Crossrail’s Trial Operations conundrum…

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When it was indicated that Crossrail had said their Trial Operations stage (SC2) depended on Bond Street being ready, I wondered what the full actuality of this meant (this being a brief discussion between me and another on social media.) I assumed this meant trains might pass through the yet-to-be-ready station, then it later dawned what the problem might be. It seems a 2009 design change could be a reason why Bond Street station happens to be such a problem – and the longer this station is delayed, the longer the Elizabeth Line’s opening gets delayed too! Clearly when these changes had been made no-one had envisaged of a delay that would be so vast it would severely affect the opening of Crossrail (the Elizabeth line) itself. It would also explain why that important stage in the line’s development seems so difficult to attain.

Like me I’m sure others too would have have understood it like this – had Bond Street not been ready, well the whole line could practically operate without it. That is trains passing through the station non-stop. That is true to some extent, but then that depends on just how ready Bond Street is especially when it comes to Trial Operations. The issue is Bond Street needs to perform fully as an emergency evacuation facility when it comes to that crucial stage. TfL are going to have to undertake a huge series of scenarios with real volunteers enacting various matters such as fires, electrical shorts, people on the track, or some other perhaps unmentionable matter, as well as the more basic things like trains breaking down or getting immobilized for some other reason like a failure in the signal control system or a power loss.

These final stages before the railway becomes operational are evidently very important as Crossrail highlighted in its recent You Tube video entitled The Next Important Milestone. The following picture and transcript is from that video:

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Crossrail will soon enter the Trial Running stage which is an important milestone moving from a construction to an operational railway overseen by TfL. We will be running more trains than ever before in the new tunnels beneath London we will check the railway is safe and that the software signaling and equipment all work perfectly. We will run tests to check the Elizabeth Line can withstand every challenge we throw at it. Once we are confident everything is ready we will launch into the final stage of the programme, Trial Operations using volunteers to simulate a passenger service. There is important work to be done but we won’t rush it. Our top priority is a safe railway which Londoners can rely on. The Elizabeth Line is coming soon and we can’t wait to share it with you!

The nature of the problem in terms of Trial Operations is clearly set out here, this being that ‘the Elizabeth line can withstand every challenge‘ that is thrown at it. Volunteers will need to be used to simulate what is essentially a full railway service with various scenarios to be thrown at it, such as emergencies, accidents, and the rest of it. That’s around 150 different scenarios in all that will be undertaken to ensure the Elizabeth Line is up to the standards that will be expected from it. The problem with involving volunteers and undertaking matters such as staging evacuations within the running tunnels for example is this cannot be done if Bond Street isn’t ready. Its been acknowledged by Crossrail that Bond Street will almost certainly be the very last of the line’s central core stations to be handed over to TfL for this crucial stage.

As I indicated earlier, I had thought an incomplete Bond Street station wouldn’t impact on the Elizabeth Line’s final stages towards an operational railway. Yes trains might be able to pass through it in terms of Trial Running, but in order to get to the Trial Operations stage, Bond Street Crossrail station must be even more complete than ever before! Part of that issue in terms of Trial Operations, namely involving mock emergencies and evacuations, is quite dependent on Bond Street being able to perform these roles. Its all the more important because very early on in the Crossrail programme a major design change was implemented, which had a bearing on the line’s ability to deal with emergencies. This was a means of mitigating some of the costs of building the line as well as reducing the number of construction sites needed, but that of course was because it was thought the railway would able to follow through the different stages of construction and testing – as had been expected prior to 2018.

So why is it that Bond Street is such a crucial element in the process? As the following passage from International Railway Journal’s recent report clearly shows, the need to evacuate passengers (even as part of Trial Operations) is a sticking point because if Bond Street isn’t ready, Trial Operations cannot be undertaken – and neither can the railway be passed for public service.

One question that remains is the status of Bond Street station. So far five of the new stations have been handed over to TfL, but construction of Bond Street started 18 months later and so has always been running behind. “We want to get to something called SC2 stage completion, which is the ability to evacuate passengers,” Wild says. “They [contractors] have to get there by August/September – they are on track for that. Again, we’ve decoupled it from the whole programme for the team and they have given it a good go, I mean, it won’t be much later than the first quarter of next year. If we open at the back end of our opening window which is the first half of next year, then Bond Street is going to be in it. If we get really on the front edge then it’s likely Bond Street won’t be, but it’ll only be a month or two after.” (Source: International Railway Journal 5 August 2021.)

