Crossrail – or the Elizabeth line, as it was irritatingly renamed in 2016, for some reason; I’ll be using the two names interchangeably – will be the biggest addition to the London transport network in decades: a new east-west rail tunnel beneath the streets of the capital, linking the main lines into Paddington and Liverpool Street for the first time. Trains will run directly from Reading or Heathrow in the west, via the West End and City, to Shenfield or Abbey Wood in the east.
All this, the group building the line have promised, will increase central London’s rail capacity by 10 per cent. It’ll make it possible to get from, say, Whitechapel to Tottenham Court Road in just seven minutes. Best of all, it’ll make it much easier for the bankers of Canary Wharf to get direct trains to both the West End and the city’s main airport, and since we all basically want bankers to be able to have an easy time of it, I’m sure we’re all delighted about that.
At any rate: at some point soon, London will have what is, in effect, a giant new tube line beneath its streets, and if you’re reading this website, then there’s a fair chance you’re the sort of person who’ll be excited about this.
But when is it happening? When will Crossrail open?
The short, troubled life of TfL Rail
If you squint, the first bit of the line is actually already open, sort of. Transport for London (TfL) took over the Liverpool Street to Shenfield suburban services in May 2015, and currently runs them under its TfL Rail brand. It even has proper Crossrail/Elizabeth line trains: the first of the new Class 345 trains, with a purple colour-scheme, air conditioning and modern computerised information signs, began to run on this line in June 2017.
Inside a new Class 345. Image: TfL.
But while the Shenfield line now has Crossrail trains serving Crossrail stations, it is not in any sensible sense Crossrail: it’s the same old Shenfield metro service, slightly polished up and rebranded. Most of the trains on the route are still the rubbish old ones, and west of Stratford, it’s not even the right tracks: the Elizabeth line will enter a new tunnel and run to Liverpool Street via Whitechapel, while TfL rail still trundles along the Great Eastern Main Line above ground.
All this is one reason why the service is branded TfL Rail. The other is that it is, currently, not very good, and closes depressingly often for engineering works, of the sort you need to do when you’re opening a £15bn new railway. If it had been called Crossrail or the Elizabeth Line, then people would start associating those names with rail services that were Not Very Good either. If people hate TfL rail then, well, it doesn’t really matter because it’ll be gone soon.
By the end of this year, in fact.
Bloody hell. Image: TfL.
A profusion of purple
A second TfL Rail service will actually open in May 2018: this one will run between Paddington and Heathrow, replacing Heathrow Connect and some of the Great Western suburban services.
But this one will only last for seven months, because, in December 2018, this happens:
Hmmm. Image: TfL.
Look carefully at that map, and you’ll notice it contains not one Elizabeth line, but three. Two will be the TfL Rail services (Liverpool Street to Shenfield, Paddington to Heathrow), now rebranded. The exciting one is the third: that’s the new tunnel, running from Paddington, under the West End and the City to Docklands and Abbey Wood.
All this is a bit confusing, in its way. Someone arriving at Heathrow and trying to get to Stratford may glance at the map, see the Elizabeth line and think they can get a direct train. In fact, they’ll need to change, twice: once at Paddington and again at Liverpool Street.
Luckily, though, it’s a temporary state of affairs because in May 2019 the Shenfield branch will be hooked up to the new network. In December 2019, the Heathrow and Reading branches will join the line too, and the project will be complete.
The full line map. Image: TfL.
So: why does Crossrail/the Elizabeth line open? It depends which bit you want. The central section and Abbey Wood branch open this December; the Shenfield one in May 2019; the western branches in December 2019.
That, at least, is the plan: some TfL watchers are beginning to get nervous. The excellent London Reconnections published a long read last month under the worrying headline, “Crossrail: Cutting it fine”. An extract:
To quote Mark Wild, head of London Underground, on 30 January 2018: “We can still do it but it is very hard and complex and of course it brings with it cost pressures as well.”
This did seem to a recurring theme – ‘it can still be done’. The trouble is, the assertion does now seem to carry an unspoken addendum ‘provided nothing else major goes wrong’.
The article in question points out that there are a number of signs of slippage. The first new Crossrail trains were a month late in making their debut on the Shenfield line, and their doors have been malfunctioning. There have been problems with the power and signalling systems on the new line, too, and there are signs some of the station construction work is behind schedule.
The report concludes:
The current consensus within LR Towers is that the Elizabeth line will still open on time – a fact helped by the exact date still not yet being announced. Some stations will not be in the state that one might desire, but they will be capable of serving their purpose. All that can be rectified. We do wonder, however, if it will be possible to catch a new Elizabeth line train from Heathrow to Canary Wharf in December 2019.
If the project schedule slips, slightly, it won’t be any massive shock: such things happen with megaprojects and the surprise with Crossrail, so far, has actually been how well it’s all gone.
It’s also worth noting that London has been waiting a very long time for this one. Crossrail officially received government backing in 2008 – but previous versions of the project had been proposed, and abandoned, in the 1990s, 1970s and even 1940s.
Perhaps Crossrail will be a few months late. But after over 70 years, what’s a few months between friends?
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