Charles Devereux, operations expert, on early days at Crossrail, seals on Britain’s north east coast and discovering the end of the rainbow in the Swiss Alps…
Interview by Steve Long
Charles Devereux was born and raised in Kent and Derbyshire, UK. He began his career with British Rail as an operations graduate trainee after completing his Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge University. He has held several supervisory and managerial positions in the UK rail industry, including Route Manager for West Anglia (Network South East) and Area Freight Manager for Northumberland. He spent 10 years with Crossrail, latterly as Head of Rail Operations, where he championed the operational concept for the completed railway that serves as a model for similar projects around the world. He lives in the cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire.
Which project that you have worked on during your career are you most proud of?
It has to be Crossrail. I was fortunate to be there just after the project was revived in 2003 (I think I was about employee number 5), and I was there as the planning took place and we evaluated numerous options. The most compelling thing I learned was how many dimensions there are to such a project. As one example of many, consider the removal of the excavated spoil from the tunnelling and station excavations; it is a huge logistical challenge in a major city but one that before I joined the project I would never have considered.
“Time spent in relevant system planning is never time wasted.”
Until lockdown intervened it was great to go to London and to see stations such as Canary Wharf complete and ready having seen the very earliest concept drawings some years before. I was with Crossrail for 10 years, and learned more than I ever could have imagined, and have insight into both the good and the not so good in the creation of a major project.
If you could offer a client one piece of advice based on your specific area of expertise, what would it be?
Think really hard about the fine detail of how your system will operate and function once it is completed. Remember that big projects are always influenced by civil engineers at the start who want to get on and build things, but that most of the risk and slippage is in systems, and in getting them to function together and continue functioning long after the civil engineers have decamped to another project. Timescales for all mega-projects are driven by politicians, and are often unrealistic, so time spent in relevant system planning is never time wasted.
Which technology has made the biggest impact on rail over the last decade?
The internet. We forget the days not so long ago when most people were daunted by working out how to use a timetable. The ability to quickly plan a journey and then potentially book a cheap ticket has made rail accessible to far more people all over the world.
Once on the move it is far easier to find out where trains are and what alternatives exist if trains are late. It is a two-edged sword because the internet also offers the competition (for example Uber) similar access and to me the national network in Britain is still hobbled by an inadequate fares system and lacks a means of truly incentivising people to use rail!
“At a human level it is tremendous to work with a client who is very engaged and very keen to learn from experience elsewhere.”
Which has been your favourite commission with Crossrail International to date, and why?
Working with the Tel Aviv metro team has been most stimulating. The project is ambitious and is a completely new system so there is the opportunity to work with the client to influence the ‘look and feel’ of the whole system, and not being bound by what is already there. At a human level it is tremendous to work with a client who is very engaged and very keen to learn from experience elsewhere.
What is your favourite rail journey?
A very hard question. There are the obvious contenders such as the Swiss routes (for example the line from Brig to Bern via Frutigen has always been one of my favourites). However, I lived and worked in the North East of England for four years and I never cease enjoying the contrast provided by the journey from York to Edinburgh. As well as passing many places that I know intimately, there are some fantastic and varied views en route, especially between Alnmouth and Burnmouth where the sea is always in view. I was once lucky enough to come off a night shift as Newcastle station supervisor in 1980 at 06:00 on a summer Sunday morning, and was invited by a driver to join him in the cab of a train going to Edinburgh. He pointed out every detail on the route, including the seals basking on the rocks. Even though I did not get to bed until about 1 pm it is a journey I will never forget!
I have travelled on the entire (yes, I mean entire!) Swiss Railway Network and to me that is where the rainbow ends.
If you could visit and travel on any rail system in the world where you have never been, where would you go?
I have always been interested in trains and have been fortunate enough to travel extensively. I have travelled on the entire (yes, I mean entire!) Swiss Railway Network and to me that is where the rainbow ends. However, the other strong contender for railway heaven is Japan and I would love to go there. Although it is not a ‘network’ the line I would most like to travel on in the world is the one from Normanton to Croydon in Northern Queensland, Australia, a 150-km completely isolated railway which sees one train a week (“The Gulflander”), which is an 80-year-old diesel railcar..
My all-time favourite track is …
“Atomic” by Blondie