Crossrail – More Delays – What’s The Point?


Unbelievable! Perhaps as Victor Meldrew might have said – the Crossrail line from Paddington to Liverpool Street in East London might not be operational in 2021. December 2018 was long since abandoned, as was end of 2019, and in April newspaper reports carried the news that the back end of 2020 was a target, but likely to be missed.

Why? Ah well, it’s all very complicated – as we knew from an engineering perspective it was back in the early days – but the most recent concerns about running this railway were cited as “continuing uncertainty about the software behind the new rail line”. According to the Guardian on the 26th April.

Then, on 8th November, the paper also reported:

  • “Crossrail will not open until at least 2021, incurring a further cost overrun that will take the total price of the London rail link to more than £18bn, Transport for London (TfL) has announced.”

Mind you, in that piece, they kindly referenced the 20-year timeline of delays and cost overruns.

That was a serious underestimate of the time it has taken to complete this cross London rail line. The starting point for this railway really dates back to the 1970s, and the idea even earlier.

However, back in 2003, a certain Dr Vince Cable MP, made this observation in a debate in the House of Commons on 21st October:

  • “The second controversial area is the project’s timing. The London Mayor is specifically committed to getting Crossrail, or its basic spine, running by 2011 or 2012, in time for the Olympic games. I am not here to argue the pros and cons of the Olympic games. The advantage of having such a timetable is that it might help to prevent the endless slippage that has affected other big projects.”

Fascinating idea, but clearly an unlikely prospect.

There have been a number of Acts of Parliament/Bills that have been raised, and some successful since the early days of the 1980s, and the first Bill, failed to receive the Royal Assent in 1990 – already some years behind the original plan. This is a rough timetable of events:

  1. London Rail Study Report – Greater London Council/Dept of Environment – 1974
  2. Cross London Rail Link Proposal from British Rail – 1980
  3. Central London Rail Study published – January 1989
  4. 1991 Crossrail Bill published (71 pages) – cost £1.4 billion
  5. 2005 Crossrail Bill published (222 pages)
  6. 2008 Crossrail Act (253 pages) – provides the extension to Reading in the west


The first appearance of a reference to ‘Crossrail’ was way back in 1974, following publication of what was known as the Bartlett Report, and which included plans, or at least proposals for a cross-London rail link. The report was a collaboration between the then Greater London Council (GLC) and the Department of the Environment (DoE), where the aim was to review the future transport needs of London and South East England.  But that too had its genesis in a proposal from railwayman George Dow back in the 1940s, who also put forward the idea for a north-south link – this later became the ‘Thameslink’ route. The proposals were first aired in the ‘Star’ newspaper in London in 1941, and later found their way into two further London planning documents and reports.

What appeared in the report was the map below:

1974 BR Crossrail Scheme copy

This captured the elements of today’s core scheme, together with the links to existing main line termini, aspects of which would appear in another document six years later.

In November 1980 BR published what it described as a “discussion paper” for a “Cross London Rail Link”, with the objective of connecting the existing London termini both north, south east and west of the city centre with a rail line. This would be a deep level tube, with a double line of track to carry existing main line train sets, and allow through running across London, without the need to change modes – taxi, bus or tube. That was of course before the London Docklands Development, and the massive upheaval on the Isle of Dogs and Eastwards through the former dockland sites.

Cross London 1980 copyBut Crossrail was not the only proposal to come out of transport studies for Central and East London. One of these was for an entirely new underground line, running from Chelsea to Hackney. This idea has been around for some time, but interest in its completion was revived with the publication of the Central London Rail Study in 1989.

Perhaps the major new proposal to come out of the Central London Rail Study was the joint BR/LUL (London Underground) ‘Crossrail’ scheme to link the suburban services of east and west London. It would be similar to the suburban Lines in Paris of ‘RER’ , allowing through running between east and west, from Paddington to Bethnal Green. In addition, full-length trains could be run from Amersham and Reading, enter the tunnelled section of ‘Crossrail’ and run through to Southend.

Some 15 years after the idea first saw the light of day.

This scheme, along with the Chelsea-Hackney Line mentioned above, was re-considered by the Secretary of State for Transport in 1989/90. However, the prevailing belief was that either the Chelsea-Hackney or the ‘Crossrail’ scheme should go ahead, but not both. A later East London Rail study, like the CLR, also designed to reduce traffic congestion in the city, promoted the extension and refurbishment of the 130-year-old East London Line

A Parliamentary Bill for Crossrail was lodged in November 1990, but London Underground believed that both schemes should have been implemented, to provide adequate capacity, and allow future growth to be handled safely and efficiently. Ironically, the Crossrail scheme was the only proposal that would directly improve London’s inner-city traffic problems – but it was not to be, because the Parliamentary Bill failed to pass into law.

