Decades in the Making, Crossrail will Carry More Than 200 Million Passengers a Year

By Thomas Renner

In June of 1941, the London Star evening paper proposed a full-size railroad tunnel from Paddington to Liverpool, a distance of more than five miles. George Dow, a pioneer in the planning of the rail lines throughout London, authored the proposal. While hardly a well-known historical figure, Dow’s innovative work in producing maps and diagrams of potential rail lines rivals that of other 20th century industry pioneers.

Now, 80 years after Dow’s proposal, his vision is on the verge of delivering much needed transit relief to Londoners. The new line, called Crossrail or the Elizabeth Line, is much more advanced than Dow’s proposal. The new line will stretch across 73 miles with new electric trains that will run up to 24 trains per hour in each direction.

The line is expected to carry more than 200 million passengers per year when it becomes fully operational in 2022. The line is undergoing testing throughout most of this year, but should eventually help ease London’s vehicle gridlock. There are 1.3 million vehicle trips per day into the city, which has the dubious distinction of having Europe’s worst traffic congestion. 

For more than 60 years after Dow’s vision, rail projects anchored around London stayed on the drawing board. It was not until 2008 when the Crossrail Act finally received royal assent. Construction started in 2009. The final price tag is expected to reach €18.7 billion ($23 billion in the U.S.), nearly €4 billion more than initial estimates.

The project is expected to transform the city. Billed as Europe’s largest infrastructure project, the Elizabeth Line will serve 41 stations and add about 10 percent to London’s rail capacity. 

“Crossrail will not only mean fast journey times across the capital and beyond, but it will also bring a massive economic boost to the city, creating thousands of jobs and adding at 20 billion to our economy,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said when construction began in 2009. 

Boris Johnson, the current Prime Minister and the Mayor of London when construction started, also announced his excitement. “When the first of Crossrail’s chariots glide smoothly along its lines in 2017, it will change the face of transport in London and the southeast forever.”

That may be true, but Johnson’s timeline, like the entire Crossrail history, was far off track.

A new rail line in London, Crossrail, will help ease a transit system and will carry 200 million passengers a year. The system is expected to become operational in 2021. Photo: Crossrail

Construction Challenges

In a project of this magnitude, delays were inevitable. The project included boring railway tunnels, track installation, powering through overhead lines, and 10 new stations in the central and southeast sections of the line. New platforms needed to be constructed, and scheduling and testing also had to be factored in.

Through the early stages, the project seemed to stay fairly close to the original timeline. Boring of the railway tunnels was completed in 2015, and by September 2017 workers completed track installation. Overhead lines were powered up between Westbourne Park and Stepney, two stops on the line, and a video of trains traveling through the tunnels was released in 2018.

Shortly after, the project went off the rails. In August 2018, four months before the project was scheduled to open, officials said further time was needed for testing and that contractors needed to complete work in the central tunnels and to develop software, according to the BBC.

The project was already running well ahead of cost estimates, and in its 2018 annual report the Infrastructure Projects Authority warned of cost overrun if “significant issues” were not addressed.

Part of the delay resulted from an explosion at a substation during electrical testing in November 2017 and reported in January. An investigation pushed the timeline back for three months as officials found high-voltage power was incorrectly designed. Workers successfully powered up the substation in February. 

There were other issues, as well. A Crossrail executive blamed a decision to delay purchase of trains in 2013 as part of the reason for the stall. Slow progress on testing a signaling system also contributed to delays, while current Chief Executive Mark Wild said tunneling delays were to blame. There was no shortage of finger-pointing while anger festered, particularly within the business community along the line. 

The biggest challenge, however, had yet to emerge. That occurred in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Transport for London to suspend construction work. In August, Crossrail Limited said the central section between Paddington and Abbey Wood would not be ready until the first half of 2022. “Delivery of Elizabeth Line is now in its complex final stages and is being completed at a time of great uncertainty due to the risk and potential impacts of further COVID outbreaks,” Crossrail Limited said.

The delays also contributed to cost overruns. A report in August 2020 said the project could be more than €1.1 billion more than the agreed financing package, and €450 more than the estimates given in November 2019. It is expected to be more than €4 billion over its original budget.

