We walked 18 miles along the Crossrail route. Here’s what we learned

Artist’s impression of a westbound Crossrail train. Image: Crossrail.

On the last day of August, the London commuter and nerd communities were hit by a bombshell: the Elizabeth line, the new £15bn east-west railway better known as Crossrail, was running late. Instead of opening in December as planned, the central part of the route wouldn’t see service until the following autumn.  

In some ways, the most surprising thing about this was that any of us were surprised. Thanks to their scale and complexity, Megaprojects like Crossrail have an annoying tendency to run late and see cost-overruns (the two problems are connected). That a project on this scale should open on time and to budget was incredibly impressive; it was also, come to think of it, fairly unlikely.

But there’s another reason we shouldn’t have been surprised: look at the publicly-visible face of the new rail link, and you’ll find a lot of stuff looks a long way from finished.

Our route. Image: Screenshot from MapMyRoute.

I spent last Wednesday walking the length of the core of the new route from Woolwich to Paddington, accompanied by my trusty sidekick, the Guardian’s Jim Waterson. In all, we walked 18 miles: you don’t need to know this, but my feet hurt afterwards, so I’m damned well going to tell you.

Anyway: on our walk, we passed nine different Crossrail stations. Here’s Jim at the start of our odyssey, mere moments before a nice man from Berkeley Homes appeared to ask us what the hell we we were doing:

The reason we were lurking suspiciously outside the Berkeley sales office was because we couldn’t actually find the Crossrail station. There were several unfinished buildings behind hoardings promising a new rail link (still, mostly, plastered with the original, abandoned timetable). But which one was meant to be a station?

The man from Berkeley Homes was kind enough to tell us. Turns out, it was the one in the distance on the left hand side of that picture. Here it is from the other side:

And here’s how it’s supposed to look when finished:

So: still needs some work.

Next stop up the line is Custom House, which will serve the Royal Docks and ExCel, an exhibition centre that has never once been described as the happiest place on earth. It’s hidden behind a cheery concrete wall:

But unlike Woolwich it looked pretty complete. There’s even a roundel waiting to be unveiled:

It probably helps that Crossrail isn’t starting from scratch: there’s already a DLR station there, and used to be a national rail station, too. (Once upon a time, what is now the Richmond-Stratford branch of the Overground continued onwards through Canning Town to North Woolwich.)

After a thrilling trudge across the Lower Lea Crossing, we came to Canary Wharf. Despite sharing a name with both a DLR station and a Jubilee line one, this isn’t an existing station: it’s the lowest level of an entire new complex in the middle of North Dock:

But this too looks pretty ready to go. Indeed, the complex, complete with restaurants and cinema, has been open for some time. There’s even a sky garden (?!):

I forgot to take any pictures at Whitechapel: construction work there is continuing, and the entrance to the station on the main road is still closed, forcing passengers to use a back way. But I did take this one at Liverpool Street:

And this, of the other entrance to the same station at Moorgate:

Once again: this does not look like a station that was ready to receive passengers.

I forgot to take pictures at Farringdon too (sorry, by now we were running quite late), but they wouldn’t have been terribly thrilling in any case. Next up is Tottenham Court Road, where the main entrance, by Centrepoint, has been ready for some time. But the new one, by Dean Street, looks like, well, this:

The finished product will look like this:

The Hanover Square entrance for Bond Street is barely visible:

Here’s how it should look:

Then there’s this delightful box on Bond Street:

Frankly I’m not sure what that’s supposed to be but, I don’t think it’s meant to look like that.

All these stations, remember, were expected to see service in three months’ time.

Was that ever feasible? The official line from Crossrail is that, yes, it was. Here’s a spokesperson:

“Station construction activity is drawing to a close with the completion of the remaining mechanical, electrical and communications systems along with architectural fit-out in the new central section stations. All stations will complete by the end of the year with the exception of Bond Street. The new stations will open in autumn 2019.”

It’s possible that some of these stations are more complete than they initially appear. And it’s possible that, with the pressure on, a building site can come on a long way in three months. I suspect there may also be some wordplay going on in that statement: perhaps at Dean Street, for example, the station would be complete, even if the commercial building above it wouldn’t.


Nonetheless, despite these official assurances, my main takeaway from my day walking the Crossrail route was that, for a railway meant to be only a few weeks away from opening, it really doesn’t look that finished.

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

Photographs courtesy of the author; artists impressions courtesy of Crossrail.

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.