11 things I’ve learned as a pre-Crossrail Crossrail commuter

They’re not normally this empty: an Elizabeth line train. Image: TfL.

I am starting to harbour a suspicion that I have some sort of London transport curse. I moved away from the District Line right before they finally ditched the ancient, cramped, D-stock trains in favour of the roomy new ones we have now, and my time living on the Gospel Oak - Barking Overground line coincided with it being not existent due to an upgrade plan that overran to the point that I’d moved before they actually completed it.

Still, this time I wasn’t going to get screwed. I was moving out east to the wilds of Manor Park, where within mere months I’d be able to take advantage of one of the country’s biggest ever infrastructure projects - Crossrail! Nothing could possibly go wrong!

Oh.

Still, while Crossrail doesn’t officially exist as a working service yet, the section I live on, between Liverpool Street and Shenfield, is more or less functioning (albeit under the name TfL Rail), and is even using the shiny new trains. Here’s what I’ve learned in the month or so of being a pre-Crossrail commuter.

1. Any hope that being a ‘beta tester’ might be mean the trains aren’t that crowded was wildly optimistic

The trains are already as packed as any other line. Well, it was already a busy commuter line before it was taken over by TfL, so why wouldn’t it be?

2. People who use it as an express service to get from Liverpool Street to Stratford have no honour

On the one hand there are signs at Liverpool Street recommending it as the fastest route; on the other hand, stick to the Central Line you Stratford bastards.

3. Maryland station can fuck off

It takes almost as long to walk from my house to the nearest bus stop as it does to walk from Stratford station to Maryland station. You are all cowards.

4. Still, at least not all the trains stop there

Because TfL Rail’s service patterns are currently a little eccentric. At peak times, some trains skip Manor Park and Maryland, and those that don’t skip Forest Gate. Except when they skip Forest Gate and Maryland, or they do stop at Maryland but skip Forest Gate and Manor Park.

This is almost certainly to manage crowding, not least because:

5. Although there is some Crossrail stock running, they’re still using quite a lot of the rubbish old trains

Although there are shiny new trains running alongside them, a lot of the service makes use of white-painted old, and lower-capacity stock. Still, at least this adds a fun element of chance to commuting – can you can get a new train to work AND a new train home? Congratulations, you have won TfL Rail.

6. The crowding issue would be helped if more passengers understood the concept of moving down the carriage to make some room

This is a problem on every single form of London transport (Elon Musk was right, get rid of the other passengers and just run the whole system for me). But anecdotally I suspect it’s slightly worse on suburban rail lines – which this basically still is – partly because there’s less space to bunch up into on the old-style trains. Or maybe people in East London just really like cosying up to each other by the doors, who knows?


7. You have to press the button to open the doors

Again, not unusual for a suburban rail line, but my hot take is that London transport needs to go one way or the other on this, because my brain can’t handle switching door opening paradigms and I keep lamely hitting the button on underground trains like some sort of idiot tourist.

8. Even the stations that didn’t need that much done really aren’t finished

Even Manor Park, a pre-existing above ground station, still has upgrade work going on, meaning that to get from the ticket hall to the platforms you have to exit the station and walk round the side to a gap in the fence. Obviously this isn’t the biggest deal in the world and it will look all spiffy and new when they’ve finished doing it up, but come on guys, this one didn’t even involve digging any holes!

9. Judging by how much the train empties, at the moment Stratford is at least as useful an interchange as Liverpool Street, if not more so

So at least I can get a seat for the last bit of my commute. Presumably this will change a bit once it reaches central London stations with more promising options than Liverpool Street – not least because you basically have to cross the entire concourse, which at peak time is understandably full of people trying to work out how not to be in Liverpool Street station.

10. Crossrail will be really, really good, once it actually exists

When it actually exists. If it ever actually exists.

Maybe one day I might even be able to persuade someone to come and visit me in the wild lands of Epping Forest occasionally, once they’ve worked out that Manor Park and Manor House are different places.

11. I am never calling it the Elizabeth Line and you cannot make me

Crossrail ‘til I die.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.