Don’t Bank on Crossrail
Throughout TfL’s recent trials and tribulations, there seemed to be one major project that remained on schedule. It was also largely on budget, but facing ‘cost pressures’. Unlike just about every other substantial TfL project, things seemed to be going well with all aspects of the Bank Station Upgrade. Until now.
It is time to look at some of the non-financial consequences of delays to Crossrail. This means that, once again, we must look at plans for the Northern line. We also need to consider various issues affecting the Central line. Finally, we need to revisit the plan to lengthen platforms at Liverpool Street station in the light of further updates as to the current state of Crossrail.
Planned closure of Bank
It came as a bit of a shock to read in the February 2019 edition of ‘Underground News’, the magazine of the London Underground Railway Society (LURS), that the temporary closure of the Bank section of the Northern line had been put back by over a year to May 2021. This closure is an essential part of the Bank Station Upgrade plan and, until it has taken place, new passageways cannot be brought into public use in order to relieve overcrowding. The revised date given is at variance with the project page on the TfL website which still quotes April – August 2020 as the planned period of closure.
It is true that that the completion date for the station upgrade project as a whole has not recently changed and is still set for 2022 (although until about a year ago that date was 2021). Nevertheless, the closure date is highly significant because most of the benefits of the scheme cannot occur until after the closure.
A reliable source
With so much inside information available to various members of the LURS, it is highly unlikely they have got something like this wrong. Some of what they have reported in the past may well not turn out to be what subsequently happens but their reports are unlikely to be at variance with TfL’s current thinking on their own (TfL’s) plans. What is more, when examined in more detail, it appears to have that essential ‘ring of truth’ that convinces us they have got their facts right.
More Crossrail realism
Meanwhile, in what might at first sight seem to be unrelated news, Mark Wild, the new CEO of Crossrail, told TfL board members in public session at the end of January that there was no realistic prospect of Crossrail opening in 2019. This logically means that the absolute earliest that Crossrail can open is January 2020 (and probably nobody now believes even that could happen).
There is no alternative
Just three months after January 2020, the Bank central section of the Northern line was due to have completely closed for 40 days. This would have meant that passengers from Northern line stations from Kennington to Morden and (to a lesser extent) from Camden Town and stations to the north of there who were destined for the City would have been directed to catch a Northern line train to Tottenham Court Road (via Charing Cross) and complete their journey via Crossrail to Liverpool Street. Whilst there are alternatives (including bus travel), the sheer number of people affected means that any other alternative route (or combination of routes) will not be able to handle any more than a small fraction of those displaced in the peak periods.
It seems almost certain that the delay to the upgrade of Bank station is due to the delay to Crossrail. Even if, by some miracle, Crossrail were open in time for its use as a diversionary route, it would be far too late to commit to such a closure when the main alternative was not certain to be available. Worse still, in the unlikely event of a major problem occurring during closure, London could be left for months without a decent route to the City for hundreds of thousands of commuters.
It would seem, therefore, that the consequences of Crossrail and its impact on other projects is not just financial – the delay will also trigger a series of other delays which are unrelated to a lack of money. The closure of Bank station (and the part of the Northern line between Moorgate and Kennington) is not something that can be done at short notice. It would need a preparatory advertising campaign and much liaising with businesses affected as well as co-operation and involvement of the City of London. Realistically, the Bank Station Upgrade team probably need to be certain arrangements would be in place at least three months prior to the planned closure date. Under the original plan that would be January 2020 and, as we can see, the chances of Crossrail being ready by then are remote.
The contracting contractor market
There could well be a second reason why Bank Station Upgrade has been delayed until after Crossrail opens. This is the requirements for sub-contractors such as electricians, heating and ventilation engineers, and other suppliers of finishing works such as tilers.
Crossrail, or rather their contractors, are already becoming hard-pressed to find workers from certain trades. Whilst Mark Wild denied that Crossrail was directly impacted by the consequences of a great effort being made in north London to complete Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium, he chose his words carefully to only refer to current contracts. It is apparent from another senior member of the Crossrail team that the impact of the labour shortage on contractors who Crossrail want to tender to finish the work is significant.