The capital costs of both schemes were similar in 1990, with that of the Chelsea-Hackney project coming out at £1.7 billion, and that for the ‘Crossrail’ plan at £1.4 billion. It is perhaps not sensible to compare the costs for Crossrail then and now, as a result of the route alignment and extensions that have been incorporated into the central scheme. When LUL ‘took over’ the Heathrow Express services it added confusion as well as complexity to the scheme, and it is not clear how that action had any benefit on traffic congestion in London.

As we know, the original 1991 Crossrail Bill failed to pass into law, and little or no activity was seen on the ground for over a decade, but London’s traffic congestion problems continued to grow. Twenty years after the Central London Rail Study was published, the now vastly extended (not expanded) Crossrail line from Reading to Shenfield was the objective, and the goals for the original project plan ditched in favour of the new improved scheme.

By the end of the 1990s, the route from Paddington to Reading was included in the Crossrail scheme, adding 30 miles of additional construction work, and integration with the existing railway. On the other side of London, route changes to the core section of what was the original Crossrail route have also added to its costs and complexity. At that time too, key projects that address technology exploitation, improved services and interchanges with other transport systems were encompassed by the Croydon Tramlink, Docklands Light Rail and the Jubilee Line extension.

So what happened next?

The intervening years were beset with the challenges of privatisation of British Rail, establishing who owned and ran the infrastructure, who owned the rolling stock, and who ran the trains. This was a very complex arrangement and even involved a sub-layer from the infrastructure owners of numerous subcontractors bidding for work to supply, maintain, or support the various fragmented bits of the network.

On top of this, a supervising body – the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) – was created in order to “ensure the smooth operation, and interaction” of the various elements of the privatised railway. Added into this mix was the “how do we improve transport in and across London” question. At the turn of the century, given that the “Millennium Bug” had not destroyed the IT and communications world, London’s rail network was still in urgent need of improvement, and CrossRail had not moved an inch since the failed Bill of 1991.

So, a joint venture company, Cross London Rail Links Ltd (CLRLL), was formed by Transport for London (TfL) and the SRA in 2001 to address this very question.  A business case was presented in 2003 to the Government for “CrossRail1”, which was reviewed, and another two years later in 2005, a Bill was introduced to Parliament – all 222 pages of it –

CLRLL’s scheme provided for a central east-west tunnel across London, with services extending to two branches to the east and two to the west. The cost estimate in 2004 was in the region of £10 billion. Not quite 10 times the £1.4 billion cost of 13 years earlier – but the plan was now there.

This CrossRail would run from Liverpool Street to Paddington creating a network of new cross-London services to the east and west of the capital. Much like the 1980 proposal from British Rail, this CrossRail was to involve the construction of new twin tunnels through the centre of London, with new stations at Liverpool Street, Farringdon, Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street and Paddington.

On top of all this activity, the original privatised infrastructure owner and manager Railtrack had gone bust, and the likelihood of any progress being made quickly on London’s transport problems was clearly “for the birds”. The connections as envisaged 20 years earlier to the main railway lines out of Paddington to the west, and Liverpool Street to the east was still a requirement, along with connections to Heathrow Airport, and other interfaces in the private train-operating world.

Crossrail Act 2008 CoverThen, another few years passed, and a change of Government, and further reviews and consultations, until in 2008 …… Royal Assent was given to the 2008 Crossrail Act (253 pages), and construction began in earnest in 2009. Five years later, in March 2014, it was announced that the project’s scope would be extended to include the extension to Reading, on the old GWR main line. In another life that would have been described as “project creep”

The budget was agreed for the work – including the tunnelling under London, and the extension and integration to the east and west was … £15.9 billion. Even when this was reduced to £14.8 billion by a new incoming Government it was still 10 times more than the original proposal – although that was now almost 25 years earlier.

Looking at it from a diagram in a House of Commons Briefing Paper, it looks even more dramatic. But it is worth bearing in mind that the cross London “Thameslink Project” was in progress during this time, along with the Jubilee Line extension – still, this project has been ultra long in its gestation.

Crossrail project timeline - House of Commons Briefing PaperCrossing the Continental USA from East to West was achieved in a shorter timescale wasn’t it?

DfT Connecting People cover 2017By November 2017, the DfT were confident of the benefits of a wide range of rail projects – including Crossrail (and even Crossrail 2 was being mentioned). This is what they said about the programme a couple of years ago:

In London, where demand pressures are highest, Crossrail will be fully open by the end of 2019, supporting a 10% increase in journeys through London. The expanding Thameslink services will offer passengers trains every 2-3 minutes in central London at peak times and enable direct links between Peterborough and Cambridge to Blackfriars and beyond.

With the Thameslink programme and Crossrail in full operation by the end of 2019, the national network is growing.

