Large scale excavation at Liverpool Street

Interview - Rhys Vaughan Williams Head of MEP Engineering Crossrail

London’s mammoth Crossrail infrastructure project recently completed the tunnelling phase. As the focus moves to fitting out the stations and tunnels, Rhys Vaughan Williams, head of mechanical, electrical and public health engineering, describes what lies ahead of and beyond the project’s 2019 deadline.

For the passer-by, the work-in-progress that is the new Crossrail ventilation shaft at Stepney Green is little more than a mild inconvenience. A small area of this historic part of London’s East End has been closed off, shielded from the public eye by the company’s telltale royal blue hoardings. A few cranes and other works reach skyward, but otherwise the site entrance is inconspicuous; which is more than can be said for Rhys Vaughan Williams, who in Day-Glo orange personal protective equipment is “probably visible from outer space.”

Although not related to his namesake, the great English 20th century composer and conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams, Crossrail’s head of MEP (mechanical, electrical and public health) engineering, enjoys the symphonic analogy of complexity, managing a large team and “waving your arms about”. However, the rugby-mad north-Walian also likes the more down-to-earth, no-nonsense comparison of managing a successful XV out on the field of play. “If everyone is prepared, fit and motivated and knows what they’re doing, then you’re going to win.”

For Rhys Vaughan Williams, winning means bringing home nothing less than arguably the largest peacetime engineering infrastructure project the United Kingdom has ever seen. The scale of Crossrail is mind-boggling: top-line figures show a budget of £14.8bn, with a deadline of 2019 to get commuters into London on the fully completed rail system.

“It’s a long journey we’re on here,” he says. “The whole project, from when we first broke earth in 2009 to the end point, is a decade. The reason we’re here today, at the bottom of the main shaft at Stepney Green, is that we’ve just reached a significant milestone in that journey: we’ve finished the tunnelling. All the railway tunnels have been opened up and joined together.” The tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are out and all that’s left, before moving onto the crucial site-segregation phase, is “a little bit of tunnel enlargement at the central concourses and stations. But today we have completed the link from east to west.”

“In terms of Britain’s historical construction engineering projects,” he says, “Crossrail ranks pretty much right at the top. There have recently been a lot of iconic structures built in London such as the Gherkin or the Walkie-talkie [office buildings]. These are great. But Crossrail is so much more. If you were to lay one of the Canary Wharf towers on its side, it would fit into the new station at Canary Wharf.”

Rhys, whose informality stretches to insisting everyone is on first-name terms, goes on to say, “we are building this underground, and we have to get it right first time. It’s difficult to go back down after the event and excavate a larger chamber, for example. On the other hand, if it’s oversized, you have a situation where millions of pounds of taxpayer money might have been spent unnecessarily.”

What this means is that Crossrail has had to “employ the brightest minds from the finest engineering consultancies in London to make sure that everything we’re doing is absolutely fit for purpose.” Vaughan Williams says that the railway will be switched on in 2017 for the dynamic testing phase, by which point “if it’s not right, it’s too late. No one is going to say to the guy looking after the MEP: ‘you’re only human, mate. Don’t worry about it.’ When you consider the amount of money that has gone into Crossrail, we have to make sure that every penny is spent well.”

Despite the scale of the project, he is keen to point out that Londoners are often only barely aware of what’s happening beneath their feet, despite the enormous benefits that the project will bring to the metropolis. “Bizarrely, that is music to my ears. The fewer people who are expressing discomfort - especially due to noise impact - the better the project, so far as I’m concerned. We have imposed noise abatement orders on ourselves, and we are very careful about what times we work at and when we are creating noise. We give plenty of warning to local residents when we are doing a major breakout.”

Despite the complexity and the number of contractors involved, “Crossrail is one project, one railway system, one train service from Reading and Heathrow in the west to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. But the rail service is the end product. Before we can put the trainsets in we have to provide the infrastructure, and that is massive. To enable us to put this together in the timeframe, we had to divide the project into a number of principal contractors, who in turn have many construction companies as their Tier two contractors. These will be large UK and European multinationals looking after the body of works. That’s the only way we can achieve the construction phase in time. Otherwise it would be that Crossrail is a never-ending story.”

Birth of a railway line

Crossrail’s story isn’t new. It started as an idea back in the early 1940s as a way of connecting Liverpool Street to Paddington via a large-diameter east-west tunnel under central London, proposed in the London Plan of 1944. It was to be a further three decades before the term Crossrail was adopted in the 1974 London Rail Study. In 1991, Crossrail was submitted to Parliament, only to be rejected three years later. However, with commendable foresight, the route was safeguarded in the event of a different version of the scheme being posted at a later date. Ten years later, it was resurrected as a proposed 50-50 joint venture between the Department of Transport and Transport for London (TfL). It was submitted to Parliament once again as the Crossrail Hybrid Bill in 2005. Finally, on 22 July 2008, the Bill was approved and became the Crossrail Act 2008.

