Building Crossrail: lessons and challenges from Europe’s largest project

One of the UK’s most ambitious infrastructure projects, Crossrail, has been designed in a virtual environment, powered by Bentley modelling software to provide a complete overview of the entire project and all its assets. Steve Cockerell, marketing director for road and rail at Bentley Systems, talks about the scale of the endeavour, the software involved in building a ’digital railway’ and how such a complex project has influenced the development of Bentley’s modelling software.


Crossrail is Europe’s largest construction project, and with total funding of £14.8bn, it stands as one of the biggest single infrastructure investments ever undertaken in the UK.

Running over 100km from Reading and Heathrow in the west, to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east, the new service is expected to bring an additional 1.5 million people within 45 minutes’ commuting distance of London’s key business districts.

Since the project’s very beginning, software company Bentley Systems has been heavily involved in the planning, design and construction process.

Here, Steve Cockerell looks back on the working partnership and joint evolution, explaining how some of Bentley’s most advanced software has helped build the railway of the future. 

Eva Grey: Could you describe the ongoing partnership between Bentley and Crossrail?

Steve Cockerell: Crossrail is one of – if not the - biggest construction projects in Europe at the moment and it’s been designed in a virtual environment, in 3D, 4D and 5D, adding the time and cost element to it using software from Bentley.

There’s a mix of software from our portfolio that is involved. This includes ProjectWise, which provides a common environment for project delivery and it enables the different members of the design and project team to productively and efficiently share and integrate all the information and documentation that’s required to not only deliver the project in terms of design and construction, but then onwards for operation and maintenance.

EG: This summer, Bentley announced the upgrade of one million Crossrail assets to AssetWise. How does the software work?

SC: AssetWise is Bentley’s asset information management solution. It is based on a technology called eB, and it manages Crossrail’s record of engineering and asset information.

It provides the organisation with a single source of truth (SSOT) on the project so that any one of the members of the project team - be it Crossrail themselves or their supply chain - can access that information according to their asset rights, and know that they are dealing with the latest approved version of the information.

Crossrail is also using approximately 30 different integrated applications from Bentley across all the different disciplines, such as architectural engineering, power, heating and ventilation, throughout all the phases like conceptual and detail design to construction, and then into operations, which is what AssetWise is focused on.

EG: What does it mean for Bentley to be working together with Crossrail?

SC: We’ve been involved in the Crossrail project for very many years. In fact, the first time that I got involved with the Crossrail team was in 2007, which was when the BS 1192 was refreshed.

We’re of course very proud to be working with Crossrail; they are really pushing the boundaries and pushing the envelope on their use of technology. They are looking to leverage not only new technology, but also different processes as they come on stream to be able to derive the most value out of the information and effort that they are putting into the project. So we’re very proud of the relationship that we have with them.

Back in 2013, we joined in an initiative to open The Crossrail Bentley Information Academy to ensure that everyone in their supply chain was on message and all the objectives that Crossrail had in terms of BIM were met.

The Academy has had in excess of 2,000 individuals go through it, and it’s been a very successful exercise and just another example of how well our two organisations work together.

EG: In terms of pushing boundaries on technology, one concept that Crossrail is pursuing is the ‘digital railway’. What does that entail?

SC: Although I can’t speak on behalf of Crossrail, what I can say is that they very regularly speak about delivering two railways: one digital and one physical.

The aim is ensuring that when the designs get into the hands of the people who are going to construct the lift shafts and the tunnel portals, or lay the track and put in the information systems, when they get on-site, it all comes together the first time and they don’t encounter problems. They’re identified as early as possible in the process via that digital version of the railway and any issues are ironed out. The cost is exponentially higher once you’re out on-site and you’ve got people, machinery and schedules waiting for progress.

There are several examples of where BIM and their use of their digital engineering models and construction simulation have saved not only large amounts of time, but also effort and money.

On one station, for example, they identified that the tunnel boring machine would’ve sat idle for a period of time, so by adjusting the construction schedule they could optimise and ensure that machine wasn’t sat around idle costing them money, instead of making them money.

EC: What are some of the challenges of working on this project of this size?

SC: Where does one start?

Firstly, the size and complexity of the project – people think that it’s just a new railway under the city of London.

It’s actually 100-km-long; it includes tunnels, but also a lot of upgrades and integration with the existing infrastructure of London. So that too presents its own challenges. A lot of the information is hidden below the ground so understanding in three dimensions what buildings are where, what infrastructure exists in different places, who owns the land and how they all interrelate.

Another challenge is the number of organisations and disciplines involved. At its peak, Crossrail has probably involved the majority of engineering and design consultants in the UK and the contractual side, plus the actual passing of information between those organisations, creates a significant challenge.

Probably the last one to mention is the fact that London cannot stop functioning as one of the world’s leading cities, so they have to construct this railway of the future alongside a functioning city, with all its inhabitants and visitors.

EG: How will this project impact the company’s future work and approach?

SC: Working with Crossrail has absolutely served as a lesson.

When I first got involved with them in 2007, at that point Crossrail wanted us to configure ProjectWise so that it followed the workflow described within BS 1192.

Today, ProjectWise out of the box will do that for any organisation that wishes to do it. We’ve learned and build that into what is now the standard software.

If you look at technology and the Academy – it is not only used to communicate the objectives and the way that Crossrail need their supply chain to operate, it’s used to look into future processes and the leveraging of future technologies. If you look back to when the design started, iPads didn’t even exist – today, Crossrail is using Bentley apps on the iPad for construction and asset information management.