And, of course Crossrail 2

What of “CrossRail 2” – another proposal that dates back 30 or 40 years – as London’s transport congestion problem continues?? Well, back in 1994, that was seen by some as being provided through the Northern Line improvements – a sort of CrossRail on the cheap. Although I can’t claim the honour of inventing that epithet – that dubious claim goes to Lord Mountevans (Jeffrey Richard de Corban Evans, 4th Baron Mountevans) in a House of Lords debate on 4th May 1994

Crossrail 2, a proposed new railway stretching from Surrey to Hertfordshire through Central London, could relieve crowding and support the capital’s growth. It could offer travellers on national rail lines a new route into London, helping to free up capacity, and relieve pressure on the Tube network, while unlocking new homes along the route.

Where are we today?

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Well, even after the budget was increased in 2018, to £15.4 billion, it was not clear that the project would be delivered on time, since in August 2018, a delay to the start of services was announced. The tunnel section – the core element – was largely complete, and services were now planned to start in the autumn of 2019. But, almost as soon as that announcement was made, another appeared, stating that the aim was for Crossrail to open “as soon as practically possible in 2021”.

A damning report by the Public Accounts Committee in April 2019 highlighted a number of critical warning signs “missed” by both the Department for Transport (DfT) and Crossrail Limited. Their summary contained these particularly critical phrases:

“The Department and Crossrail Limited are unable to fully explain how the programme has been allowed to unravel. Crossrail Limited failed to properly report the position of the programme and risks. Key warning signs were missed or ignored, and Parliament and potential new passengers still do not know the root causes of the delays and significant cost overruns.”

But, as a report from the National Audit Office stated a month later, in May 2019, “Crossrail is past the point of no return”.   Tunnelling was completed in 2015, Network Rail have completed a considerable amount of infrastructure work, including 10 new stations, and of course, the trains have been delivered. By March 2019, some £16 billion had already been spent on this project.

The Trains

There was a procurement process that began in December 2009, and which went through the OJEU, with CAF, Alstom, Hitachi, Siemens and Bombardier on the short list. The Invitation to Tender (ITT) and bidding process was set to begin in late summer 2011, but it was delayed by year until 2012, with a contract decision expected in 2014.


Class 345 unit 345007 basks in the sunshine at Shenfield station before making the (at time of writing) daily westbound Class 345 service towards London Liverpool Street, on 7th July 2017   Photo By Sunil060902 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Alstom withdrew from the race in 2011, and in the same year, the PFI financing of the purchase was questioned, and that led TfL to choose to buy the new trains outright. However, in 2013, Siemens pulled out of the tender, citing a capacity shortfall, if they had won the order. Bombardier, who had already lost the Thameslink trains order had a pressing problem of capacity for its own with its plant at the former BR Derby Litchurch Lane Works.

The funding of the purchase was made possible by the agreement of the European Investment Bank (EIB) to provide loans to TfL of up to £500 million, to foot the bill for the £1billion order.


A trio of newly built Class 345 at TfL’s Crossrail Depot. Photo courtesy: Bombardier

The contract was awarded to Bombardier in February 2014 and the first train entered service on 22 June 2017, and some 70 of these 9-car trains of the “Aventra” family entered service. They are known as Class 345 in the UK. In order to finance further tube projects in London, TfL sold off the trains in 2018, and leased them back for operation on the Crossrail – or “Elizabeth Line” route.

The first Class 345 train began running on 22 June 2017 and are equipped to meet the ETCS Level 2 signalling system used on the main Crossrail lines, and at the outer ends, on the Great Eastern and Great Western also use the TPWS system. They are of course 25kV a.c. electric multiple units, which enables them to run under the wires onto the main rail lines beyond London, and including the branch to Heathrow Airport.


Unit 345015 at Paddington station (May 2018)   Photo By Geof Sheppard – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Crossrail operations and services are being run by TfL Rail, and in 2018, the existing services between Paddington and Heathrow, together with the link from Heathrow Central to Terminal 4, were transferred to TfL Rail from Heathrow Connect and Heathrow Express. It is envisaged that as the whole programme finally nears completion, the TfL Rail services will operate an all stations service, just as other TfL services, and that extra capacity will be provided, and some reduction in traffic congestion in London will ease.

Originally, Crossrail was intended to provide 24 trains per hour, when the line is fully open – now expected in 2021 – but this has now been halved, with only 12 trains per hour.

From next month – December – the new Class 345 will also operate out of Paddington to Reading, with four trains an hour at peak periods, and two an hour during off peak times. Considering the distance between Paddington and Reading is around 30 miles, the peak time fare for a one-way ticket at £25-10 seems a bit steep, with off peak one-way at £20-60. (Around 85p a mile at peak, and 69p for off peak journeys).

Alongside this new – ‘Elizabeth Line’ – railway, the works to construct HS2 trackbed and facilities to the West of London, continue. But will either of these plans realise all the benefits claimed, and will the technical integration, development, and construction issues that have dogged Crossrail continue?


Useful Links:

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A video showing a Class 345 being built at Bombardier’s Derby, Litchurch Lane Works.