The final testing stage before the Elizabeth line opens to the public is due to start within the next few days, Crossrail’s CEO, Mark Wild has confirmed.
The Crossrail project has been in a phase known as Trial Running since April, which tests the railway with a timetabled service similar to the one the line will have when it opens to the public, and was used to shake out the final bugs in the complicated software needed to run the line and build up the reliability of the service.
The train and signalling software was upgraded to the ELR100 release a few weeks ago and is now at revenue service quality, although there will be a few more tweaks over the Christmas period, such as to the signalling and the train doors.
Mark Wild confirmed this morning at a London Assembly committee meeting that trial running has achieved its objectives and was completed in the expected seven months that was scheduled, and is coming to completion later this week.
One of the biggest gaps inherited when Mark Wild took over in November 2018 was the lack of plans for testing the railway integration, all the systems working together. That’s something that can only be done though when the line is fully built, and he was able to confirm that they completed the routeway integration tests last week. That’s a critical stage to getting the safety assurance sign-off to open the line to the public.
Earlier this year, there were thousands of small things to fix, and now they’re down to the final 620 items to fix to open the line.
The railway is now ready for the final stage before it opens to the public, the trial operations where hundreds of TfL staff will carry out passenger drills and safety evacuations to prove that the line is perfectly safe to open to the public.
At this late stage, they don’t expect to suddenly discover that the emergency staircases are in the wrong place or anything like that, but just like fire drills in offices, these are safety procedures that need to be tested. Not just before the line opens to prove it’s safe, but periodically throughout its operational life.
Getting to that point has meant some 250,000 safety documents in Crossrail had to be signed off individually, and they are down to the last dependencies before Trial Operations can start.
Mark Wild couldn’t say what date the Trial Operations would start as he noted they don’t “hassle or trouble out safety assurance people” to speed things up, but did note that it would start within days – likely by the end of the week, as that’s the 20th November target date previously announced.
Trial Operations will involve 150 drills and practices to test what the railway will face in real life, ranging from fire alerts to escalator failures and full train evacuations with casualties.
Trial Operations had been expected to be a single 3-4 month block, but they are delaying six of the tests to deal with evacuating packed trains. The delay is because there needs to be a final tweak to the ventilation systems before those can be carried out, so they will take place in the New Year. The ventilation tweaks are to do with some very rare but important situations in the tunnels that need to be supported, but until they are supported, it’s not possible to authorise evacuation trials in the tunnels.
Trial Operations will take 3-4 months, depending on the reliability growth of the systems. That means that at the moment, they are aiming to open the line as soon as possible between Feb and June 2022, but it’s down to those final tests and the “tuning up” of the systems.
The wide range for the opening date is also expected to narrow in the New Year, mainly once the final updates are made to the ventilation and trail control systems are completed over the Christmas period.
Out of the two stations left to hand over to TfL, Canary Wharf station is expected to be handed over by Christmas.
Two years ago, Bond Street was running 18 months behind the rest of the line, but over the past two years, they’ve almost caught up with the rest of the project, and the station is now, if not totally finished, it is revenue ready. All of the physical installation work will be completed by February 2022, and then there’s the document assurance process to confirm what’s built matches what was ordered.
If they can’t open the station fully, they may be in a situation where they partially open Bond Street station with the rest of the line, with just one of the two ticket halls open. That isn’t necessarily a simple decision, as most of the systems, such as fire safety are station-wide, and focusing work on one ticket hall might not save a lot of time.
If Bond Street station doesn’t open with the railway though, it’ll be barely a few weeks later.
Ultimately, a decision has been taken that if they can open the Elizabeth line early in the opening window next year, they will do so without Bond Street station, and add it in later.
The project is working to keep close to the £825 million funding deal, but at the time they were asking for £1.1 billion, and at the moment it still seems likely that something will be needed between the two.
To help reduce costs, they’ve been demobilising the high-cost Tier 1 contractor as soon as possible, almost all will be gone by the end of this year. They’re also starting to shut down the Crossrail project team, with staff transitioning to TfL or moving to other projects outside TfL.
The Elizabeth line was expected to contribute £500 million a year to TfL, but is now being reviewed in light of the post-pandemic passenger numbers on public transport.
TfL’s current financing deal expires on 11th December 2021, and discussions are still ongoing with the government about a long-term funding agreement.
Opening the Elizabeth line
In the meeting, TfL’s Commissioner, Andy Byford emphasised that it’s important not to open the line before it’s totally reliable, and he would rather wait a bit longer to ensure the reliability of the line is where it should be than open a potentially unreliable line.
The headlines if the Elizabeth line were to open and then keep breaking down in the rush hour don’t bear thinking about.
After the Christmas works, the opening window of Feb-June 2022 will shrink and we will start to get much closer to an exact opening date of the core tunnel network.