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!


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.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.