Crossrail’s operations director, Howard Smith, talks to Marc Johnson about where the project is going in 2014.
Crossrail is a project in transition. As 2014 moves further forward, there will be fewer and fewer photographs of tunnel boring machines (TBMs) breaking into station boxes and ministers surveying completed tunnels.
By the end of the year tunnelling will be complete and priorities will have shifted to installing tracks, signals and electrification equipment, as Europe’s biggest civil engineering project starts to resemble a working railway.
For the past year, operational planning has taken more of a central role. In February 2013, Howard Smith became Crossrail’s operations director, bringing with him more than 15 years’ experience managing Transport for London’s (TfL) Overground and Docklands Light Railway (DLR) services.
In the 12 months since Howard’s appointment, Crossrail has gone from revelling in the triumph of letting its £1 billion rolling stock contract early to mournfully confirming the project’s first fatality.
‘The project’s very much on track and progressing in exactly the way we thought it would,’ says Howard, speaking during an interview at his Canada Square office on the morning that Crossrail announced that it would be extending the line west to Reading, taking the number of stations served by the line to 40 and improving western rail access into central London considerably.
As well as adjusting the timetable, the operations team is working its way through bids from Arriva, Keolis/ Go-Ahead, MTR and National Express for the eight-year operating concession – the winner of which is expected to be announced in November 2014.
The new Crossrail Train Operating Concession (CTOC) operator will have just six months before the first phase of Crossrail opens. Since the first TBM, Phyllis, was lowered into Royal Oak portal in May 2012, passengers have been told that in 2018 they will be able to ride London’s new railway. Although the Crossrail brand won’t be unveiled until the new trains arrive in May 2017, Crossrail officially starts on 31 May, 2015, when the new operator takes over the Shenfield to Liverpool Street services from Abellio Greater Anglia.
In May 2018, the new operator will take over the Heathrow to Paddington segment, followed by Paddington to Abbey Wood in December and Paddington to Shenfield in May 2019. It will be December 2019 before Crossrail will be in full operation, delivering 200 million passenger journeys a year.
65 new trains
In order to eventually operate up to 30 trains an hour through the central section of the route, TfL has had to buy some new trains. In February, a procurement process for the purchase of 65 new sets was completed. Bombardier was announced as the chosen supplier. A key moment in the history of the Derby train builder, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year.
The order has supported 840 British manufacturing jobs at Derby, creating 230 new positions and safeguarding 500 more.
Although expectations were high following the disappointment of Thameslink, Howard didn’t feel it was a difficult situation to manage.
It was two years between Siemens being announced as the preferred bidder for Thameslink and the company finally signing off the order with the Department for Transport (DfT).
After losing out to Siemens in 2011, there was some uncertainty whether Bombardier Derby would be able to find the volume of orders needed to sustain itself.
‘What Bombardier would say is after the disappointment of Thameslink they essentially carried on at Derby designing the Aventra, as they’re terming it, full throttle ready for Crossrail.
‘There were three really great bids but undoubtedly they had put a huge amount of thought not only into the train itself but also into the maintenance because a big part of the contract is actually then continuing to maintain it.
‘They’d given huge thought to it, worked very hard on what it would take to win the competition in terms of the procurement criteria that was set out and did the job.
‘From my point of view, we’ve absolutely got the right train. We got it at a fair price, from everybody’s point of view, and we actually let the contract early.’
Rene Tkacik was working at Crossrail’s Fisher Street site in Holborn on 7 March when he was struck by a piece of falling concrete and killed. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is currently investigating to establish the facts surrounding the incident.
Since work began on Crossrail, Target Zero has been the safety message. The fatality has highlighted the dangers that still exist on major infrastructure projects.
‘For everybody on the project, everybody, we felt it an awful lot,’ says Howard. ‘We’ve meant what we’ve said for so long about everybody going home safe at the end of every day. It was a very troubling thing, a very bad thing to happen to the project.
‘There are inquiries going on that are looking specifically at what happened.
‘In terms of what it means for the project, what most people have rightly seen it as, is something that just causes us to refocus more, if you ever could do more, on safety.
‘There’s target zero and people might say ‘what does that mean now?’ In that sense, it means exactly the same as it did.’
More than an infrastructure project
As an infrastructure project, Crossrail is about building a technically sound metro system that can deliver high levels of reliability. It’s an element that TfL has control over. The timetable which will form the concession for Crossrail has almost been finalised and TfL is now working with Network Rail and other main line passenger and freight operators to try and manage the risks that come with running new services on an existing network.
For Howard, this is where the success of Crossrail and the strength of the Crossrail brand will be defined.
‘A lot of people focus on the hardware; focus on the physical and actually the success of Crossrail will be all about the planning, timetable planning and also operational planning, contingency planning, planning for perturbed running and then the relationships of how you actually make it work,’ says Howard.
‘There’s a danger, particularly when looking at Crossrail as a physical project. You almost put the building blocks down and say those are the bits that are going to define success and actually railways work in a remarkable variety of ways in different conditions with different working practices.’
Crossrail is also a people project, creating thousands of jobs directly and indirectly throughout its construction. When the infrastructure is in place, construction workers will be replaced by station staff, but like the rest of the TfL network, they will no longer be deployed at ticket offices and there are plans to look at whether to close ticket offices on some of Crossrail’s main line stations as well. ‘We’ll have people appropriate to where they need to be,’ says Howard.
‘The basic is that we’ll have all stations staffed, start to finish and for a lot of the stations, particularly in the east which we’ll be taking over in May next year, that’s an increase in staff.
‘It will evolve and I think it’s genuinely wrong to see it as ‘are they in the ticket office or are they somewhere else’.’
Photographs courtesy of Crossrail