I get two magazines, Private Eye and Modern Railways.  The latter recently published an article by noted columnist Roger @Captain_Deltic Ford detailing some information about Crossrail that hasn’t, as yet, hit the mainstream London news organisations.  Indeed, Ross Lydall of the Standard has had a bit of fun at the hapless Theresa Villiers expense by exposing a DfT balls up on dates:

…she said that Crossrail would open in 2019 - when in fact Crossrail’s official position is that it will open in “late 2018“. This is already a year later than planned (give or take a decade or five).

Had the MP for Chipping Barnet just revealed yet more delays? It seems not. I’m told that the mistake was due to a cock-up in the DfT. Apparently the question was answered by the High Speed Rail team rather than the Crossrail team, and the High Speed lot weren’t, erm, as up to speed with Crossrail as we might expect.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “The PQ [parliamentary question] was written in error. It will be corrected. It should be from 2018.

However, as the Captain reports, 2019 is, for many of us, accurate.  Let me explain.  Crossrail consists essentially of five parts:

  • The core tunnel from Paddington to east of Liverpool Street
  • The branch north using the Great Eastern Main Line to Shenfield
  • The branch south via Canary Wharf to Abbey Wood
  • The Great Western Main Line from Paddington out to Maidenhead
  • The BAA-owned Heathrow Airport branch from Airport Junction west of Hayes

Now, here’s where it gets complicated.  The line out of Paddington is due to get replacement signalling as part of the electrification of the Great Western out to Cardiff, Oxford etc. and this signalling is supposed to be the international standard ETCS Level 2 system.  Unfortunately, despite supposedly being a standard there is a bit of a nightmare of versions and it’s only really in widespread Continental use on new high speed lines such as the TGV Est in France.  Being British and distrustful of foreign gadgets we’ve so far only installed it on a single track Welsh branch line as a trial.

Now the most important feature of the ETCS system is that once the line is equipped for it, all trains have to be equipped with the electronic gizmos required or they can’t run, as there are no longer any lineside signals for the driver to read, it’s all radio based.  The second problem is that it’s not a proven system for a high frequency metro system yet, which left Crossrail with a quandary:

  1. Pick ETCS Level 2 for the core plus the Abbey Wood, Maidenhead and Heathrow branches, hoping that the ETCS software and electronics is sufficiently robust to allow full core service and that the GWML resignalling comes in on time.  This could be classed as ‘ballsy’
  2. Pick an off the shelf proven metro signalling solution for the core, running the system without the western branches until ETCS 2 is working and the problems of switching between systems at the junction is sorted.  This is the sensible coward’s way out.

We now have something of a clue as to why TfL picked the Bombardier CityFlo 650 CBTC signalling system for the Underground Sub-Surface Lines resignalling – given that it’s bad enough having four current systems in place (Central Line, Victoria Line, Jubilee/Northern Line and SSL) I’d be quite surprised now if Crossrail didn’t choose CityFlo too.  Since it’s hard enough integrating one signalling system onto new trains, removing the ETCS requirement from day one is therefore a sensible step, since it allows the project to concentrate on getting the new railway working without interfacing with an old railway in the process of upgrade.

Unfortunately this means that for us west of Paddington folk, Villiers is right and Crossrail is not going to be opening in 2018, at least as a through service.  Instead it will operate as two systems:

  1. May 2018: Heathrow -> Paddington mainline (Crossrail trains replacing current Great Western and Heathrow Connect commuter services using existing signals, as ETCS isn’t ready until 2019 at best)
  2. December 2018: Paddington Crossrail -> Abbey Wood (entirely on new infrastructure under CBTC signalling)
  3. May 2019: Paddington Crossrail -> Shenfield (on CBTC as far as Stratford, then existing signalling to Shenfield)
  4. December 2019: Completion with both western branches feeding trains into the core at Paddington using ETCS as far as an ETCS/CBTC changeover point outside the station and CBTC through the core tunnel

It’s therefore correct for the DfT to say that Crossrail will be opening ‘late 2018′ if this means ‘the tunnel under London plus one of the four branches’, but it’s clearly not going to be the whole system that’s opening then.  This is going to disappoint a few people and I’ve not seen this reported anywhere yet other than Modern Railways.

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