10 June 2010

Crossrail - where is it going?

The Crossrail project to connect the west London area lines(into Paddington)to the east London area ones (out of Liverpool Street) has run into some heavy criticism in the run up to the election. It has also been questioned strongly about its viability while the new government has been looking at the possibility of cancelling it since their need to make drastic cuts in all projects in order to reduce the public deficit.

The project has been saved for several reasons, not least the fact that cancelling it would probably has been more costly than continuing with it due to the partnerships involved. The UK government pays only part of the project (directly) while local authorities and businesses pay the major part
together with Transport for London, Network Rail among others. Without doubt there are built in penalties for one party not fulfilling its part. Therefore, if the government pulled out the businesses which have been taxed to pay for it and the local authorities (both within and without the Greater London area) who have been badgered to fork out for it would be, to say the least, rather peeved. It is reported that the government has already spent GBP1000M with its remaining GBP4000M to be paid over the next 7 years - hardly figures which will break the bank while the figures to be paid by the other groupings would come to close on GBP10900M (within budget).

Since the government cannot cancel the project it does not mean
the project is above criticism despite the claim that it will transport 200 million persons per year.
This map of the Crossrail project and the other variants are to be found at

Since this project is more than likely to go ahead we have to look at it to see that it is well thought out or not. Let us firstly look at why it is being built.

The Great Eastern services into Liverpool Street are dominated by a large number of commuter services from the inner M25 area. These provide services to areas of Greater London which are not so well served by Tube lines which, anyway become heavily crowded. With a tunnel through Central London many of the commuters would be able to disembark nearer to their places of work thus taking pressure off stations, like Liverpool Street, and the connecting Tube lines which become heavily overcrowded such as the Central Line. According to Crossrail´s own estimates 10 of the 16 trains per hour(tph) which run from Shenfield into Liverpool Street would be directed on to Crossrail. This would alleviate capacity restraints at Liverpool Street and free up platform capacity for more longer distance commuter and inter-city services. An additional 2 tph. would run on to Crossrail from Shenfield making a total of 12 tph from that destination.

Secondly, 12 tph are destined to run from Abbey Wood (in North Kent) through Crossrail. These would double the frequency of the services through Central London making a total of up to 24 tph in the central section from Whitechapel to Paddington. These services would provide an easy access service to Docklands and on to the City and Central London avoiding overloading the connections for Kent commuters at Woolwich Arsenal, Greenwich and Lewisham, as well as the termini at London Bridge, Cannon Street and Charing Cross.

So far so good, but what about the western end? This is where questions must be asked whether the project has been well thought out or not. According to Crossrail itself 14 of the 24  tph will start/end at Paddington. While Crossrail does not claim to be something it is not, the area west of Paddington does not seem to be well served in comparison with Essex.

The proposed timetable for the Great Western Corridor consists of 4 tph to/from Maidenhead with an extra 2 tph to/from West Drayton. In addition 4 tph will run to/from Heathrow airport - these would be double the frequency of the present Heathrow Connect stopping services to/from T4. This way we reach the 10 tph which are predicted for the western section of the line.

However, in our view the investment involved to construct a heavy rail tunnel under Central London with  six major station construction projects for(at least) 12 coach trains seems to be excessive if and when it is only going to be used at a fraction of its potential. The net benefit claims to be a 10% capacity increase which also seems to be unspectacular. Well let us look at this in detail.

This is the First Great Western system map showing the service pattern from Paddington to Reading including Heathrow airport.

In fact the National Rail maps (London Connections and London and the South East) are more accurate. They show the Greenford branch joining the main line (as this does) but the branches Slough-Windsor, Maidenhead-Marlow, and Twyford- Henley-on-Thames are feeder services to the main line with no direct services further.
The point of this is that the proposed 4 tph from Paddington to Maidenhead can probably absorb the present and envisaged passenger demand. This is without doubt so when First Great Western at present programmes 4 tph (both stopping and semi-fast) from Paddington to Reading. The traffic pattern from Paddington to Greenford is 2 tph which will be easily absorbed by the 2 tph from Paddington to West Drayton and the 2 tph extra services from Paddington to Heathrow (to add to the present 2 tph Heathrow Connect services). The 2 tph service to/from Greenford will not run into/from Paddington but to West Ealing. The logical solution is to run the services into/from Ealing Broadway(to connect to the tube services which terminate there) but there exist problems concerning platform space and turnback facilities which make this option impossible at the moment without large investment (though probably worthwhile).

