What impact will the [proposed 2022] opening of Crossrail have upon the UK rail industry?

The opening of the long-anticipated Crossrail project, responsible for delivering the Elizabeth line, looks set to finally come to fruition in the first half of 2022. Originally set to open back in December 2018, it has seen several setbacks and subsequent delays. The opening is one that is highly anticipated, particularly for those in London, but what impact will it have on the UK rail industry?

What is the Crossrail project and why has it been delayed?

Crossrail is the name of the company that has been put in charge of building the central London-based Elizabeth line. It is a subsidiary of Transport for London (TfL), who will run the new railway upon its completion. The line will spread across more than 60 miles from Reading and Heathrow in the west through to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. There have been a number of new stations created and many more that have been upgraded. In addition, there have been a host of new ‘high-capacity’ trains built specifically for routes that are set to serve the Elizabeth line upon its launch.

However, it has not been plain sailing to get to the point where the opening is a matter of months away. As previously mentioned, the line was due to be fully open over three years ago. Queen Elizabeth was all set to officially open the line named in her honour in late 2018. It was later revealed that plans had been skewed to the point where any ribbon cutting was put firmly on hold.

Details released regarding the professionalism of the taskforce set up to complete the project saw many questions raised. Below-par management, failed planning and the resulting chaos throughout the sites were some of the factors brought to light. Fortunately, a change in management has seen the project gradually get back on track.

The ever-increasing outlay of the Crossrail project and its potential impact

As one of the bigger undertakings in UK travel history, like the HS2 line, the Crossrail project was always likely to command a substantial amount of funding and financial support. The initial spending prediction was just under £15 billion, but that has now soared to almost £19 billion, along with the delays.

In terms of the workforce, the total wage bill has almost halved, chiefly due to the employee count simultaneously dwindling. The project’s wage bill was as high as £53.1 million in 2016/17, but the most recent financial year saw it almost halved down to £28.6 million. Those numbers corresponded with the number of workers hired by Crossrail, with the 316 employed being almost half the amount from five years previous.

The seemingly ever-increasing budget has caused issues throughout the process, evidenced by the aforementioned 25% rise in budget. The government provided an additional £825 million in 2020, though reports from last October state that an extra £151 million is likely to be required in order to complete the work. Additionally, the cost of shutting down sites during the first national lockdown in 2020 is said to have cost £13 million.

The opening of the Elizabeth line will see a 10% increase in passenger capacity with regards to the rail network in central London. It is predicted that that will, in turn, bring a further 1.5 million potential commuters to within just 45 minutes of central London. The Crossrail programme is primarily centred around improving the transport links throughout London. Not only that, but it is estimated that the project could bring in as much as £42 billion to the UK’s economy.

The proposed final stages of the operation before the 2022 opening

Currently, the Crossrail project is at the trial operations stage. More than 150 exercises have been carried out over the course of three to six months to ensure that everything is ready for a full passenger service.

Thousands of volunteer passengers have been selected to help carry out the testing. During this time, the proposed running of 12 trains per hour have been tested. Though there is hope that the line will be ready to open as early as March, it has been suggested that pushing the timescale back to May or June will allow smoother testing. This is particularly prevalent to roll out the plan to run 24 trains per hour. The reliability of such an output is at the forefront of the minds involved with the Crossrail project, given the fact that pressing forward with the running of the line will make it more difficult to carry out testing.

The Mayor of London and chairman of TfL, Sadiq Khan, is confident that the Elizabeth line will be underway by the end of June this year. TfL have seen issues arise during the Covid-19 pandemic, with fare revenues dropping dramatically in the past two years. The demand for funding from the government is likely to continue, with predicted losses for TfL set to be up to £2.6 billion per year over the course of this decade.

In order to run their services, TfL has suggested that it will require a further £1.7 billion through until the end of the first quarter of 2023, largely due to the lower number of passengers. The opening of the line is critical for TfL to remain on budget.

Therefore, given the TfL’s recent financial predicaments, delaying a few months to ensure the initial Crossrail opening runs smoothly is likely to be a good idea. That is because there is due to be an autumn upgrade to the line. Any early issues could be significantly problematic when autumn rolls around, something that a slight delay courtesy of some fine-tuning could help to prevent. The final stages of the project being finalised will see the generation of ‘meaningful revenue benefits’ for TfL.

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