Imagine you’re in a meeting about the progress of a flagship project. You see a presentation slide that says the project has a 10% chance of opening in May, a 50% chance of opening in June and an 85% chance for July.

A second slide says that the team examined partially opening in the previous December but found that it was not feasible.

That’s the Crossrail meeting London Mayor Sadiq Khan attended on July 26 2018. When the news broke in late-August 2018 that Crossrail would open a year late, in December 2019, the mayor said that he hadn’t known about it.

A London Assembly committee meeting on September 6 quizzed him. He said that he only knew about the delay on August 29.

Crossrail’s board formally met on July 19 but Chairman Sir Terry Morgan (who has since quit) told the assembly committee that the board only heard of concerns and that no dates were mentioned. Yet the following day, Deputy London Mayor Heidi Alexander attended a Crossrail briefing that contained slides with similar dates to July 26’s meeting. They didn’t have the probability figures. A slide had the words ‘not possible’ in red against a December 2018/January 2019 opening of the central section.

Crossrail's challenges
Crossrail’s challenges have included Bond Street station. In December 2014, the station’s tunnels were under construction. See more pictures here. Find the latest Crossrail news here. CROSSRAIL.

Plenty of questions

Alexander told London Assembly’s transport committee on September 12: “Until the Crossrail Board met on 29 August, the project was still advising us that there was a chance that the December opening date could be met, and so I did not hear anything – and nor did the Mayor – about an autumn opening date until the last week in August.”

Alexander may not have heard of the autumn opening date but it’s hard to conclude that she and the mayor did not know that Crossrail would miss its deadline.

London Assembly members questioned the mayor on October 19 about Crossrail’s challenges and delays. Keith Prince asked whether the mayor was aware of any potential delay. Khan said: “No. One of the scenarios that we were given was probably some delay but that was not a scenario that Crossrail Limited envisaged would happen.”

Prince persisted and Khan said: “Crossrail Limited was not saying there was going to be a delay even in July 2018”. He added: “The advice given to us by Crossrail up until August 2018, the end of August 2018, was the central section, according to them, was going to be ready by December 2018.”

Yet the slides that Crossrail showed him said that it was not feasible to open in December and that a July 2019 opening was uncertain.

Politicians love a row

There’s nothing politicians love more than a political row. The mayor’s denials generated just that. Assembly Transport Committee Chairman Caroline Pidgeon said on December 3: “This ongoing situation is rapidly causing a loss in trust in the mayor. If the assembly was misled – that is a very serious breach of trust.”

Like many rows, this one is pointless and one the mayor had no need to trigger. He could have said when news broke in August: ‘Yes, Crossrail briefed me in July and I asked them to tell me their alternative plan’.

Instead he looks like part of a cover-up for a project that is the railway industry’s most complex.

Crossrail is running late. Bond Street station is behind schedule. Meetings through the autumn heard that Crossrail did not have a train fit for testing in the central tunnels. Network Rail is running behind on the western section. Crossrail is behind the curve in completing the cabling and fire systems in the central tunnels, according to documents released in December.

Crossrail’s challenges

The since-departed chief executive, Simon Wright, told assembly members in September: “We have always known that it was complicated. It is an unprecedented scheme in terms of signalling. I do not want to bore people with the technology but we have three separate systems, one in the centre, one in the east and potentially a different one in the west. It is very complicated with a train running across all three. It has to change from one to the other, at speed, at the interfaces [and] at the portals to the tunnels. We always knew it was going to be hard and it has proven to be just that. 

“We started testing later than we would have ideally liked. Those tests have not gone as well as we would have hoped, and therefore the progress made on the hundreds of tests that have to be concluded has been slower.”

Crossrail’s challenges included a December 2018 opening date that was always arbitrary. It was not like the Jubilee Line Extension’s deadline of December 1999 to match millennium celebrations at Greenwich. Had Crossrail set December 2019 then no-one would have cared.

Deadlines will be forgotten

That’s not to say that projects should overrun their budgets or timelines but Crossrail’s challenges and delay need perspective. In a decade’s time will people complain that it opened late? I suspect not, just as no West Coast passengers comment that British Rail suspended its original electrification plans after costs rose.

What must not be forgotten from Crossrail’s challenges are the lessons of managing complex projects. Crossrail reinforces the challenge of integrating complicated trains with complex signalling.

Sheer scale makes simple tasks complex. Take tunnel lighting. The independent review found that Crossrail had to install 3,810 luminaires, at a rate 423 a week. It was managing to do 150 a week. The contractor planned to increase staff to boost the rate. But would this reduce work elsewhere?

Lessons for High Speed 2

Britain’s next massive railway project is High Speed 2. It has many similarities with Crossrail. HS2 will dig tunnels, open new lines and build stations. Network Rail will alter its tracks. Engineers will need to integrate new trains with different signalling systems. These trains might come from a manufacturer with little UK experience. This is risky when you consider that Crossrail’s trains come from Bombardier in Derby and its signalling from Siemens. Both companies have British experience. However, they are breaking new ground despite Crossrail’s claim that the train control system was “technically and operationally proven and is successfully used by many metro systems around the world”.

I hope Crossrail meets its new deadline of December 2019. It will be busy pulling itself into a working railway that’s ready to welcome thousands of passengers every day. But let’s dismiss the political row for what it is and let Crossrail deliver.

This article first appeared in RAIL 869, published on January 2 2019.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.