at Hanwell

It is possible to ask whether it matters if the passenger thinks that TfL runs a station or that it is run by a conventional TOC. The answer is ‘yes’ – for the simple reason that the Conditions of Carriage are slightly different at TfL run stations to other National Rail stations. The expectations associated with the Conditions of Carriage work both ways: An operator cannot expect passengers to obey their rules if it is not clear whose set of rules they should obey.

Many of the differences in the Conditions of Carriage are extremely subtle of course – such was whether a police officer (other than a British Transport Police one) can demand to see your ticket. Some, however, can have a major impact on passengers. TfL do not permit alcohol on their stations or on trains, so on stations that get taken over by TfL you will often see notices concerning the restrictions applied to drinking alcohol or carrying it in open containers. Somewhat perversely, if the train is not a TfL train, once aboard you are free to consume your alcohol but if alighting at a TfL-run station, one is no longer permitted to drink alcohol or have an open container containing alcohol.

The signage test

Incomplete signage at Southall

A further expectation is that stations taken over by TfL quickly have their signage replaced with standard TfL signage. Given that the station takeover can be prepared for long in advance, there are few reasons for this not to be completed fairly soon after takeover. As a portion of the railway budget the cost is tiny, but these things have quite an impact. Chris Green was famous for his painting-lamposts-red ploy and that was for good reason. The same was true of the early ‘orangification’ of the North London line. It helps new ownership get noticed and provides a better station environment for the passenger. It also sets expectations for passengers familiar with TfL signage.

Inconsistent signage at Hayes & Harlington with noticeably different typefaces

Unfortunately, the application of signage to these latest TfL stations seems to be entirely haphazard. Worse still, by replacing some signs but not others it makes the visual language for passengers worse than what it was before. On top of this, signs that were missing continue to be missing.

Where there is progress

It is not all doom and gloom, however. It is clear that a lot of progress has been made in extending platforms ready for the arrival of class 345 trains in May. These trains were originally intended to be 9-car from the outset. Even with an initial offering of 7-car trains now planned, the extended platforms are needed if selective door operation is to be the exception rather than the rule on that section of line.

Until very recently, the one platform where progress was noticeably lacking was the most important platform of all – the bay platform at Hayes & Harlington. This platform is where the class 345 trains that, initially, are unable to run in the Heathrow Tunnels will terminate. Failure to complete this would mean that 7-car class 345 trains would have to be used. If that happens then all the other platform extensions will be of limited value. Most existing platforms are only currently long enough for seven 20m carriages, so even GWR’s current 8-car class 387 fleet is unable to have the doors opened on its last carriages at most stations.

It is a bit frustrating that most of the platform extensions seem to be largely ready and could be brought into use shortly, if there were a will to do this. Whilst this might initially seem to show a lack of determination to get on with implementing improvements though, a piecemeal introduction would perhaps cause a lot of confusion for both passengers and staff. The activity going on to sort out the final details (such as installing customer information systems) on the platform extensions suggests a considerable effort is being made to have these extended platforms ready by the time the 7-car class 345 trains (which are the length of a conventional 8-car train) are put into service in late May.

Platform extensions at Southall

With the planned replacement of class 387 by class 345 due on May 20th, it does seem to makes sense to wait until the introduction of the new fleet before opening the platform extensions. One complication here though is that the drivers of the existing class 360 Heathrow Connect trains, which are being temporarily retained and run by TfL, will have to get used to the new stopping locations on the platforms.

Progress elsewhere

In addition to platforms extensions, there is also a lot of progress on installation of the aforementioned customer information systems throughout the length of platforms. These will provide details of the next three trains. Whilst they were being installed minor hiccups occurred, such as all the screens at West Ealing working perfectly but being partially obscured by notices stating that ‘this equipment is not in use’. Misleadingly, the sign at the busy platform 3 at Ealing Broadway informed the numerous waiting passengers that ‘This platform is not in use’.

Working CIS at West Ealing – despite what the notice says

Where there is almost no progress

What is extremely disappointing, not least to people like Val Shawcross, the Deputy Mayor for transport, is the almost universal lack of progress on station rebuilding. Delay has been variously blamed in the past on Crossrail and Network Rail. Whatever the situation once was, it seems that Crossrail is no longer involved with anything west of the Paddington portal and that Network Rail is doing – or not doing – the work directly for TfL.

LR Sources currently place the blame firmly on Network Rail’s shoulders. It is telling that planning permission for various stations building upgrades has only recently been granted and, to the frustration of many, Network Rail haven’t yet even let the contracts for station rebuilding.

Either Network Rail don’t appreciate the desired urgency of getting on with station rebuilding or cash constraints prevent them doing the work earlier or their planning resources are overstretched, If their planning resources are overstretched, they are either not willing or not able to ‘buy in’ the additional resources necessary. As far as they appear to be concerned, if the stations are ready by December 2019 when the Elizabeth line fully opens then they have done all that is required of them.