Why is the ability to evacuate passengers so important at Bond Street? Well its what I alluded to earlier and this is the number of the line’s ventilation shafts/emergency exits that were finally built. The central core section as originally planned had more of these shafts. The idea of having numerous shafts was they also doubled as emergency evacuation points too (excepting Fisher Street.) This being there should be a form of ventilation (or emergency access) at least every 1km along the line’s route. That was however quite costly in terms of land purchase costs and also entailed the demolition of numerous buildings. In the scheme of things it was decided the line’s stations own ventilation and emergency shafts would, with some enhancements, require rather fewer mid tunnel point ventilation shafts. To achieve this agreement first had to be made with the emergency authorities such as the London Fire Brigade upon an agreed and revised set of emergency procedures for the tunnel sections.

The original reasoning for this new set of procedures was based upon the experience of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (HS1) which too thought a number of ventilation shafts along its route could be dispensed with. However there’s a difference between an occasional rail service through a much larger sized tunnel (with fewer passengers in transit) against an intensive metro service through a much smaller sized tunnel, especially when one considers the latter will have trains that are at time considerably packed. Its not to say the Crossrail tunnels are small, they aren’t. They just not as big as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link’s, yet have a far more frequent service – and its something Crossrail itself acknowledged:

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Reference to the fact both CTRL and CRL are different entities in terms of ventilation/emergency shaft provision. Those on Crossrail ideally should be no more than 1km apart. Source: Crossrail

Those emergency procedures were revised and updated and those additional ventilation shafts and emergency access points were deemed no longer necessary. Eight of these proposed ventilation/emergency shafts were deemed as not needed. The decision to remove these shafts was made back in 2009 and that decision can be seen on Crossrail’s website. The section from Bond Street to Paddington was intended to have two shafts because of the considerable distance between the two points. Both these shafts, one in Park Lane and the other in Hyde Park split this lengthy two kilometre plus long portion into three route sections, each section having an emergency access shaft at either end. With the removal of these the section between Bond Street and Paddington was now 2.2 kilometres long, considerably more than the usual accepted maximum without shafts. Thus it meant both Bond Street and Paddington were now the evacuation points on this 2.2km section.

The following passage shows how the original thinking around these shafts in the Bond Street to Paddington section had developed, namely that the section was too long to be without shafts. Having a mid point shaft in Hyde Park itself was thought to be visually intrusive which is why two shafts were instead proposed – both in areas where the visual impact wouldn’t be quite so great:

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Reference to the need for shafts between Bond Street and Paddington stations. Source: Crossrail

Anyway, in lieu of what were to be an unbuilt pair of shafts within that lengthy 2.2km section shafts, both Bond Street and Paddington had some upgrades to make up for that shortfall. Both already had substantial ventilation structures (or Service Risers as some documents call these.) The Bond Street site however saw some other upgrades in terms of its ventilation shafts which was achieved by moving these to the location of the site’s Masterplan shaft. As things now stood, there were no other evacuation points, this being quite crucial as the 2.2km section was now the longest on the central part of Crossrail’s core section. There’s another lengthy section similar, this being Stepney Green to Canary Wharf (which again is 2.2km) and that was meant to have two shafts, one at Lowell Street and the other Hertsmere Road. The same revised emergency procedures were to be followed here too. The difference is there’s little concern that Stepney Green Cavern or Canary Wharf (even though that has given difficulties too) will cause any delay to SC2, thus both locations will be able to fulfill their proper purpose as emergency access points.

Clearly in the case of both Bond Street and Paddington stations they too have to be fully enabled. Paddington was handed over to TfL on Friday 6th August 2021 so that’s one end of this 2.2km tunnel section now fully enabled. As for the other end of this 2.2km secton at Bond Street being ready, well that’s pretty much anyone’s guess when that will be. Bond Street must be ready because in most of the possible scenarios (as would also be the case in reality) the first thing would be to try and get a train on the move to either of these stations. Failing that, passengers would have at least still be able to transit along the emergency walkways within the tunnels, even though there would be at the most a kilometre in either direction.

