Mobilising crossrail with military precision

The former Army brigadier in charge of engineering the capital’s Crossrail project gives Raymond Snoddy a progress report


You can tell a lot about Chris Sexton from his four-word Twitter profile: Crossrail-Royal Engineers-Saints.

Saints is a reference to Northampton Saints, the rugby team he played for in his youth.

The Royal Engineers was where he spent most of his career, rising to the rank of brigadier and chief engineer of the Army, following stints in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Crossrail, the £14.8-billion project that will run for 100 kms, linking Reading and Heathrow in the west, through new tunnels under central London, with Shenfield and Abbey Wood to the east of London by 2019, represents the culmination of his career. He is technical director of what is the largest construction project in Europe.

A recent tweet from ChrisMSexton celebrated that fact that TBM Ellie – tunnel boring machine Ellie, one of eight 150-metre long machines – had just dug a record 72 metres of tunnel in a 24-hour period. The planned average is around 120 metres a week.

The record was set in April as the tunnelling broke into the new underground station at Whitechapel and the symbolic half-way point was reached.

“To be on time and on budget is very good news. We have some tunnelling still to do and other underground construction. Then there is the big switchover to fitting out the stations and installing the track, the ventilation, the overhead power,” says Mr Sexton, who joined Crossrail in 2010 after three years as head of engineering at construction group Laing O’Rourke (Europe).

As technical director, he has to keep track of more than one million assets, where they fit in now and how they can be maintained in future

The Crossrail executive, whose responsibilities cover everything from engineering and digital mapping to signalling and sustainability, has one of the largest asset management jobs imaginable.

“A lot of my job is integration…it’s making sure that the civil engineering, the railway engineering, the mechanical engineering all fit together, not only to create a railway, but also one that delivers the performance we are required to produce,” he says.

As technical director, he has to keep track of more than one million assets, where they fit in now and how they can be maintained in future.

Mr Sexton has the relatively rare benefit of being involved in creating an entire railway from scratch. He is, therefore, able to plan the asset management from the outset rather than, as more often happens, much later in the process.

“We are going to build two railways. We are going to build a physical railway and we are going to build a digital railway, which is the information about those assets and how they work,” he says.

As each stage of the physical railway is completed, then metaphorically, the relevant sections of the digital railway will be handed over in the form of large databases to the ultimate owners of the asset, Network Rail, London Rail and London Underground.

Along the way there is a single pot of data that can be accessed and used by all those who need it.

The existence of the digital railway will help greatly with maintenance. Equipment will not be replaced by timetable or through waiting for it to fail. “We will be using remote monitoring of assets and so the assets themselves will be able to tell us when they are in need of replacement,” says Mr Sexton.

He believes his Army background has been a great help in managing a project involving a total of 10,000 people, akin to the size of a group of hospitals or troops on exercise.

“In the railway [the 10,000] are all interconnected with each other and they have to work as a system, and that’s the challenge and that is where I have found that my military experience, leading large military organisations, has made me quite at home in Crossrail,” says the former brigadier.

Crossrail has attracted little if any of the controversy of the planned High Speed 2 or HS2 railway project, mainly because almost everyone sees the wisdom of a new line crossing through the centre of London proving some relief for stretched transport facilities.

“There is probably a military analogy in there – if you are fighting for right, then you start off on the right foot,” he says.

Great efforts have been made to minimise the impact on local communities by carrying tunnel spoil, first by train and then barge, to what will become the largest man-made nature reserve in Europe off the Essex coast.

Sustainability is another of Mr Sexton’s responsibilities and the response has included setting up a tunnelling and construction academy; contractors have to set up apprenticeship schemes, with more than 300 signed up so far.

On the environment, strict targets have been set for air quality based on reducing diesel particulates from all plant machinery, and every contractor has to cut energy and construction consumption by 8 per cent during their part of the project.

Enormous stress has also been placed on safety with a “zero harm” policy – efforts that have been reinvigorated following the project’s first fatality in March, apparently caused by a falling piece of concrete during tunnelling.

Looking forward Mr Sexton believes that the positive economic impact of Crossrail will be considerable, bringing 1.5 million people to within 45 minutes of central London.

“At the moment, if I want to go from where we are in Canary Wharf to Heathrow, I allow a couple of hours. With Crossrail, we are talking 45 minutes and 36 minutes from Heathrow to Liverpool Street,” he says.

If HS2 goes ahead, as seems likely, then there will be the additional benefit of a skilled workforce from Crossrail who can move on to an even bigger project once they are no longer needed in London.

“I think the UK has demonstrated through the Olympics that we are capable of delivering a major project successfully and on Crossrail we are half way towards demonstrating the same,” he says.

“It would be of enormous help to the UK economy if we keep a conveyor belt of such projects going,” the Crossrail technical director adds.

Would he in turn move on the Crossrail 2, the proposed Chelsea to Hackney line supported by London Mayor Boris Johnson?

“If it gets authorised and funded, then possibly,” Mr Sexton replies.