In a furious intervention, Andy Byford said it would be “unconscionable” and “madness” if he were forced to put the long-delayed rail line into mothballs if a final £275m could not be secured from the Government by the end of the week.
The Transport for London commissioner used an interview with the Evening Standard to set out in stark terms the risk to the project – despite hopeful signs that it remains on track to finally open in the first half of 2022.
In a no-holds-barred interview, Mr Byford said there was a “brain drain” of contractors leaving the project because they feared they would not be paid long-term.
He said Crossrail had lost the legal ability to enter into new contracts because the Government had failed to underwrite the final tranche of its funding.
A last instalment of £1.1 billion is required to complete Crossrail, which will be known as the Elizabeth Line when it opens.
Mr Byford said the Greater London Authority had agreed to provide £825m by effectively using its borrowing powers to the maximum, but the Treasury was needed to provide the £275m remainder and ensure Crossrail had the “financial authority” via a “letter of comfort” to it and the GLA.
Mr Byford said “Britain will become a laughing stock if we mothball the Elizabeth line” and said that unless the financial guarantees were received by the end of the week he would have to start shutting down the line. “This week to me is D-day,” he said. “We have got to get this done this week.”
Originally due to have been opened by the Queen in December 2018, several delays including a halt to work during the first wave of covid mean Crossrail’s central section linking Abbey Wood and Paddington via Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street is not due to open until the first half of 2022.
Full “through running” from Reading and Heathrow to Shenfield and Abbey Wood is not expected until 2023.
The total cost of Crossrail has risen from £14.8 billion to more than £19 billion, once the extra £1.1bn – which was earmarked before Mr Byford assumed overall control for the line in October – is added.
The £1.1bn results from £750m of extra spending previously identified this year as being needed for Crossrail, plus £350m linked to the postponement of its (now abandoned) revised opening date of Autumn 2021 to the first half of 2022.
Mr Byford said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had been supportive, and it was not known whether Chancellor Rishi Sunak would confirm the final “delta” of Crossrail funding in this afternoon’s comprehensive spending review. “The Secretary of State has been great,” Mr Byford said.
But he added: “If we are not careful we will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We are in such a good place right now it would be madness to stop.
“The real issue right now is that although we still have cash – we are not about to run out of actual money – we are absolutely out of ‘financial authority’. If you don’t have financial authority to do things, that is a real problem.
“I agree with the Mayor, when he said this is the ‘deal of the century’. The Treasury should be biting our hand off to take this. Of that £1.1billion, and bear in mind that TfL and the Department for Transport are co-sponsors, the GLA… have identified a way of funding £825m. That is the lion’s share.”
He said it was “absolutely the understanding” that when TfL took on overall responsibility for the last stage of Crossrail “the money would follow shortly after”. However it was not included in TfL’s second Government covid bailout agreed several weeks ago.
The Chancellor did not mention Crossrail in the Commons today but the National Infrastructure Strategy, which accompanied today’s spending review, stated: “The Government is continuing to address capacity issues in the capital, by financing the completion of Crossrail, but has agreed that Transport for London will stop development on Crossrail 2.”
Last month Mr Byford vowed that Crossrail would open in 2022 as planned and without further recourse to public funds.
He said trains were currently being tested in the central section, with six being run in close proximity to each other, to test the signalling system. This will shortly increase to eight trains in a “squadron formation” – with the signalling being done from the Romford control centre for the first time.
He has brought in two experts he worked with in Toronto, to accelerate the plans and finish stations such as Farringdon and Paddington. There is also the hope that Bond Street and Whitechapel, the two “laggards”, will also be ready for the eventual royal opening.
“My view is that open means open,” Mr Byford said. “I don’t want to ‘non-stop’ a station. I don’t want us to have to distract the Queen or say ‘don’t look up’ because we’re not going to stop [at Bond Street].”
The target is for full trial running of trains to commence on March 29 next year.
Mr Byford said he was also questioning whether there was a need to delay the integration of the Heathrow, Reading and Shenfield sections – on which TfL Rail or Crossrail trains already run – with the central section. He hopes to open all in 2022, as close together as possible.
He said Crossrail would provide 10 per cent more capacity on the capital’s transport network and “much needed” extra revenue to TfL.
“To put that at risk for what is a small delta is madness,” he said. “Were we to stop now, it doesn’t mean you immediately stop the cost. It would cost quite a lot of money to mothball Crossrail. You would have to secure all of the sites, you would have to pay off some contractors.
“The material impact is that we can’t let new contracts because we don’t have financial authority. Already we are seeing an increasing number of vacancies.
“We are seeing a brain drain of engineers – qualified, talented people who want to see the job through – but are suddenly thinking, ‘I have a job offer from HS2 for five years. Do I go for that or do I stick around for another year to see this through, but I’m not sure I have even got a contract.’
“So we are seeing people leave. We absolutely need to get this financial deal done. We put together ‘heads of terms’ months ago and we thought we were there. I’m still hopeful that common sense will prevail.”
A Government spokesperson said: “The Government remains committed to the efficient completion of the project, in a way that is fair to UK taxpayers, and that ensures London – as the primary beneficiary of Crossrail – bears the additional costs.
“We are working with the Greater London Authority and Transport for London to develop a funding solution to see Crossrail’s completion.
“It is unfortunate, in contrast to other construction projects, the Mayor chose to unnecessarily halt work on Crossrail during the pandemic.”