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