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Teamwork will save the day at Crossrail

Ben Derbyshire

The Elizabeth line will be glorious thanks to the project team’s culture of collaboration and respect

We’ll have to wait a little longer for the opening of the Elizabeth line through London. But when it finally opens next autumn, it will showcase the UK’s best architecture, engineering, design, contracting and project management, applied to the task of threading modern infrastructure through an ancient, congested city. This challenge, of course, is one that confronts all major cities of the world as global urbanisation continues. The achievement will be of major significance. Unless that is also delayed, we will have left the EU by the time the line opens for passengers and will be hungry for new markets for our goods and services.

I was shown around two of the stations recently, Paddington and Farringdon, which enabled me to grasp the difficulties and appreciate the sheer quality of the project team’s response. The line is no mere light railway or tube line extension. It is a full blown modern railway which will see nine-car trains travelling through the tunnels at up to 90km/h. As a design and construction project, Crossrail, with its physical connections above, sideways and below, the sequences of trades and operations that must be accommodated and the importance of the public realm, makes any freestanding building look like a walk in the park. But the lessons we can learn from it are important and widely applicable. 

First, Weston Williamson and the Crossrail team understood the value of design and the need for seamless interdisciplinary working – where information sharing and communication between professions, constructors and the supply chain is encouraged and enabled. Second, as a consequence of this, a sense of respect and selfless collaboration has emerged between the team members. All the people I met were positive about each other and the atmosphere polite and friendly. Success in these circumstances is not just about technology, data sharing or sophisticated project management, it’s more about profound knowledge and skill, mutual respect and the collaborative behaviour thus engendered.

Crossrail makes a freestanding building look like a walk in the park, but we can learn important and widely applicable lessons from it

As a result, the stations that will greet passengers in central London are stunning. They have an air of permanence and solidity, and thoroughly integrated design solutions enable large uninterrupted expanses of finish in materials that are beautifully patterned and textured in a restrained palette. The Paddington box is lined in brick and filled with light from the glazed colonnade above. The wonderful coffered tunnels of Farringdon flow with complex double curvature and house the most elegant lighting and information totems. This project is another triumph of brilliant engineering design for transportation infrastructure in a distinguished line from Isambard Kingdom Brunel through Charles Holden to Renato Benedetti in recent times. Julian Robinson, Crossrail head of architecture, should soon find himself among this pantheon.

We are seriously good at this, and we need to do more of it. Contrasting the smooth concrete and polished stone of Crossrail with the dilapidated and overcrowded trains I travelled on during a recent visit to Teesside was a jarring experience. In London and the South East we often fail to realise that the state has invested billions in our transport networks, leaving the rest of the country to make do with the tired old trains we cast aside. It’s no wonder the UK remains one of the most geographically un­equal countries in the world.

My biggest regret is that the Crossrail design and procurement approach is not more commonplace. Despite the disappointing delay in its opening, its message is evident for all to see, especially visitors who will naturally expect infrastructure of this quality. But I hope the lessons are not lost on clients, regulators or funders in other sectors. Would that such thoroughgoing design and quality management was as prevalent in the housing industry, for example. The RIBA’s recent report, Joining the Dots, touches on many of these themes. I hope that we find a willing audience for it in Westminster and beyond. 


Disciplinary suspension

On 12 June 2018 the RIBA Hearings Panel found that Nicholas John of London was guilty of breaching Principles 1, 2 and 3 of the RIBA Code of Professional Conduct, in that he delayed in refunding money to a client after advising her that he would repay it, made repayment of the money conditional on the removal of adverse online feedback, failed to adequately provide an effective service for the client and failed to adequately deal with a dispute and/or complaint appropriately. The Panel decided that the appropriate sanction for this was a suspension from membership for a period of 24 months, to be applied retrospectively from 19 October 2017, with the requirement that Mr John provide 10 references relating to his professional conduct during the time of his suspension.