Tomorrow is the day almost everyone in London has been waiting for. At 6.30am on Tuesday 24th May the first ultra sleek trains will set off from Paddington in the west and Abbey Wood in the east and the much anticipated Crossrail line will at last be more or less fully open for business.
Having all ready poked around the odd Crossrail Station, I can say there is no comparison between the most of the old 20th and 19th century stations and these gleaming new palaces of public transport. Crossrail or the Elizabeth Line as it will be known stretches under over 60 miles (100km) of London along the East-West axis and includes 26 miles of new tunnels deep beneath the Thames and skyscrapers.
Crossrail will end up costing about £19 billion and is opening up 4 years late but is thought to be the most transformational improvement in London life for many decades, even for those who never use it.
The reasons for the delay were not the much vaunted engineering challenges of building epic tunnels and underground stations that could swallow The Shard whole, that bit all went to plan. What proved infinitely trickier was the creation of the most complex and digitally advanced railway system on Earth which has been more complicated than anyone could have imagined. The good news is though that the hard work all been done and London is going to be opened up as never before.
So what is Crossrail? Why was it built? And what will it be like to use? The line stitches together existing railways from the east and west — so that trains from Reading and Heathrow, which now have to halt at Paddington — can glide to stops in the West End and City before heading east on two routes, one past Stratford to Shenfield, and the other through Canary Wharf and under the Thames to Abbey Wood, with bus and rail links fanning out across south-east London. Fares will be the same as on the Tube.
Crossrail itself isn’t a new idea. There were proposals in the 19th century and another official report gave its approval in 1974. Margaret Thatcher have her own approval to a similar scheme in the 1980’s and it is said that she decided on an East-West route rather than a North-South route because no-one that she knew in Chelsea would ever want go to Hackney!
Work finally got underway on the current scheme in 2008 and 3 London Mayor and 4 Prime Ministers later, it is complete, almost. From tomorrow 12 services will run each hour in each direction through the main tunnels from Paddington to Abbey Wood, although they won’t stop at Bond Street until it’s finished in the autumn which is annoying to me as it is the station I’d most frequently hop onto it at!. That’s when the branch out past Whitechapel to Stratford and Shenfield should open as well. This is the moment that through trains will also start running west from Paddington to Reading and Heathrow, too, with the final timetable in place by this time next year with 22 trains per hour.
The fact that the stations are cavernous & beautiful with the the trains being quiet is not the main point of the system which is of course to make our lives easier and London richer, culturally, physically and financially. Among the winners are places like Thamesmead, in south-east London, not on the Tube map but now just a hop from Abbey Wood station.
If you don’t live in London, it’s hard to describe just how massive it is even on ever moving London Underground. I myself take 60-80 minutes each way to get to Central London which is still an hour less each way compared to when I lived just 4 miles further out. For many Crossrail will be transformative and will join up places which now seem far apart. Canary Wharf to Paddington in 17 minutes. Bond Street to Woolwich in 23. Places like Abbey Wood will become among the best-connected in London — and still with just about affordable prices. Ealing Broadway out in West London and a long drag on the tube will have almost instantaneous access into the City and West End.
But even if you don’t live on the new service, you can still gain. By taking the strain off the Tube it will make many other journeys bearable. The Central and Jubilee lines will gain the most. Commuters at Waterloo, for instance trying to get to Canary Wharf on the Jubilee, should no longer have to wait for a train with enough space to pull in: lots of Jubilee line passengers are expected to switch to Crossrail at Bond Street. In the future, when the HS2 line to Birmingham opens, there will be a quick interchange at Old Oak Common station in the west. No more standing on the platform 4 or 5 deep with only the front row having half a chance of squeezing onto a tube train although before Covid19 I did hear that when asked how long it would take before Crossrail was full to capacity would be in just a handful of days.
There are new entrances at old familiar stations such as on Dean Street, in Soho, for instance, for Tottenham Court Road station. Trains are 200m long so we’ll need to make sure we get off at the right end. At Liverpool Street for instance exits will also take you to Moorgate — a Tube ride away on old lines but now both part of one station. There are lifts everywhere including some which glide sideways alongside escalators, so elegant there will probably be queues to ride them.
And this isn’t even the only big boost the network is getting this month. At Bank, not on Crossrail, the Northern line has been moved to a new platform to create room for massive new passageways, escalators and lifts, making the station 40 per cent bigger which opened successfully a day early last week. This summer, the Overground extension to Barking Riverside will open too.
This temporarily allows Londoners to draw their breath after over a decade of disruption. For instance, I’ve been doing Jack The Ripper walks since 2013 and have never been able to properly take people to one of the locations and for 7 or 8 years couldn’t get within 200 yards/metres.
Covid and financial issues mean the next batch of mega projects are being delayed such as as Crossrail 2, planned to run diagonally from north-east to south-west London, and the Bakerloo line extension.
