The Crossrail project is pushing hard to open the new Elizabeth line by the end of March, although there is a warning that this could delay some of the later phases of completing the line.
There have been suggestions that the project team is now confident that the latest tests and the works over Christmas to update ventilation and train software systems could see the line open potentially as soon as Sunday 6th March.
That would be right in the middle of the predicted opening window of “as soon as possible in the first half of 2022”.
The opening of the core tunnels through central London is however not the final stage — as it’s technically Stage 3 of a staged opening. We’re currently in Stage 2, which covers the running of TfL Rail branded services on the east and west of London.
Stage 3 — the opening of the core tunnels and stations — will see the Elizabeth line add a line between Paddington and Abbey Wood through central London. The existing surface lines to/from Paddington and Reading and to/from Liverpool Steet and Shenfield will remain as they are.
The risk, highlighted by the independent Project Representative, Jacobs, is that the future joining up of these three separate services could be pushed back by a rush to open the core tunnels in March.
The main risk raised by the P-Rep report is that with the Stage 3 opening now forecast for March 2022 there may be “insufficient time to gather reliability evidence from operational service, and 24 TPH service trials, to support the Stage 5C timetable bidding process”
At the moment, the plans are for the core tunnels to open with a 12 trains per hour service between Paddington to Abbey Wood, and then when the other two branches are joined up later this year, that will see core tunnel services rise to 24 trains per hour.
A final stage (5c) due in 2023 will complete the project.
During the line testing that’s been carried out, they’ve mainly run with 12 trains per hour, but have carried out 24 trains per hour timetable tests to ensure that when the line opens, it’s ready for the more intense service later in 2022.
Pushing the opening date further down the calendar from March to May would give the Crossrail team more time to run trials of the service with 24 trains per hour to prove reliability. This is the issue being flagged by the P-Rep report, because once the Stage 3 service is live with passengers, it will be much harder to run tests in the tunnels.
Crossrail’s response was that it will have six months of live passenger services under its belt by the time of the autumn upgrade, which it feels is sufficient.
The report also raised concerns about delays to some of the Trial Operations exercises that could not be carried out before Christmas, although in response, Crossrail said that although the testing timetable was tight, the splitting of the Trial Operations exercises into two stages and delaying some of the bigger trials offered some benefits as they are also able to include the delayed Bond Street station in the trials.
Both Crossrail’s CEO, Mark Wild and TfL’s Commissioner Andy Byford have regularly said in the past that reliability of the line is the primary determinant of when the line opens — they don’t want a Heathrow Terminal 5 problem — where the system broke down on its opening day.
Although everyone wants the line to open as soon as possible, having a reliable line also means not having to make an announcement later this year that the autumn 2022 upgrade won’t be possible until 2023.
This is more significant than it looks other than a bad dose of publicity, as the final two stages are where the Elizabeth line is expected to start generating ” meaningful revenue benefits” for TfL.
From a revenue perspective, a delay of a few weeks in opening the core tunnels is much better than a delay to the later autumn upgrade to the service.
So while everyone wants the core tunnels to open as soon as possible, a short delay may be the better option for a cash-strapped TfL.
And it might give the delayed Bond Street station a few more weeks of catch up time to open on the same day as the core tunnels — which is important for that big-impact effect of opening the Elizabeth line as a lot of people heading to Canary Wharf on the Jubilee line will swap services, so that Jubilee line trains have more space when they arrive at Waterloo and London Bridge stations — two stations where people often have to wait for a couple of trains to go through before they can get on.
And your correspondent is looking forward to it opening, he lives next to an Elizabeth line station.