Board with the evidence
If further evidence were needed, one only has to look at the past minutes of the Crossrail Board which are now in the public domain. In the run up to the originally planned December 2018 opening there are regular reports of a lack of progress towards station completion and failure to meet planned productivity targets. It was clear from the figures provided within these reports that the project as a whole was slipping by a few percentage points each month – and that was against the workload as the board mistakenly understood it to be at the time. Incidentally, this recognised lack of progress is yet another reason why it is astonishing the Board thought they could complete the job on time well into 2018.
Given news from elsewhere in the construction industry and the reduction in available labour from Europe, it would be hard to believe that Crossrail did not face a problem with getting people with various critical skills. Sadly, Crossrail’s much lauded apprenticeship scheme cuts no ice when essential workers are free from existing obligations and alternative commercial projects beckon with attractive pay packets because, they too, are anxious to get their project complete.
Success breeds … scarcity in workforce availability
It could be one of the enduring ironies of Crossrail that completion is going to be made more challenging by the loss of staff to the many construction projects in the City around Liverpool Street. These construction projects were probably spurred on, at least in part, by the knowledge that they would be very conveniently located close to a major Crossrail station and hence would attract premium rents.
We do not know what is going on behind the scenes but it could be that Mark Wild or someone else in Crossrail has recognised the dangers of TfL having two concurrent projects chasing the same labour force. Indeed at the latest Board meeting Mike Brown, the Commissioner, assured the Board that he would ensure that Crossrail and TfL would liaise to make sure they weren’t competing for the same services.
To delay the fit-out at Bank station would help prioritise Crossrail, by far the more important of the two schemes, whilst hopefully providing a labour supply to the Bank Station Upgrade once Crossrail is close to being complete and contractor employment at the central London station is starting to wind down. The reality is that Crossrail is far from a place where work can start to wind down at the uncompleted stations. Mark Wild recently talked about a Crossrail workforce that was still six to seven thousand strong. He is anxious that their work is done as soon as possible because paying them is one of the major reasons why Crossrail is ‘haemorrhaging money’ at around £30m per week.
Unfortunately the knock-on effects of a delay to Crossrail on the Northern line do not stop at Bank station.
It has always been said that the Northern Line Extension to Battersea Power Station would not open shortly in advance of the work at Bank if it meant that it would have to temporarily close again during the Bank shutdown. If the Battersea extension had been open long in advance of the Bank closure then the original plan was to offer a minimal service (4tph) as priority would be given to running trains to Morden which would benefit from the bulk of the trains (28 out of 32tph).
The problem with opening the Battersea extension earlier than the Bank closure has now been exacerbated by TfL quietly reducing plans to increase the Morden service in the peak from 30tph period to 31tph from January 2020. Originally, it was to be 32tph from around 2015. A further temporary reduction on the frequency of trains from Morden during the Bank shutdown to 27tph would make a bad situation worse and the alternative of 3tph to Battersea is so infrequent that it would probably have really limited benefit.
With the work at Battersea being delayed due to the developers changing their requirements and wanting to include over-station development (OSD) at Battersea Power Station Tube station (‘Station station’, if you will), the project has been further delayed. With the Bank shutdown put back by about 13 months, it seems that this may prevent the Battersea extension opening at the earliest possible date.
If it is Crossrail that is delaying the Bank shutdown, and if the Bank shutdown is further delaying the Northern Line Extension, then it follows that some of the delay to the Northern Line Extension is essentially down to Crossrail. Alternatively, the reason may be the lack of workers available to finish the project and the reluctance of TfL to have multiple projects active dependent on the same limited external workforce. However, the true situation is difficult to establish.
Following the anger over the lack of information coming out about Crossrail delays, it is hardly surprising that Caroline Pidgeon, chair of the Transport Select Committee, is not happy about the lack of a reason given for the Northern Line Extension being delayed. On her website she states:
The public are already fed up with the cover up that occurred over Crossrail. TfL should be totally open with Londoners as to the real reasons for the delay to the opening of the Northern Line extension by at least nine months.
A regular, but reduced Battersea service
On a separate issue, unrelated to Crossrail, LURS also reports that the Battersea extension will now only have 12tph (presumably this is a peak period figure) as this ‘is now considered adequate’. The explanation is that the Battersea Power Station site is expected to develop much more slowly than originally foreseen. This slowdown has been triggered by various factors dampening the investment market – and not just the obvious one.