Initially, services will run every five minutes between 6.30am and 11pm. The frequency should rise to as high as 22 trains per hour (through the core at peak times) in the autumn. A full timetable will not be in place until May 2023.
One of the most striking aspects of the Elizabeth Line is how gloriously silent it is. No longer the fruitless attempts at conversation over the blood-curdling screech of the Central Line as it pulls into its stop or the defining screech on the Jubilee Line approaching Baker Street; Elizabeth Line trains make so little noise you can realistically have a quick nap on your morning commute.
While trains on other lines seem to heave themselves noisily to the next station, the Elizabeth Line positively glides. This is possible, TfL says, due to the work of new rail milling and purpose engineering trains which will carry out maintenance work on the tracks while London sleeps. These will eliminate sparks, fire and dust created by rail grinding trains and leave behind a smoother surface – in turn reducing unnecessary noise on your journey.
Carriages on the Elizabeth Line are airy and spacious, with each nine-coach train providing space for around 1,500 customers. At around 200 metres in length, they are over one and a half times longer than the longest tube train.
And this sense of personal space does not just apply to the Elizabeth Line’s trains – its stations are cavernous, sleek, and accessible. TfL’s chief operating officer Andy Lord says that Paddington station is so large you can fit The Shard – London’s tallest building – inside. Its 260-metre-long platforms are double the average length of a tube station platform and feel big enough to handle even the most intense Monday evening rush hour.
Another impressive feature of Crossrail’s stations is the abundance of artwork– making it feel distinctly London. Spencer Finch’s ‘A Cloud Index’ – a spectacular, 120-metre-long roof canopy depicting 32 different types of clouds – gazes down at commuters as they descend the escalators at Paddington whilst the use of old bricks remind us of its important heritage.
Artworks at other stations showcase the diversity of London. At Whitechapel, Chantal Joffe’s series of two-metre collages depict a multigeneration, multicultural spectrum of east Londoners going about their daily lives whilst the station roof is covered in grass and shrubbery.
The integration of art into the passenger experience brightens even the most miserable Monday morning commute and – along with the Poems on the Underground series – continues TfL’s tradition of transforming travel in London into a cultural experience. Travelling on the Elizabeth Line to Whitechapel for just £2.50 might feel like you’re taking the p!ss at just £2.50 for such an experience.
The colour scheme is also impressive, with the ‘Crossrail purple’ livery on the seats blending smoothly with the train’s white and lilac exterior. Whilst most will be happy, personally it’s a bit of a shame that all the trains deep underground will have wifi and phone network coverage.
Vast and much-needed improvements have also been made for disabled people, with dedicated spaces for wheelchairs in each carriage and step-free access in every station. This will also come as a relief for anyone who has attempted to climb the 193 stairs at Covent Garden after a night out.
All in all, Londoners tapping into Elizabeth Line stations on 24th May can expect to be blown away with the latest edition to the 159 year old network.
London has about a dozen railway terminuses handling trains from all over Britain, but only two lines make a complete north-south crossing and until now there has been no east-west line.
All the new stations in the city centre are 10 storeys deep and London’s tallest building, the 310-metre Shard, could have lain on its side in the empty Paddington cavern after it was hollowed out, said Crossrail chief executive Mark Wild.
The platforms are 250 metres long and one station, Liverpool Street, is so large that it effectively merges with nearby Moorgate — an idea “shamelessly stolen” from a Paris rail network that insiders regard as a model, Mr Wild said.
Another unusual element is a diagonal lift at Liverpool Street, timed to move at the same speed as adjacent escalators and built because it proved too difficult to construct a vertical lift shaft.
The excavations required at Liverpool Street were so extensive that 3,000 skeletons were unearthed at the site, including the remains of City of London parishioners who died in the medieval Black Death.
“I think people will be blown away when they see the scale of these stations, the length of the platforms,” said Mr Byford, who took over as boss of Transport for London in 2020 and made finishing the Elizabeth line a priority.
While pedants argue over whether Crossrail is a new London Tube line or part of the National Rail network, Mr Wild believes it is “a bit of both”, combining rapid urban transit with the comforts of a longer-distance train.
The fleet of air-conditioned trains known as Class 345s were built especially for Crossrail and are intended to run for decades.
But designers also dropped in nods to London’s heritage, with brickwork in the Paddington ticket hall evoking the station’s Victorian design and a ceiling at Liverpool Street meant to depict the pinstripe suits of City bankers.
On Wednesday 17th May, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II made a rare appearance to officially open London’s newest train line in the same place that the Tube was born in 1863, when a stretch from Paddington to Farringdon became the world’s first underground railway.
Meanwhile, at Liverpool Street, the curving tunnels stand ready with posters advertising the reduced journey times, while signs to the Elizabeth line are on proud display after premature ones were sheepishly covered up in 2018.
“This is absolutely spectacular, what we’re about to unveil to Londoners, to the UK and also to the world,” said Mr Byford, who compared the new line to Japan’s famously punctual bullet trains. “This is our pride and joy.”