As the Elizabeth line comes closer to completion, MTR Crossrail has begun the process of opening the line in stages. Managing director Steve Murphy talks to Gay Sutttton about the learning curve of the last two years, and how it has created a template for improvement that will be extended across the entire line

Crossrail has been a long time in the making. Eleven years will have elapsed between July 2008 when royal consent was granted for the line’s construction, and December 2019 when the entire project begins operating as a single integrated cross-London service.

MTR Crossrail is the operating company that will bring this, Europe’s largest construction project, into operation and revolutionise passenger rail services for Londoners. “As someone who grew up in East London,” explained MTR Crossrail managing director Steve Murphy, “the thing that really excites me is what it will do for communities and customers in the areas it serves. It will be transformative – in ways that we won’t fully understand until people start using it.”

Steve, who has been working with MTR since 2007, has witnessed other transformations on smaller scale rail projects. He was, for example, managing director of LOROL when the company opened the new East London line. At the time LOROL was aware that improving journeys from south-east London to North London would be really helpful for the communities but, he said: “We didn’t understand just how much it would change those communities. They’re very different places now. To me that’s exciting – and a massive responsibility. The Elizabeth line will play a big role in enhancing the areas it serves and connecting people from east to west.” And those effects are likely to ripple out across the whole of London.

Strategic planning
Crossrail, which is to be known as the Elizabeth line is an extremely complex project and much has been written in these pages and elsewhere about the challenges and triumphs of its engineering and construction. The next challenge is to transform this array of new buildings, upgrades, signalling and communications projects into a single living and breathing railway capable of delivering TfL’s vision of operational excellence and service improvement.

Steve was the man chosen for the job. Appointed managing director of the newly formed MTR Crossrail in 2014, he pays tribute to the planning that has gone into the project, from its very early stages. He believes it has set the scene for an efficient and effective inauguration of services. “One of the very smart bits of thinking on this project took place between Crossrail and TfL some years ago,” he explained, “when they developed the Staged Opening Plan for Crossrail. The majority of new railway projects take years to construct, and everything goes live at the same moment. The plan with Crossrail is to bring on sections of the railway sequentially, test them and verify them before joining them up.”

MTR Crossrail began in 2014 as a completely new enterprise, and Steve’s first eight months in post were spent assembling a top quality management team, equipping a completely new headquarters and starting up the company from scratch. TfL then transferred the Liverpool Street to Shenfield metro services from Abellio Greater Anglia (AGA) to MTR Crossrail in May 2015, renaming it TfL Rail.

This line will form the eastern section of the Elizabeth line and is the first part to become operational.

There are two more distinct and separate sections to the Elizabeth line – the western section between Paddington and Heathrow, and the core central section between Paddington and Liverpool Street.

While a significant amount of construction, signalling, track laying, station fit out and other work is still in progress on both of these sections, MTR Crossrail has been working closely with Crossrail and Network Rail to ensure the infrastructure is optimised to deliver the most customer-centric experience, and to operate with the greatest efficiency.

The Paddington to Heathrow western section stages are due to be handed over to MTR Crossrail in December 2017 and services will begin operating, with four trains an hour, in May 2018. The central core section is to be handed over in December 2018, and for approximately six months services will operate between Abbey Wood, through Paddington to Liverpool Street, independently of services on the eastern and western sections.

“It will be a methodical approach and we will be able to test each component of the system in turn. Then only when all three routes are up and running successfully, and trains have been introduced onto them, will we then connect them up into a full end to end integrated service. The full integration will happen in late 2019, and I believe it’s very good thinking.”

Taking the first step
It has now been 16 months since MTR Crossrail took over the eastern section, TfL Rail, as an existing metro service, stepping in as an operator in the midst of engineering and construction works. Stations are being refurbished, platforms extended, sidings constructed, and track layout and signalling is being optimised to improve train movements and capacity for the future.

The challenges have been significant, but much has been achieved, and according to Steve, most of this is down to people and relationships. 87 drivers transferred to the new company from AGA, across two driver depots at Gidea Park and Ilford, and their numbers have been supplemented to achieve a robust level of driver provision. Existing station staff also transferred to MTR Crossrail, and many more have been taken on to enable the company to meet its contractual agreement with TfL which requires each station to be staffed from 15 minutes before the first train until 15 minutes after the last train. This has been a step change from the AGA contractual agreement to man different stations for different hours.

“We have been very fortunate that the existing station staff and drivers who chose to transfer across to us were really good quality people and committed to the railway,” Steve commented.

The line itself presented a number of significant operational challenges, some of which were infrastructure-based, and others included issues with the rolling stock. “When we took on TfL Rail it was pretty much at the limits of capacity,” he explained. “It was running the absolute maximum that the signalling system could accommodate with the existing train frequency and the trains are extremely busy at peak times. That gave us very limited room for manoeuvre, so we have had to find new ways of improving performance, and increasing capacity.”

