Not that you'd necessarily guess this from yesterday's upbeat press release.
Trial Operations underway ahead of Elizabeth line opening next year
Delivery of the Elizabeth line has reached its next significant milestone with the Trial Operations stage now underway. This marks the final phase of the programme before the Elizabeth line opens for passenger services between Paddington and Abbey Wood in the first half of 2022.
Trial Operations involves operational exercises to ensure the safety and reliability of the railway for public use and to fully test the timetables. More than 150 scenarios will be carried out over the coming months to ensure the readiness of the railway for passenger service.
A less glossy summary appears in papers prepared for an Elizabeth Line committee meeting taking place this Thursday. These still suggest the railway should open in the first half of next year but also list a number of issues which continue to cause problems, hence the need to push back some of the safety-critical aspects of Trial Operations into the new year.
"The Trial Operations plan has been split into two phases to enable Phase One to start late November 2021 with the lower risk trials using staff only and Phase Two to commence in January 2022 following the completion of a number of critical activities December 2021. This enables mass evacuations using large numbers of public volunteers to be carried out."
The most significant problem isn't the rolling stock or the infrastructure, it's the software that operates them.
"Reliability has been lower than what is to be expected in revenue service mainly due to known software defects, much of which are anticipated to be fixed by revenue service as part of the ongoing software releases plan."
Train operating software has been a problem for atleast two years, requiring repeated iterations to try to fix a large number of issues, and yet another version is due next month. The 9-car units operating on TfL Rail West have proved particularly susceptible.
"The current train control software is not delivering the expected reliability, but defects are generally rectified by a system reset and containment measures put in place by the operator which has limited the impact to passenger service. Testing is complete on a reliability-focussed software version for delivery by train manufacturer Alstom in December 2021, which is forecast to deliver a significant reliability improvement as it is loaded onto the fleet in January 2022."
A railway that still relies on occasionally turning it off and on again is not ready for passenger service.
But it's not just trains where software is causing problems, it's also the tunnel ventilation sysytem. This has to be right so that smoke can be controlled should an incident occur, hence passenger trials can't start until it's sorted out.
"Before the end of the year there will be further changes to the tunnel ventilation system to complete the outstanding functionality of the system software for passenger service. There will also be a smaller scale software update (ELR110) that will sweep up any new issues identified during Trial Running. These final fixes are expected to be small in number but are important in the final completion of the railway for revenue service."
It's this need to fix the train operating software and tunnel ventilation system that's forced TfL to split Trial Operations into a Phase 1 and a Phase 2, delaying key safety checks until later. It's not even certain that Phase 2 will start in January, because everything relies on the upgrades being successful.
"A ‘gate’ has been scheduled for December 2021 to provide the conditional Go/No Go for Phase 2 subject to the successful completion of the TVS works. Once approved, this will allow us to carry out planned volunteer evacuation exercises in January 2022 including the emergency services."
Meanwhile station construction is no longer the critical issue it used to be. Eight out of 10 central stations have been fully handed over so will be ready whenever, and Canary Wharf is due to join their ranks before Christmas. Even scandalously-late Bond Street has now reached the stage where it could support passenger evacuation, which is one reason why Trial Operations can now go ahead.
"Bond Street station achieved its readiness to support Trial Operations on 8 October 2021. This is a significant milestone for the station and for the wider programme."
This pair of observations from the project sponsor is especially troublesome.
• overall reliability remains low and improvement relies upon major software upgrades to signalling, trains, tunnel ventilation and communications systems, which extend into early 2022
• deferring train evacuation exercises to early 2022 threatens Trial Operations completion, Stage 3 Passenger Service start, and reduces the reliability growth opportunity before Stages 5B and C
Not only is there still a lot to do, but splitting Trial Operations into two parts risks delaying all that follows. That includes 'Stage 3 Passenger Service start' (the first day of public service) which could be shunted much later in the "first half of 2022" window... or even beyond. This is not news a cash-strapped TfL wants to hear. A delayed start would also reduce the time before through services to Reading and Heathrow begin, meaning the final service might not be as reliable as everyone would like.
I popped down to Custom House to see what Trial Operations looks like. It looks like this.
It looks like two staff on the platform, one with a clip board, and trains flooding through every five minutes. This is also what Trial Running looked like last week, indeed last month, because on the face of it not much has changed. What we won't be seeing until next year is volunteer passengers on the platforms testing out the trains because that's Trial Operations Phase 2 and a lot more has to happen before that's allowed.
I'll leave the last word to the risk managers.
"We consider the risk to be adequately controlled, with probability of delay to the scheduled opening in the first half of 2022 low with the current modelling results. However, we recognise further delays to opening of the railway would significantly adversely impact our customers, finances and the confidence of stakeholders. As such, despite the available controls and actions identified, the target assessment remains outside of tolerance."
There is still very much a possibility that Crossrail will not open in the first half of next year. Crossrail remains "outside of tolerance", as perhaps do those waiting for it to open.