Thus we arrive at 10 tph to connect to Crossrail and run through Central London out to the east. The net effect of this will be to free up platforms at Paddington for other longer distance services.
There has been a suggestion of extending Crossrail services to Reading. This is quite logical and very possible (a) if the electrification of the GWML  to the West and South Wales goes ahead and (b) the planned remodelling and renovation of Reading station goes ahead. It should be said that they are not certainties as yet because of the government´s plans for reductions in spending. However, let us hope that the worst case scenario is a postponement of plans not their cancellation.

Such a Crossrail service extended from Maidenhead to Reading would absorb the stopping and semi-fast services to/from Reading to/from Paddington. The planned capacity to Maidenhead might be sufficient to cover the demand along the line but there is plenty of spare capacity at Paddington with the 14 tph planned to terminate there from the east. There should be no track capacity problems along this route, at least for the next ten years(as envisaged in the GWML Route Utilisation Strategy(RUS) as published by Network Rail on 19th April 2010).

There also exists the possibility of extending Crossrail services past Reading to (a)Basingstoke and (b) Oxford and Banbury. The problem is that while it is possible for Crossrail to operate along the core GWML as far as Maidenhead, and very probably as far as Reading, past Reading the services are not surburban and encroach on the long distance services (and subsequently the franchise) of the Train Operating Company (TOC)First Great Western to which it would undoubtedly object strongly. After all Crossrail itself is also a TOC and, therefore, competition for FGW. 

One solution does exist, however, and that is using the Heathrow Express(HE) services that run non-stop to Paddington. These could run through Central London and even run up to Stansted airport combining with or substituting the Stansted Express (SE) services from Liverpool Street. Both have a traffic frequency of 4 tph which make them compatible. Their running through Central London would alleviate some demand on LUL tube lines while facilitating connectivity between the airports. This is important when there is a lack of runways at one and/or the other airport after having their proposals for extra runways withdrawn. Could not the Heathrow Connect services run to Abbey Wood (thus serving London City Airport) while the HE and SE services connect both airports? Connectivity is the key.

The problem with this solution is that we are then talking about 3 different TOCs with all the differing interests involved. Crossrail will run all the services through Central London and FGW´s surburban services will be transferred to it. HE is owned and operated by BAA. SE is part of National Express East Anglia out of Liverpool Street. Critics of this solution say that any delay on such a long distance service between Heathrow and Stansted airports would have a knock-on effect to other Crossrail services. We cannot see the basis for such an opinion since the same argument applies to the long distance services to/from Shenfield to/from Maidenhead (and even Reading). Obviously a joint service would have to be set up but maybe BAA is against this. It should also be mentioned that with its Airtrack services BAA is planning to run the HE trains out to Staines from T5. BAA is obviously thinking of the perennial goose and golden egg which it does not want to share with anybody. 

We will look at Airtrack in a subsequent blog. 

What have also been mentioned are the possibility of running some London Midland services from Northampton through Paddington and the London Overground service from Watford to Euston through Paddington and Central London. This latter proposal is not really acceptable as it runs over the same tracks as the Bakerloo LU line and would involve running dual sets (trains that run on the third DC rail and overhead AC gantries). The London Midland services are compatible so could be run on the Crossrail line having the connexion somewhere in the Willesden Junction area. However, nothing more of this proposal has been heard.

One additional option is open but we do not know if this coalition government would even consider it. The new HSR2 has been proposed to run from Old Oak Common(near Willesden Junction) to South Ruislip and on to Birmingham. This means that if this goes ahead at least part of the corridor to Bicester will be electrified. This would also beg the question whether the new Chiltern Railways´service from Marylebone to Bicester and onwards to Oxford (after 2013) will be electrified. With 5 tph to High Wycombe and 3tph of those to Princes Risborough(for stops to Aylesbury) these Chiltern Railways services are certainly candidates to connect to Crossrail.

Something must be done to better the options on Crossrail. At the moment it seems like a badly thought out "white elephant". 

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