Finding the right solution
That has been doubly challenging as many elements contributing to these problems lay outside MTR Crossrail’s direct control and would require a completely new way of thinking.

Like the majority of Train Operating Companies, around 60 per cent of delays are caused by activities or issues that Network Rail (NR) bears responsibility for. “It was obvious to us that we would not succeed in improving punctuality and performance unless we developed an outstanding partnership and strategy with NR. During our first year, this has succeeded to the extent that we have reduced delays by 33 per cent, an improvement that I’ve not seen anywhere else in my career.”

So how has this partnership worked? Firstly MTR Crossrail , which has a considerable amount of infrastructure management knowledge and expertise, has actively brought this capability into the partnership, liaising and working closely with key partners. “We get involved in the detail of the way the points are being maintained, for example, the way the overhead line is maintained, the signalling and so on. Operationally, we are keen to work much more closely with NR to ensure the decisions their controllers and signallers will make work for us as well as them.” This continuous communication and partnership begins at the top with the NR route MD and MTR Crossrail management, building a shared vision for improving performance. The relationships then extend through all levels within the two enterprises. Controllers on both sides communicate and work together, and there is continuous collaboration with maintenance teams, signalling teams and so on. “It’s been a real success story and NR are every bit as important in driving performance improvements as we are as the operator.”

Forming lasting partnerships
This ethos of partnership and collaboration has been replicated with other key organisations. AGA for example, is responsible for the line’s existing fleet of 315s, providing maintenance from its depot at Ilford. MTR Crossrail engineers are working alongside AGA maintenance engineers, collaborating with them to develop reliability programs, and to identify and implement fleet improvements. This relationship will continue in the future, until the new fleet of Bombardier 345s finally supersedes them.

Meanwhile, the first of the Bombardier 345s begin arriving towards the end of this year and MTR Crossrail has been closely involved in their design and build. “For example,” Steve said, “we’ve been running regular trips for our drivers to look at the train and give active feedback on the cab environment, while Bombardier engineers have been advising us on carriage areas and reliability. The outcome should be more reliable trains with better environments for customers and drivers.”

Relationship closer to home
None of this is reliant on contracts or automated by IT systems. It is down to people talking and communicating across company boundaries. And Steve is a firm believer that motivated and effective people are critical to a business. “We want people in the business who really value working for MTR Crossrail and who are really excited about the opportunities in the business, because we know that when motivation levels are really high it will translate into better performance that the customers will see.”

From the very beginning of the TfL Rail concession, MTR Crossrail made a concerted effort to support frontline staff and build strong internal communications processes. “Firstly we aim to share as much information as we can, that is relevant to their jobs, with everyone who is engaged in running the railway.” For example, drivers are provided with iPads so there is a quick and accessible method for exchanging information. Station staff are also being provided with the latest technology which keeps them up to date with train and route information, giving them the tools to answer passenger enquiries quickly and efficiently.

This clever technology is an excellent tool, but Steve insisted that it was no replacement for personal contact between management and the frontline. MTR Crossrail has created what it describes as a culture of support. It may sound a glib phrase, but it has taken continuous commitment from head office, and it is effective. “Everyone from HQ spends a fair amount of time around the stations’ mess rooms, so we have a good feel for the business, and staff know us by name and will chat with us.”

Being a small company at the moment obviously helps, but Steve aims to continue with this approach as the central core section and western section of the Crossrail come into operation and the Elizabeth line is integrated into a single entity.

Frontline staff are a key to MTR Crossrail strategy for continuously improving the railway. “In my experience, a very high proportion of the best ideas on improving the railway come from the staff who run it – the drivers, station staff, or NR signallers for example. Often it can be difficult for them to have a voice, so we spend a lot of time talking and listening. We then take the best ideas and try to make them happen. Eventually we will see a virtuous circle as people see their ideas being put in place and are confident to come up with further ideas.”

Similarly HQ staff regularly communicate with the customers, running fun days to build good relationships, and providing little extras when times are tough, such as chilled bottled water and ice lollies on really hot days, or a member of the management team to talk to during periods of disruption. “We then monitor the reactions on social media, and it really does make an impact,” he said.

Applying the lessons learned
Expanding services across the western and central sections of the line will undoubtedly present many challenges, not least of which will be maintaining this personal touch across greater distances and with increasing numbers of staff. But having pioneered an innovative and responsive new approach to partnering, relationship building and improvement, and established that it delivers, Steve fully intends to roll these processes out across the entire Elizabeth line. “Once we take on the other two sections of the Elizabeth line and the railway becomes bigger and more complex, we will take the things that have worked so well for us in the East and embed them as company processes, and this will help us to deal with the complexities we will no doubt face,” he concluded. “Meanwhile, the experience of running a successful metro service with practically no capacity to spare has created some really good disciplines, knowhow and sharpness. This will be extremely useful as we go forward.”