Rob Holden says earlier procurement of trains was essential to allow adequate integration with signalling



Crossrail’s opening has been pushed back until autumn next year

The first chief executive of Crossrail has blamed a decision to delay procurement of rolling stock for the failure of the £16bn rail route to hit its December 2018 opening date.

Crossrail’s current bosses last week blamed slow construction fit-out and an explosion last autumn at an electrical sub-station, compounded by slower than expected progress on testing the railway’s new signalling system, for pushing the opening back until autumn 2019.

But former boss Rob Holden told Building the political furore over the decision in summer 2013 to award German firm Siemens the £1.6bn contract to supply trains for the Thameslink line ahead of Derby-based Bombardier meant crucial delays occurred when the deal to hand out the £1bn Crossrail contract was made.

“The one overriding lesson from the Channel tunnel was to never bring in new trains and infrastructure at the same time”

Rob Holden

Bombardier was finally awarded the Crossrail deal in early 2014, safeguarding hundreds of jobs at the Derby site, but Holden said the rolling stock, which has to be totally integrated into the signalling system, should have been brought in earlier.

Holden, who was responsible for building the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, said: “The one overriding lesson from the problems with the Channel Tunnel was to never ever bring in new trains and infrastructure at the same time. The original plan [for Crossrail] was the trains would be brought in earlier and tested on GWR lines to iron out issues beforehand.”

He said Crossrail – now called the Elizabeth line and which last month announced its key central London route from Paddington to Abbey Wood would only open in autumn 2019 – was on the receiving end of bad publicity “when actually this vital decision was taken in another place. This would and should have been brought in on time and on budget.”

However, speaking to the London Assembly, Crossrail chair Sir Terry Morgan denied the earlier decision had caused the delay, saying Holden had “a short memory”, and adding that Transport for London (TfL)welcomed the procurement alteration when it happened.

A TfL spokesperson said: “The procurement of the trains has had no impact on the delayed opening of the central section. Informed by the lengthy delays to the train procurement for the Thameslink project, which was carried out through a PFI, a decision was taken by the DfT and TfL that TfL would procure the trains directly. The risk to train delivery under a PFI was much greater. The only change we made to the train procurement was done with the clear intent of de-risking the programme. The trains are now being delivered, and are already serving parts of the Elizabeth line route in the east and the west.”

Holden left his post in 2011, just two years after taking up the role at the newly created Crossrail Ltd, which was previously known as a Cross London Rail Links Ltd.

He added that more thought should have been given to the signalling systems for Crossrail, with the issue having dogged several high-profile schemes including the Jubilee Line extension (JLE) and the West Coast Route Modernisation.

But Holden questioned whether Crossrail bosses had understood this. “The signalling system has always been the issue on the top of the risk register for this project, particularly given its complexity. It clearly has not been given the attention it deserves,” he said.

The signalling software must link signalling on the new underground section with separate systems for the eastern and western overground sections.

Current Crossrail chief exec Simon Wright told the London Assembly last week that train testing had been delayed five months until February this year because of the explosion of a premanufactured electricity substation at Pudding Mill Lane in Stratford, east London.

“To bring the systems together has been harder than we hoped. We started testing later than we wanted, and those tests have not gone as well as we’d hoped,” he added.

Like the JLE, the scheme has been hit by M&E problems, with reports of work having to be ripped out and replaced because of incorrect or incomplete initial designs.

Bernard McAulay, national officer for construction at Unite, said: “It’s been a complete shambles, to put it mildly. They’ve had people designing things, and then the designs change after they’ve been put in and it has to be taken out. These problems have been all over the project.”

A Crossrail spokesperson denied such problems were behind the delay. 

Announcing the delay last month, Wright said: “We need further time to complete the testing of the new railway. We are working around the clock with our supply chain and Transport for London to complete and commission the Elizabeth line.”

No specific opening date for the route has yet been set and last week the commissioner of TfL, Mike Brown, conceded joint funders TfL and the Treasury had no idea how much more money the scheme would cost.