TThe faint purple lines are on the map. Security plans are approved. The Queen has visited. And just before 6:30 am next Tuesday, the doors will finally open for millions of passengers. After decades of planning, 13 years of construction and nearly £20 billion spent, Crossrail’s Elizabeth Line services are ready to go.
This is not the finished deal yet. But its crucial and magnificent core will now be open: the 13 miles of tunnels bored under central London, nine cavernous new stations and digitally controlled trains that offer space and speed that underground passengers have never enjoyed.
Over the past three years, as construction delays and overspending exposed the arrogant boasts of Crossrail bosses, the rumor of a triumph of British engineering has been silenced. Now, however, it’s time to marvel again.
“These stations are like cathedrals. These trains are the longest we have seen in London,” says Sadiq Khan, mayor of the capital. “He is a world leader, world class. I defy anyone wearing Elizabeth’s line next week not to gasp, it’s just amazing.”
The 205-meter trains, with level access for wheelchairs or buggies and no neck-cracking doors, will each carry up to 1,500 people and, to begin with, run every five minutes, cutting travel time in half by half. the existing routes to cross London.
Andy Byford, the Transport for London commissioner, committed to opening the line in mid-2022 when he inherited the project in 2020. But, he admits, given the potent symbolism of the Elizabeth line, and with Crossrail having already stood up to the monarch once. in 2018: “We sweat blood to open it before the jubilee.”
For the first few months, the Elizabeth line will operate as three separate rail lines, and passengers on what were previously called TfL rail services to the west or east will still need to change at either Paddington or Liverpool Street stations. When above ground, Crossrail runs on different signaling systems on each side, an engineering complexity that is partly blamed for cost overruns and delays.
The staggered opening means that this Tuesday, while the line will speed up and improve the journey for passengers in the center, only those who live near the three new stations in south-east London (Custom House, Woolwich and Abbey Wood) will experience the Crossrail’s total makeover. effect: now directly connected to Canary Wharf and the heart of the city, drastically reducing travel times.
For most, the “real prize” for Crossrail, as Byford puts it, will come this fall, when direct trains from the east or west can traverse downtown. Riders who now combine sporadic surface trains and the subway will instead make continuous trips from far beyond the suburbs to stations on the other side of the city or the West End.
That, as the prime minister said this week, should be a huge incentive to attract travellers, something critical to reviving the capital and its Covid-battered finances. “What really kickstarts the revenue stream is getting them to work through east-west services,” says Byford.
House prices have more than doubled in a decade around Crossrail stations to the east and west, outpacing the 55% rise in London, according to data from Rightmove. Khan emphasizes that it has also “already created tens of thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of homes. Two-thirds of this line is in London, two-thirds has been paid for by London, and it’s a good example of investment in London benefiting the country.”
Much of the spending has been in the UK, such as the £1bn rail contract for Derby, but the rest of the country would certainly prefer direct investment in transport, as the government knows only too well. However, transport secretary Grant Shapps this week reiterated forecasts that the line would boost the UK economy by £42bn, saying: “We can do big infrastructure projects in this country and the world will be very impressed”.
For a time, however, Crossrail had seemed like a debacle. Just a few months before the queen opened it in December 2018, bosses who had continued to parrot the “on time and on budget” mantra admitted the job was totally off the mark. Few outside the scheme had a clue.
Caroline Pidgeon, who as co-chair of the London assembly’s transport committee since 2008 has scrutinized the project more than most, says: “It’s fantastic, but we can’t forget it’s years behind schedule and £4bn over budget. The CEO said he was on time and on budget, while the key representative [the independent project representative], was warning of problems. But people just ignored the expert.
“We have to learn from this for HS2. How are you putting the right controls in place to ensure public money is well spent and work progresses on time?
However, the completed Elizabeth line is “another level”, he says, not least because it is fully accessible, with step-free access at each station. “It sets the bar even higher for future work.”
Christian Wolmar, the author of Crossrail: The Whole Story, agrees: “It’s a game changer in the same way the Metropolitan Railroad was in 1863, the first underground line. This is the difference between the M1 and a dual carriageway.”
The Parisian RER that inspired him “is nothing compared to this,” adds Wolmar. “It will stand the test of time and provide incredible service long after we’ve all busted our clogs.”