Crossrail…a view from Christian Wolmar

Probably the only thing that the departed rail minister, Jo Johnson, will be remembered for is the fact that he granted Crossrail an extra £600m in the summer to ensure the scheme could be completed. In truth, he had no choice. As the scheme was 90 per cent complete, it was hardly possible for the workers to be sent packing and for the project to be mothballed. Such big projects assume a momentum of their own once sufficient money has been spent and cannot realistically be stopped.

Oddly, it then took a further month before the Crossrail team confessed to what had already become glaringly obvious to anyone with knowledge of the project – that it would not open as expected on December 9 but, instead some time ‘next autumn’ which is vague in the extreme.

This delay is now the subject of ‘who knew what when’ type of fuss and the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier, has written to the National Audit Office to undertake an investigation on the governance of the project. There has even been criticism of the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, for not realising that the scheme was being delayed.

Frankly, I suspect there are worse government spending projects for the NAO and PAC to spend time on. Yes, perhaps we should have been told earlier that Crossrail would not be delivered ‘on time, on budget’ as had been promised for many years. But an overspend representing around five per cent of the total cost of the project is hardly unexpected on such a large project involving the construction of 10 huge below the surface stations in the centre of London. Compare this with, for example, the massive delays and overspending in Germany on Berlin’s airport and Stuttgart’s massive big dig.

Perhaps, indeed, there should have been a bit more openness on the part of Crossrail but this hardly represents a scandal compared with so many other government activities. What is of greater concern is whether the problems that arise largely because of the complexity of using three different signalling systems can be ironed out in time for opening next year. A further delay would begin to test the patience of Londoners although, given the magnificence of the new railway, all will be forgotten once the trains are running.

 

Christian Wolmar’s book, The Story of Crossrail, is published this week by Head of Zeus – for a signed discounted copy for £17 incl. P&P. Email: Christian.wolmar@gmail.com

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