The 12tph service to Battersea will be achieved by extending every alternate train due to terminate at Kennington via Charing Cross to Battersea Power Station. This is certainly a lot more sensible that the original plan on opening, which was to have two out of three trains extended to give 16tph – and an uneven interval service. The revised plan requires fewer extra trains in service (three instead of five). The original objective was eventually to have all Kennington terminating trains (24tph or 30tph under the most optimistic schemes) extended to Battersea Power Station. It seems that the agreement to only provide 12tph is part of a larger settlement with the developers to resolve various disputes concerning the additional cost consequent on the developer’s change of plans.
The extra three trains needed for the Battersea extension will supposedly be made available by installing a wheel lathe at Morden depot which will increase the number of trains in service by that amount. It seems, like on other Underground lines, the existing stock is going to be worked even harder to provide a small improvement in service.
Better off-peak to Morden
LURS also reports on plans to improve the inter-peak service to Morden – from 2022. This yet again smacks of something that has to take its place in the queue following other major upgrades such as Bank Station Capacity Upgrade and the Battersea Extension. Otherwise why wait until 2022?
The LURS article suggests that this off-peak capacity increase will be achieved by extending some of the trains via Charing Cross to Morden. Previously, this would not have been possible as these trains would have gone to Battersea. Nevertheless the idea is a little surprising given that London Underground has gone to a lot of trouble in past years to segregate the two central sections of the Northern line at Kennington in the off-peak and avoid the complexity of having to serve them both with trains from Morden.
An East Finchley turnback
In further news, LURS suggest that TfL is reconsidering its abandonment of plans for turning back trains at East Finchley within the platforms. This would involve various new or reinstated crossovers south of the station. The magazine article suggests that the cancellation of the order for additional trains on the Northern line means that TfL is determined to maximise the productive use of the existing fleet. Nothing has been decided and this is something for the future but, yet again, we would suggest that, if this were to happen at all, it will not happen until the previously mentioned plans have been brought to fruition. So this too could ultimately be dependent on Crossrail opening.
Problems on the Central line
The Central line could be considered one of the most important, if not the most important, Tube line on London Underground. In terms of passenger numbers it is the busiest (even though it has some of the least busy stations in the suburbs). In terms of geography it is probably the most critical Tube line to provide access to the heart of London, serving both the City and the West End along an obvious main artery. It is entirely apposite that its colour on the Tube map is the colour of an artery. It is also not surprising it was the first deep Tube line of any significant length to be built in central London.
So well-used is the Central line that one of the primary drivers for Crossrail was to relieve it, and there will be five stations on Crossrail that will interchange with the Central line. Until Crossrail opens the Central line is critical to keeping central London moving.
Unfortunately, the rolling stock on the Central line is not the best quality. It is often said that part of the problem was that it was built at a time when rolling stock technology was rapidly changing. There are various other factors such as the Japanese bogies originally supplied, coupled with a belief that the Japanese just did not really understand conditions in London – from the roughness and tight curvature of the track to just how hard the trains are worked for much of the day. Whatever the reason, the trains have not fared well.
With the delays becoming apparent in the Deep Tube Programme which would have supplied replacement stock, it was becoming clear that, without intervention, the trains (and in particular their motors) would not last until their replacements were ready. On current time frames it is realistically unlikely that the Central line stock will be fully replaced before 2035. With the fleet causing considerable day-to-day problems, something major needed to be done and it made sense to do it sooner rather than later. Crossrail was seen as a saviour giving the line a bit of a breathing space and allowing trains to be taken out of service for a major refit.
Central Line Improvement Programme
The Central Line Improvement Programme (CLIP) is a major project (£300m+) to upgrade the trains to a more modern specification so that they can be deployed throughout their planned life (and possibly beyond). Part of the the requirement is so that they are compliant with Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (RVAR).
The problem with any upgrade to rolling stock on any line – but especially the Central line – is that you have to take trains out of service to do it and, generally, you need to run a reduced timetable. With the Underground struggling in peak hours even a single train per hour reduction has a capacity impact. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the first reduction of train service to enable this project to take place is scheduled for January 2020 – a month after Crossrail was originally due to be fully open.
