When does London’s Crossrail open?

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

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?

If you’ve got a question you’d like us to answer, why not write in?

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

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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

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

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