And they stuck to this December 2018 deadline for the next four years, at least in public, with no hints that anything might be awry.
Then in August 2018, one hundred days before the intended opening date, the truth emerged. Problems with signalling and station construction required a delay until "autumn 2019", which of course it now is, so that was an inaccurate prediction too.
This week's announcement is delay number four, like so...
Previously we had a six month window centred on the end of 2020. Now we have a twelve month window centred on the middle of 2021. At the very best that's 1st January 2021, but the direction of travel suggests it'll be a lot later in the year than that.
Crossrail is therefore on track to be at least two, maybe three years late. To put it another way, a railway line which should have opened 11 months ago won't be opening for at least another 14 months, and maybe 25.
Signalling is difficult when new trains are trying to interface with existing lines and fresh infrastructure. Numerous software versions haven't quite delivered, so have needed significant tweaks, and each period of rewriting slows things down. Version 10 was installed in October, but still doesn't tick all boxes so version 11 is intended to go live next month. If version 11 works then Trial Running will begin "at the earliest possible opportunity in 2020". If it doesn't work then the next stages of testing a fully operational railway will have to be delayed again while we wait for version 12. Let's hope it doesn't take 13.
As for stations, they're all behind schedule too. It is astonishing that not one of the nine new underground Crossrail stations is yet fully complete, even though they were once supposed to be receiving passengers last year.
Complete by the end of 2019
Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Custom House
"Substantially complete by the
end of the first quarter in 2020"
Paddington, Liverpool Street, Canary Wharf, Woolwich
Complete heaven knows when
Bond Street, Whitechapel
Over the last few months Crossrail have released short progress videos on YouTube for all of these stations.
Even once stations are structurally complete, a lengthy programme of safety testing needs to be carried out and this takes many months. Often safety testing can't take place at the same time as test trains are running through the station, and this division of time slows down progress even more.
Bond Street is a real problem because it's so far behind. It needs to be certified safe as an evacuation route before the operational railway can begin, but the testing phase can't begin until construction is complete. Even if every other bit of Crossrail were ready, passenger trains still wouldn't be allowed to operate until Bond Street was available as a potential escape route.
Crossrail is therefore at least One Million Minutes Late, which could stretch to One And A Half Million if the opening date turns out to be at the end of 2021.
We're told that a better estimate of the opening date will be given "early in 2020", once upgraded software finally permits Trial Running to take place. Hopefully they'll confirm that services between Paddington and Abbey Wood will commence in 2021, but I wouldn't bet against the window nudging into 2022.