It is probably fairest to say that the impact on CLIP caused by delay to Crossrail is not a disaster by any means, but it certainly reduces the amount of wriggle room. For example, as happened on the Bakerloo line stock, there could be attractions in working on a heavy overhaul for more than one train simultaneously. The main benefits occur when the whole fleet is complete. Apart from anything else, depots are effectively going to have to maintain two separate but similar fleets as the same time with all the implications that entails (e.g. two lots of spare parts, retraining of fitters).
An option that has been taken away by delays to Crossrail is the opportunity to reduce the level of service on the Central line to Ealing Broadway. This would have freed up more trains either for heavy overhaul or simply for overdue light maintenance. The fear is that without benefit of the direct connection to Central London local passengers will not switch from the Central line to the Elizabeth line at Ealing Broadway.
With Stratford continuing to develop as a hub and the Central line expected to get even busier to the north-east of Stratford as a result, it seems that the Central line is simply not going to get the temporary respite that many had hoped Crossrail would provide. It looks like planners have already factored in extra overall availability expected from the overhauled stock so that they can further increase off-peak frequencies on the Central line.
Liverpool Street platform lengthening
Away from the Central and Northern lines, we would suggest that the new Crossrail reality means that implementation of plans to replace three shorter platforms at Liverpool St station (platforms 16-18) with two new longer platforms in the summer of 2019 needs to be rethought – if this has not happened already.
We have mentioned this issue before, but from the latest comments at the TfL Board meeting and the release of Crossrail Board meeting minutes, it seems that any plan to temporarily utilise Liverpool Street Crossrail deep-level platforms during platform reconstruction is a non-starter. Apart from a test programme on Crossrail due to continue until the summer at least, there is the major challenge of getting operating documentation written and formally approved prior to any opening – even a temporary limited one. A consistent theme in the Crossrail minutes was concern about lack of progress on documentation and the poor quality of the limited amount that had been produced. The point was also repeatedly made that it is difficult to document procedures until testing is completed.
In addition to documentation problems, it is clear that Liverpool Street station is not on the list of stations largely completed or expected to be largely completed in the next few months.
Network Rail need to press on
It is believed that Network Rail is anxious to press forward with the platform modifications next summer. The only realistic time to do disruptive work of this duration is in the summer holidays when commuter traffic is lighter for a number of consecutive weeks. Furthermore there has already been a lot of planning of this. To delay this would not only waste an opportunity, its rescheduled date will probably itself create a knock-on effect of other projects being delayed.
If it is assumed that that there is no possibility of Crossrail tunnels being used in the summer, it would seem that the available options are:
- temporary use of other platforms at Liverpool Street
- take incoming TfL trains out of service at Stratford and turn them around short of Liverpool Street for the return journey
- a combination of the above two options
In the event of some trains terminating short of Liverpool Street, the single track line from Bow to the main lines to Fenchurch St would be available for terminating trains to reverse. A lot of people using the current TfL rail service change at Stratford for the Central line and there are also other trains bound for Liverpool Street that stop at Stratford.
In the event of an alternative platform (or two) needed at Liverpool Street there would need to be service reductions on other routes. This is something that needs planning and agreement with train operating companies (TOCs) and cannot be done at the last minute.
9-car Crossrail trains from the summer?
Assuming that the platform works goes ahead, an interesting possibility is to run 9-car trains during this period. Crossrail certainly has sufficient 9-car trains. Whether they would be ready to be in service with suitable software is another matter. Running longer trains would certainly ease problems during the period of platform closure at Liverpool St. Currently in the peak hour, TfL Rail run 15tph to Liverpool Street. Even if these were all 7-car Crossrail trains (they aren’t) they could be replaced by 12tph 9-car trains and actually increase capacity.
If it were decided to run 9-car trains, it would be interesting to see who would be regarded as responsible for this. Much of the slightly acrimonious debate over Crossrail delays was about the state of software on the 9-car trains. Crossrail, at the time under the old management were suggesting that as TfL procured the trains it was down to them to get them working. The riposte to that was that Crossrail was the systems integrator for the entire project and that involved getting everything working together – regardless of who the provider was.
It is clear that the Crossrail delay has created problems that go far beyond the inevitable uncomfortable financial reality. At the latest board meeting, one of the board members impressed upon Mark Wild that businesses need to have a rough date for the opening of Crossrail as soon as possible as businesses need to plan ahead. It should hardly been needed to add that the same is true for TfL and Network Rail.
Thanks, as always, to ngh for various insights and information regarding the challenges mentioned in the article