When its said that the number of shafts were reduced, it must also be pointed out additional cross passages between these two stations were constructed. These between Paddington and Bond Street are known as CP2, CP3 and CP4 and can be used to transfer passengers from one tunnel to the other, as well as being a means of evacuating passengers via a different train in the other tunnel. Regardless of that the walking distance to either Bond Street or Paddington is still quite lengthy, a kilometre at the most, and it would be a slow process if a packed train had to be evacuated.

As this quote from Building shows, Bond Street’s readiness for use as an emergency evacuation point is an absolute if trial operations is to go ahead and the magazine says. ‘The station must hit SC2, which means it can be used as an evacuation point, or it will delay the route. But Wild says it will not reach that stage until early autumn.’ So that’s part of the problem. Bond Street station must be at a stage where it can deal properly with emergencies and that’s because its the next evacuation point down from Paddington! If Bond Street station cannot perform that function, then clearly Trial Operations cannot be undertaken because the emergency evacuation points will then be extended from Paddington to Tottenham Court Road. That’s a distance of more than three kilometres and its a most uncomfortable length in terms of emergencies or evacuation on a busy metro system.

Its likely that had there been other evacuation shafts such as that in Park Lane, this matter of Bond Street not being fully complete would probably not have mattered so much, especially as there would be emergency exit points either side of it. But having made it the one single evacuation point between Paddington and Tottenham Court Road, well that changes things a lot. In my view its why Bond Street is so crucial. Its a necessary piece of the puzzle that must be practically fit into the whole scheme even though it may not be ready for passenger use. The other core stations will of course be ready for Trial Operations by the time that comes around but if Bond Street isn’t then that stage cannot be undertaken. A week’s delay might not be much but a month, well that could cause problems, and if more than a month, well the envisaged timeline will slip badly once again as it has for the past three years. Jacobs (the assessors appointed by TfL to monitor and evaluate the troubled line’s progress) are not very confident Crossrail can reach its Trial Operations stage at anytime soon:

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The prognosis from Jacobs is not good in terms of Crossrail achieving its Trial Operations stage. This paragraph is from their latest report.

When will Trial Operations begin? Well apparently Crossrail has a good idea but thats being kept a secret if the report from Jacobs is anything to go by. TfL itself indicates on page 7 of their Crossrail Central Operating Section Engineering Access Statement that passenger operations will begin in the first quarter of 2022 – and this subject to the successful conclusion of Trial Operations, but TfL doesn’t say when that conclusion would happen. The latest report from Jacobs for the 2022 financial year shows that TfL has indeed a given date but that’s redacted. What Jacobs does say however is the timetables TfL has given for Trial Operations are ‘unrealistic.’ Jacobs say ‘It is unlikely that the competing demands of train testing, reliability growth, operations and maintenance and the ramp-up to train running, will all be satisfied.’ If one reads the Jacobs report (‘Stage 3 Trial Running, Trial Operations and Passenger Service’ on page four onward,) there’s a lot of concern in terms of achieving Trial Operations. In Jacobs’ own words ‘the schedule up to Trial Operations is heavily congested and contains no float.’ That doesn’t look good.

If we go back two years and look at Jacobs’ first report for the 2019-2020 financial year, they summarize that ‘during Trial Running and following Stage 3 Opening, Bond Street will be used as an evacuation route only.’ Its interesting to see that the problem of Bond Street being able to perform as a proper emergency evacuation point with regards to SC2 was apparent two years ago, never mind now! Jacobs are adamant Bond Street must absolutely be able to fully perform the job expected of it at that stage in order to fully test the Crossrail core route through to Paddington. As Jacobs so clearly indicate, Bond Street can stay closed (even when the Elizabeth line is up and running) as long as the station’s worth in terms of those emergency evaluations has been proved. Its not a good sign when the opening of the Elizabeth line once again falls down to the problem of Bond Street station being anywhere near any sort of completed state.

TBH its another example of something that has been long evident in the Crossrail programme, and no doubt had it worked as it should have and progressed towards a full 2018 opening, these changes to the line’s emergency evacuation shafts wouldn’t have been a problem. But with the problems at Bond Street having been painfully evident for this last four or five years, the warnings should have been on the horizon quite early. In that case Bond Street station should have been in a better state of readiness in terms of its emergency facilities. Its only as we get closer and closer to any sort of possible Elizabeth Line opening that problems become even more apparent – and more critical too as Jacobs are indicating in their latest reports.

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