This station rebuilding delay is a great pity, because first impressions of TfL Rail in West London are not going to be impressive. That leaves a trust gap that the Elizabeth line will need to overcome, a particular concern given that brand arrives in December 2018. The delay also means that councils cannot get on with associated urban realm improvements.

Whilst station renovation costs in relation to the overall project are small, they are an obvious target to choose when trying to make the inevitable savings that become necessary as a project ends up spending more than its budgeted costs elsewhere. Stations (other than very large rebuilds that take years) tend to be targets for savings because the work on them is normally done towards the end of the project when the need for avoiding an overspend often becomes paramount. Also, the work is often deemed ‘non-essential’ as service introduction targets can be met without renovating an existing station.

When cancellation of station reconstruction is usually necessary it is to avoid the overall cost of a project not exceeding the money available. In the case of western stations on the Elizabeth line it is not a cancellation but a postponement – although Network Rail might argue nothing has been postponed. In this case it seems to be a cash-flow issue as the money will eventually be spent anyway.

In the case of the Elizabeth line stations involved, the reconstruction delay may also be regretted because it could be the reason why TfL Rail are reluctant to improve the existing stations by any more than the bare minimum necessary.

It is now time to look at the individual stations involved.

Acton Main line

Acton Main Line is a strange station. Nowadays, it is the first station out of Paddington. Its current inability to take passengers directly to any station in London other than Paddington must make it unattractive compared to nearby Underground stations and bus routes. This unattractiveness is reflected in the passenger numbers, which put it on par with Sundridge Park on the Bromley North branch.

Off-peak, the clientele seems to consist almost entirely of those wishing to look at locomotives at the adjacent freight depot. Indeed anyone not carrying a large camera, notebook or binoculars looks somewhat out of place.

One positive about the future of Acton Main Line station is that the existing small brick ticket office on the road overbridge is being replaced with a decent station entrance at the side. Despite planning permission only being granted in December 2017, construction workers (wearing their Carillion hi-vis jackets) are on-site behind the anonymous blue hoardings getting on with station construction – or at least some fairly major pre-construction works.

Construction work at Acton Main Line

No doubt TfL are hoping that the attractiveness of a service beyond Paddington and a future service of 4tph (up from the current 2tph) will mean that the station will be much busier than it is at present.

Ealing Broadway

Ealing Broadway station must epitomise the unsatisfactory nature of Crossrail station improvement in West London. Work was started with much fanfare a few years ago and a small worksite set up on Haven Green opposite the station. Some demolition had taken place but then work stopped – raising the question of why it was started. Essential operational work such as lengthening platforms and emergency-escape overbridges continued. In the evening peak, passengers from the Tube to platform 3 are currently subject to a detour to enable them to catch their onward train home, due to the limited station reconstruction works that are currently taking place. One suspects this may have be been unnecessary if the station buildings and concourse had already been rebuilt.

Hoardings at Ealing Broadway. The scene is almost unaltered from over a year ago

Along with Hayes & Harlington, Ealing Broadway is a west London Crossrail station that will continue to be served by Great Western Railway with 2tph in the off-peak period – but none in peak hours.

West Ealing

The unsatisfactory nature of a lack of station reconstruction continues at West Ealing. Hoardings make it clear where the new station building will be but, like adjacent Ealing Broadway, it appears to have been a few years since any work was done on preparations for it. A particular disappointment at the moment is the total lack of shelter if waiting for the GWR shuttle to Greenford – which only runs half-hourly.

Platform 5 for Greenford with the extension to platform 4 already in use

Hanwell

In contrast to all the other stations covered in this article, Hanwell station is a sheer delight. It is a grade II listed station and as much as possible has been done to preserve the charm of a mid-Victorian GWR station. TfL is onto a potential winner here as the best thing to do is almost nothing, to keep its heritage status. Indeed it is quite hard to change anything and even putting LED lamps inside the original lampposts took a long time to get approval – which had previously led to problems with GWR class 387 trains calling there in hours of darkness.

Unusually for the GWR main line it has three platforms numbered 1, 2 and 3. Platform 1 (up main) is the best preserved simply because the public have no access to it. Its only blemishes are its distinctive and incongruous First Great Western platform number and the seemingly-needless yellow line – possibly of value to staff but one cannot imagine even staff being allowed access other than under a ‘possession’.

The delightful platform 1 at Hanwell which has no public access

Of particular note is Ealing Council’s worthwhile effort to create a sympathetic southern entrance. Sadly, as is often the case with heritage on London Underground, the ‘sticker fairies’ (albeit this time council ones) have adversely impacted on the good work by plastering the replica Victorian lamps with out-of-keeping notices giving a telephone number to report the lamp if faulty.

The ‘new’ southern entrance to Hanwell Station

Even at Hanwell though one feels that just a bit more sympathetic effort would go a long way. There is a waiting room on platform 3 (up relief) which is spartan but immaculately clean. However, if the door is closed, the passenger has no idea if it permitted to be used. A simple sign telling the station user it is a waiting room would cost very little and show a bit of care and attention.

