Elizabeth Line: short-term pain for long-term gain?

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 2018

Tim Bellenger, director of policy and investigation at London TravelWatch, discusses the deferred opening of the central section of the Elizabeth Line.

The announcement on 31 August that the central core section of the Elizabeth Line would not be opening on 9 December was a cause for major dismay and disappointment amongst politicians and transport users alike.

Until this point, Crossrail had seemed to have escaped the public problems that had beset the other major rail project in London – Thameslink. However, there had already been signs that this major project – with its complex power supply, signalling and traffic management systems – was falling behind with its schedule, particularly in its systems integration that is critical to its effective operation.

Deferring the opening for nearly a year will have negative effects on passengers and on rail operators. These include crowding on existing lines such as the Central and the Jubilee, and extended journey times for passengers who had bought or rented property on the basis of the Elizabeth Line, for example from Woolwich to Canary Wharf. In addition, the benefits of combined journeys using the Elizabeth Line and Thameslink, such as faster journeys to the Oxford Street area, will all be lost over the next 10 months.

Completing this central section is essential for TfL’s finances, but also for providing an alternative route into the City of London during the upcoming long closure of the Northern Line Bank branch while Bank station is being rebuilt. Similarly, there will be a cost to the economy from the loss of job creation and productivity gains during this period.

However, the deferral does present the opportunity to ensure that when the Elizabeth Line does open, it can ensure safety and reliability at a much higher level. The trains are more ‘computer with wheels attached’ than previous generations of rolling stock, and have to cope with three different types of signalling and traffic management systems whilst on the route and to change from one to the other seamlessly and quickly. Software failures are much more likely to cause disruption now than in previous eras, and it would be of serious embarrassment to have major failures of this type with passengers on board if the line had opened on time but the systems were not up to scratch (who remembers the run-up to the opening of the Jubilee Line extension?).

Debugging of the trains in the meantime will be time well spent. This should have a further benefit when the full service begins and Elizabeth Line trains have to interact with others on the Great Western and Great Eastern main lines, and where reliability will be essential if disruption on the Great Eastern, for example, is not to spread contagiously down the Great Western all the way to Cornwall and Western Wales.

Deferral will also give a longer period to reassess the impact of changes to bus routes that are expected to come in on the ‘coattails’ of the Elizabeth Line. It has been assumed that many passengers will transfer from buses to the Elizabeth Line, but this may not be the case.

So, all in all this may be a case of some short-term pain for passengers followed by long-term gain. As they say in politics, ‘don’t waste a good crisis!’


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