Crossrail: What Were You Expecting?

Since summer 2017 when it became clear that passengers would not be using the Elizabeth Line in 2019 as planned, London’s Crossrail project has moved remarkably rapidly from favourite child to problem child. The UK Public Accounts Committee’s previous praise, describing Crossrail as “a textbook example of how to get things right” has apparently changed to a highly-publicised request to the National Audit Office to undertake an investigation into the Crossrail project, looking at governance, delay and cost. Is this justified?

First of all, let’s read beyond the headline of the 2014-2015 Public Accounts Committee report. The report makes it clear that construction was still continuing, considerable risks remained, particularly the handover from constructing the line to operating it, and the delivery of the trains. That appears a far more sober assessment of how much remained to be done.   

What was the client expecting from Crossrail? To answer that, first find your client. The joint sponsors are the Department for Transport, a central government department, and Transport for London, the city’s own transport authority.

The main purpose of the Crossrail programme was to improve Greater London’s transport infrastructure. That has yet to happen, so should we say the programme is failing? If the sponsors had stuck with that simple objective, maybe, but that ignores the fundamental question –why? Why do you need to improve the infrastructure?   

The usual basic reasons for transport improvement projects are saving time for passengers, improving reliability,  relieve overcrowding and economic regeneration.

However, Crossrail was expected to deliver so much more. It had to meet sustainability targets; generate employment and improve employability amongst disadvantaged sectors of London’s population; be an art project, an archaeology project, an educational outreach project; encourage diversity; be uncontroversial, avoid disruption.        

Maybe it would have been good enough to stick to the basics. How old is Baker Street Station? When did the Metropolitan Railway start operating? (Clue: the original Holmes and Watson used it). How long do we expect these lines to keep operating? Providing a fast, comfortable, reliable train service across London might have been good enough.

Anything more starts to become less straightforward. The benefits of large transport projects are hard to measure and justify. In 2014, the Public Accounts Committee suggested the Department of Transport should take another look at its own calculations.

Crossrail did a very good job on the wider softer benefits: environment, sustainability, education, history, employment, diversity. It has avoided the disruptive protests of previous generations. It published a lot of material as part of its Learning Legacy initiative.  If you are spending  £14 billion on a project, why not obtain as many additional benefits as possible?

Maybe these additional requirements, whether required by law or by government decision, were a distraction from the main objective. Perhaps it was hard enough to build and deliver a fully operational railway under London, through the tangle of existing utilities and services, and connect it seamlessly with existing system.

The current Crossrail project is not the first attempt to build a railway under London. Previous attempts were derailed and ended up in the all- too- difficult pile: too difficult to raise the money, too difficult to manage all those stakeholders who needed to be won over, persuaded, their competing objectives and priorities reconciled. Getting to this stage is already a significant improvement on previous attempts.

Maybe it is too soon to tell. It is not the only major rail programme to face delays, nor the first subterranean engineering project in London to hit difficulties. Let’s not forget some of those lining up to criticise have their own agendas and are hardly dispassionate observers.

It’s a pity about the Elizabeth line, the new stations, new interchanges, new trains, faster journeys in greater comfort, better connections. Passengers on that 156 – year old line will have to wait a while longer. Meanwhile , mind the gap between expectations created and solutions delivered.