Today, 24 May, marks the start of public operation of Crossrail, more formally known as the Elizabeth Line. It is a railway which will genuinely exert a transformative effect on much of London out to Reading in the west, Shenfield in the east – and further away too.
The sheer challenges of boring lengthy tunnels under London and operating a metro-frequency service meant that from the start it was going to be a project which pushed technical boundaries. So it has proved. The Class 345 trains built by Bombardier (now Alstom) will use three signalling systems over the course of their journeys: conventional Train Protection Warning System between Reading and Paddington (soon to be curtailed to Heathrow Airport Junction) and Liverpool Street and Shenfield, Communications-Based Train Control on the central underground section, and before long, European Train Control System Level 2 between Airport Junction and Paddington. This represents the first use of CBTC systems on a main line railway in the UK and is one of the only ways of reliably operating at the sort of frequency Crossrail is capable of.
Some have asked why automatic train operation under ETCS wasn’t planned for Crossrail from the outset. Were it being built today, given the success of that operation on Thameslink’s core section, it is hard to imagine opting for a metro-style CBTC system. But at the time Crossrail was being planned, there automatic train operation under ETCS was a mere theoretical possibility rather than a proven solution. Given the availability of CBTC systems, no sane project designer would have gone for the then risky ETCS option.
There have been myriad innovations beyond the trains and signalling. Crossrail was amongst the first megaprojects to deploy Building Information Management systems at scale. Under this policy, every aspect of a built asset has a coordinated digital description of it, often allied to 3D modelling data, material specifications and any deviations of the final structure from the design. As the success of it became apparent on Crossrail, it has been widely deployed elsewhere such as on Dubai’s metro. High Speed 2 goes a step further, creating a digital twin of the railway in its entirety. The effects should be seen in greater efficiencies and speed of construction and commissioning.
Elsewhere, the sheer scale of many Crossrail contracts enabled suppliers to invest in new equipment and techniques which are being applied on other contracts – many of them outside the rail sector.
As the rail industry gears up for Modern Railways EXPO, we’ll be able to see the latest innovations which go beyond the techniques pioneered on Crossrail and which will take the whole industry into a new era the likes of which would have been difficult if not impossible to imagine a generation ago.
Crossrail will take passengers’ breath away and transform travel across London. Its impact on the railway and the wider supply chain looks set to be every bit as profound.