Safety Measures

Worker safety has been one of the top priorities all along in the project. Martin Brown, Health and Safety Director of Crossrail, led the development of initiatives to help keep workers safe. There was a worker death about midway through the construction process. In 2019, five workers died in their sleep during a six-month span that might be related to dust and oxygen levels. While there have some concerns, officials have strived to maintain a safe working environment. 

“We wanted to understand why – particularly on large projects – there seems to be more of an accident problem at the start, which then falls and rises near the end of the project,” Brown said in Global Railway Review. “We discovered the importance of establishing the right safety culture early on and maintaining it through the later stages when the smaller trades come on board.”

Project planners installed an assortment of safety measures to help protect train crew members. One of the most widely used are LadderUp® Safety Posts from BILCO. 

Workers installed 350 of the BILCO posts to provide easier, safer access to maintenance walkways. They were specified by Crossrail’s systemwide contractor, Alstom TSO Costain Joint Venture (ATC Systemwide). The specification process, managed by Construction & Rail Contractors McNealy Brown, focused on the requirement for durable yet functional access solutions that would consistently provide a safe and direct step-through on to the walkway, without impacting surrounding electrical services. 

“When we first began researching potential access solutions for the Crossrail project’s central section, it became clear quite quickly that the BILCO LadderUp® Safety Post was the only product available on the UK market that would fulfill our extensive list of requirements,” said Clive Burfoot, Contract Manager at McNealy Brown. 

The safety posts are frequently used in commercial projects throughout the United States. The posts provide safer ladder access through roof hatches, floor access doors and manholes. A release lever allows the LadderUP® safety post to be lowered to its retracted position, and is available in four levels of corrosion resistance to provide years of dependable service.

Transforming Travel

There are a multitude of other ways to travel within London. Buses are popular, as are cars. More than 1.3 vehicle trips are made into the city each day. Bicycles are also widely used, and more than 24 million walking trips are made each day.

Those options, however, are not particularly fast – or safe. A report in The Guardian said automobile speeds have declined across Britain in the past decade, particularly in urban areas. The same report said the average speed on some roads is 8 mph, and Transport for London reports the average bus speeds have been in consistent decline. The average speed of London buses is 9.27 mph. 

Safety is another issue. There were 125 people killed on London’s roads in 2019, a 12 percent increase from 2018. There are also issues with walking safety. An analysis reported that for every billion walking trips that occur in London, an average of 600 people are killed or injured. 

The congestion, danger, and pollution of the vehicles illustrate the importance of getting Crossrail fully functional as rapidly as possible. The city, and the nation, are anxiously awaiting the end of the construction and full deployment of the new rail line.

The project is now in a trial run, and the number of test trains in the new tunnels has increased from four to eight. Officials are testing scenarios as close to operational conditions as possible. More testing will occur throughout the year.

“This is an incredibly important milestone for Crossrail to reach and puts us firmly on the journey to unlocking Trial Running in 2021,” Wild said. “We are doing everything possible to deliver the Elizabeth Line as safely and as quickly as we can, and we know that Londoners are relying on the capacity and connectivity the Elizabeth Line will bring.”


Crossrail Project Facts & Figures

The project: A new 73-mile rail line in London that is expected to carry 200 million passengers per year.

Time and cost: Construction began in 2009 with a targeted opening date of 2017. It is now expected to be fully operational in 2002 at a projected cost of €18.7 billion, nearly €4 billion more than initial estimates. That is about $22.7 billion in the United States.

Congestion relief: The new line will serve 41 stations, including 10 new ones, and will add 10 percent to London’s rail capacity. The rail line should help alleviate London’s traffic congestion, which is ranked as the worst in Europe. More than a million car trips are made into the city each day. 

Safety plan: The project includes 350 LadderUP® safety posts manufactured by BILCO. 

Did you know? Boris Johnson was the Mayor of London when  the project started in 2009. He is now the nation’s Prime Minister. 


Thomas Renner writes on building, construction, and other trade industry topics for publications throughout the United States.

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