Crossrail: Time to think about the train service

Crossrail switches to railway mode this spring when tunnelling work completes. As the tracks go down operations director Howard Smith says that planning for full scale train services is well underway.

Howard Smith, Crossrail operations director

In just over four months time at the end of May Crossrail starts its first train service. It won’t be called Crossrail and there won’t be any of the 65 new Bombardier Class 345 trains running on the tracks. But Transport for London and Crossrail operator MTR will be taking over the eastern part of the Crossrail route and operating services from Shenfield to Liverpool Street.

And that section will be the first to appear on the London Tube map – a major milestone in the story of the project. It is the first stage of a phased opening of London’s revolutionary new railway from Reading in the west to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east right through the heart of the capital.

Crossrail operations director Howard Smith has the job of managing the transition from Crossrail the project to Crossrail the operating railway. He explains what is happening and why.

Interview by Jackie Whitelaw

What is the plan for opening Crossrail?

There are six stages to watch out for.

May 2015 – Transport for London and Crossrail’s operating concession MTR take on the line between Shenfield and Liverpool St from Abellio Greater Anglia. We’ll be running 30 year old trains from existing stations so it won’t be called Crossrail but TfL Rail as we don’t want people to misunderstand the Crossrail brand. But from day one, as we did on Overground (Which TfL took over and expanded between 2007-12) we will be staffing stations all hours that trains run and cleaning and refurbishing the trains and the stations. There will be a big focus on reliability and new TfL ticket machines. And obviously the line goes on the Tube map.

May 2017 – we introduce the first of the new trains between Shenfield and Liverpool St and that will be more high profile and will begin to demonstrate what’s coming with Crossrail. That’s when people will start to understand how different Crossrail is – these trains are 200m long, walk through with air conditioning and up to the minute passenger information systems. And they can take 1500 people with nearly 500 seats. It’s going to dramatic.&

May 2018 – TfL and MTR take over the Heathrow Connect services that run into Paddington. The first appearance of the new Crossrail trains west of London.

December 2018 - the tunnel section opens and we start operating trains from Abbey Wood in the east to Paddington in the west. This will in many ways be the start of Crossrail proper as the huge new central tunnels and stations first come into public use.

May 2019 – we feed the trains from Shenfield into the tunnels.

December 2019 – we’ll be operating all the way to Reading and feeding trains from there though the tunnels, the end state of Crossrail as currently planned.

What is the thinking behind the phased opening?

There’s a lot of railway to open all at once. There is great merit in having a progressive programme of bringing the elements into service. It’s common sense but sometimes there is pressure to have big iconic day. With Shenfield to Liverpool St for instance we’ll have hundreds of thousands of in service miles with the new stock to learn from before we ramp up for the full tunnel service. And it gives MTR a more progressive timescale to hire and train new personnel and give them experience – it needs 850 new staff including over 400 drivers, which is a big task. At every step in the phased opening we’ll be taking over the stations, then introduce the trains, run the trains in service as live tests, then bring them through the tunnels. It’s the same philoshphy as we did on Overground (where Smith oversaw as TfL chief operating officer for rail) and other projects.

What is the most important target for Crossrail and its operator MTR when it opens?

The starting point has to be what do passengers want from Crossrail. Safety, obviously is the number one thing they expect. Beyond that, I always say two thirds of the customer satisfaction marks are on reliability. And expectations are demonstrably rising. What was acceptable five years ago is unacceptable now, and what people demand now would have been superlative 10 years ago. So the headline target is 95% reliability in terms of the national performance measure.

For Crossrail is reliability a measure of running on time, or meeting headway targets?

Both, that’s the big challenge. We need to measure performance against a timetable when we run on Network Rail lines and on headways when we are underground and are effectively a Tube. In the Tube section the trains could all be 10 minutes late but as long as the headways are maintained people would be happy. But we have to operate on a timetable for Network Rail who have given us train paths and we have to stick to those. Crossrail needs to meet all those expectations.

Has anyone else pulled this off?

Crossrail’s nearest cousins are the RER, particularly, Line A in Paris and the S Bahns in places like Munich but there are lessons to learn and differences in operation. RER shows its vital to maintain station dwell times or you have to cut back on frequency to maintain headways. The S Bahn in Munich has holding platforms before the tunnelled section where trains wait before they go into the central tunnel. We are using a Siemens communications based train control signalling system which will be capable of delivering what Crossrail needs – which is 24 trains an hour through the centre. Technically the system should be able to do 30.

So is the timetable already set?

There is already a huge effort gone into planning the timetable – experience shows that if you get it right and you can improve on time running by 2-3%. The final minute by minute timetable will be finalised come a couple of years before opening but in terms of frequency and timeings we have that agreed with Network Rail under the Track Access Option put in place when TfL and Gevernment committed to the project.

What impact will Crossrail have on London and its transport operation?

It creates a 10% increase in capacity, though that’s likely to fill up pretty quickly. It will provide faster journeys and one-seat options removing the neeed to change trains. For passengers, apart from the big trains and the big stations – many with two very separate entrances - that we’ve never really had in London before there will be a whole change in the spatial awareness of London. People’s personal geography is based on how long it takes to get somewhere, now how far is it. Crossrail will change the map of London.

HS2 is about to start procurement. What are the key lessons for them from Crossrail in terms of the link between construction and operations?

HS2 have links with Crossrail and it’s self evident really. The earlier you think about operations the better and Crossrail has had a big input from the operations team as its developed. Progressive opening makes sense. And whilst technology is moving a such a speed you need to be clear and consistant in how often you want trains them to run and how many people you want them to carry. We should remember its not just HS2 the same stuff that are going to take forward to Crossrail 2.

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