Spartan waiting room

The heritage lampposts look unloved. Whilst it is well-known that painting lampposts when there are live 25kV wires overhead is problematic, the application of a few tins of paint to the base of the lampposts would make the station feel less neglected.

Lamp post base that could do with a repaint

Major work will eventually be needed at Hanwell to provide lifts for step-free access from entrance to the platform. It will certainly be a challenge to do this and preserve as much of the heritage as possible. No platform lengthening will be done. Selective Door Operation will be used and this understandable given the stations heritage use and low passenger numbers.

Hanwell, like Acton Main Line, should benefit a lot from being served the Elizabeth line as the service will go from 2tph to 4tph.

Southall

Southall tells the familiar story of a new station building just not progressing. At least, in the case of Southall, the original station building is still present and usable. Platforms are being extended. Rather sadly, installation of an electrification mast on the up relief platform has resulted in an enormous hole in the roof which cannot be pleasant when it is raining. With the need for Health & Safety it is practically inevitable that the power must be turned off before any work can be done on it. This seems to be rather typical of a lot of little issues – not really worth doing because the station is due to be reconstructed in the next couple of years.

Hayes & Harlington

If anything epitomised the sorry state of affairs at TfL stations on the line it is Hayes & Harlington station. This has the potential to be a busy station with 10 trains an hour all day once the Elizabeth line is fully opened.

Hayes & Harlington station is also potentially an important interchange station for people from all stations to the west of it (as far as Penzance). This is because they will be able to change here (and possibly at Reading as well) for a train to Heathrow. For longer distance travellers the alternative is to go into Paddington and backtrack. This involves either catching the an expensive Heathrow Express service or changing from Paddington High Level to the Crossrail station.

With no good news yet on the signalling issues in the Heathrow tunnels, it looks like Hayes & Harlington station is going to be used as an interchange for more passengers than originally anticipated – and those passengers will have a longer wait at this station. It would appear that this has not been taken into account by anyone at TfL Rail – or, if they have, they are not proposing to do anything about it.

Entrance to a rather dilapidated and unadvertised waiting room on platform 3 at Hayes & Harlington

The current station is a mess, with some demolition work undertaken but no progress on the new building. Waiting facilities are spartan, with a covered shelter on platforms 4 and 5 that is exposed to the wind because it lacks walls. Although platform 3 at least has some sort of canopy, the waiting room is narrow, long and bare. Worse still, it is not advertised as a waiting room and, as at Hanwell, one could easily be forgiven for believing passengers were not allowed to use it.

The all important longer platform 5

The real problem with the rebuilding of Hayes & Harlington station is that, according to the plans, it is integral to the lengthening of platform 5 to accommodate 9-car class 345 trains. It appears that ultimately the rebuilt station will have a concourse above the platforms accessible directly from the road overbridge – as now, but the concourse will be much bigger. In preparation for this the ticket office has been relocated to a temporary office at the side of the station. If coming from the temporary ticket office one reaches platforms 4 & 5 by walking behind the buffer stops of platform 5 – the bay platform that needs to be lengthened. In fact the plans show it being lengthened all the way to the road bridge over the railway.

Improvised temporary train arrestor consisting of polystyrene blocks located beyond the fixed stop light on platform 5

What appears to be happening is that some lengthening of the track at platform 5 is now taking place and the closed off portion of the already built platform is being prepared for service use. This would suggest that the platform is being made just long enough for a 9-car class 345, whilst still allowing pedestrian movement beyond the buffer stops. To make matters worse, in trying to get this relatively simple task completed, the original contractor assigned to this task was Carillion.

London end of platform 5 with no easy way of extending further

It is known that TfL will initially use 7-car class 345 in May and these will not yet go all the way to Heathrow but terminate at Hayes & Harlington for the foreseeable future. It would appear that TfL are not confident this platform will be extended in time. Network Rail, on the other hand, insists it will be ready but as usual they appear to be cutting things fine.

What might be happening here is that TfL is being prudent and being ever more cautious with their staged opening. If TfL initially run 7-car class 345 trains these will use the new platform extensions, but not rely on the full length of the platform and hence not all the monitors. By bringing in the new CCTV platform monitoring in two stages (7-car then 9-car) it further reduces the potential for implementation problems to disrupt the new service, as well as getting over any potential length issues with platform 5 at Hayes & Harlington.

A further potential reason for TfL opting to be more cautious and initially provide 7-car trains is so that the power supply is not taxed more than it is at present. This should not be an issue but, in light of events over the past few months, one can understand if TfL Rail is extremely wary of power supply issues. It is notable that both TfL Rail with Crossrail and GTR with Thameslink are adopting a far more cautious approach to upgrades with a desire to break them down into discrete piecemeal elements rather than go for an everything-on-the-big-day approach.

Summing Up

The number of passengers using intermediate stations between Paddington and Heathrow on the Elizabeth line will be relatively small and will probably not detract from the impression given to most people by the Elizabeth line when it opens. Nevertheless, for an unwillingly selected few, the initial impression is going to be of nice new train set providing a valuable new service to unloved, incomplete stations.

Written by Pedantic of Purley