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.

 
 
 
 

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.