This is where Vaughan Williams, who is a fellow of the IET and the IMechE, enters the story. “I was working for Tube Lines leading the design team for the step-free access project on the London Underground. I felt that exciting times were ahead and so put my name forward to lead Crossrail’s MEP team. Having come from a background in heavy commercial and industrial contracting, moving into the rail industry was a culture shock. Although their standards, materials and working practices had been put in place for very good reasons, they had not necessarily progressed at the phenomenal rate of the rest of industry.”

However, with Crossrail things were different: “We were lucky enough to have a brand new railway and modern materials. We also had the advantage of not having the constraints of the existing Victorian infrastructure. This gave us the opportunity to introduce a different approach to design, installation and maintenance.”

But it wasn’t going to be plain sailing from the word go. In an industry that has its taproots deeply invested in tradition, even the slightest change “had to be managed with the utmost sensitivity.” In particular, he found that among the future infrastructure maintainers (IMs) and operators there were those that still maintained an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude, coupled with the dream of any incoming manager: ‘but we’ve always done it this way.’

With the tunnelling complete, the next phase on Vaughan Williams’s critical path is the segregation of worksites. “One of the key challenges we have is integration. With a project like Crossrail we don’t have the advantage of a standard core and fit out phase that you would have here, for example”. He is referring to the huge skyscraper at Canary Wharf - 25 Canada Square - where Crossrail’s HQ is based. With buildings like this, he says, you have the leisure of getting the superstructure completed relatively quickly, while spending several years fitting out individual floors for specific clients. “But with Crossrail, we already know who our client is and everything has to be completed at the same time.”

Introducing new technologies into the railway, although sometimes difficult and frustrating for the head of MEP, pales into insignificance compared with the complexities of segregating and ventilating worksites for different activities in the tunnels below the stations and shafts. Crossrail works under statutory legislation called CDM or Construction (Design and Management) Regulations, an area of which defines the duties and responsibilities of the principal contractor. “On Crossrail, primarily in the deep stations, we have to segregate the different principal contractors who are responsible for very different works. Using simple Heras fencing, such as you would see on most surface construction sites, is not an option.”

There are two types of site. First, a station site, consisting of a clean environment with standard forced ventilation down from the surface. The second, a tunnel site, will have “sumps and pumps fitted to allow for any water ingress, coupled with heavy diesel trains laying tracks and pumping concrete. All of which needs a considerable amount of ventilation, with both forced air and extraction that often contradict each other.” The segregation hoarding also has to withstand fire and the pneumatic shock of trains passing.

Meeting the deadline

“Because we have to complete the project in a relatively short space of time, we need to have multiple contractors working simultaneously in the same areas. This is why segregation of worksites is so important. The section of works that is involved with the tunnels has a completely different mindset, discipline and way of working to the section works in fitting out the stations. In the tunnels there are diesel locomotives, which are producing particles. Our primary concern is the health, safety and welfare of the operatives that are building Crossrail. We are also using heavy cutting gear, welding equipment and grinding machines, which are all potential fire hazards. The tunnelling team is fully aware of this and the housekeeping is impeccable and individuals are exceptionally highly trained.” Compare this with work being undertaken on adjacent station sites, where electricians, plasterers and plumbers might not necessarily have the in-depth background knowledge, and intrinsic safety understanding required elsewhere. “The coordination of works is vital. Everyone has to understand what everybody else is doing. Another factor we have to take into consideration is evacuation in an emergency, so we have to provide access routes as well.”

Back at Crossrail HQ in Canary Wharf, Vaughan Williams sits at his desk reviewing plans for the implementation of the site-integration phase. Despite the vicissitudes of ever-changing budgets and the necessity to keep a hawk-like eye on every aspect of the project’s deadlines, everything is “going to plan”. Although it is tempting to think it might be the case, his job won’t be finished on that day in 2019 when the first train jam-packed with investment bankers, clutching their smoked salmon bagels and squash racquets, speeds through central London to their offices on the Isle of Dogs. He is also charged with contributing to the Crossrail legacy.

“I have two ways of addressing this. First, is to let people know what has been going on underneath their feet: just what a massively complex engineering project this has been. That message has to be written in language that a layman can understand.”

That’s the PR perspective. The second and arguably more important one is a matter of engineering management principle. “What bothers me so much is that the British are such fabulous builders of great infrastructure projects, but we always seem to start from scratch. Why do we do that? At the start of planning for the Crossrail project, we had scheduled 25 ventilation shafts. Can you imagine the scale of devastation that would cause? Now we are constructing five. That’s because we are much smarter than we were. But it took a long, long time to get there. It would have been great if we had started with five. It would have been even greater if the ventilation engineer who started the project was handed a book full of experience gained by engineers working on previous major infrastructure projects that could have given him a head start.”

Vaughan Williams says he’s going to help write that book, compiled from reports by his senior people, so that MEP engineers of the future embarking on massive national-scale infrastructure projects can benefit from the lessons learnt delivering Crossrail.

For further information on the project visit

Picture credits: Nick smith

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