Updated: When does London’s Crossrail open?

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

The article below, originally published on 12 March 2018, outlined the surprisingly complex answer to the question posed in the headline. On 31 August 2018, though, news broke that TfL was to miss the most important deadline in the Crossrail calendar – December 2018, when the first passenger trains would run through the central tunnel. 

According to the Guardian, Crossrail executives have warned that

the central section of the line, travelling under the capital from Paddington to Abbey Wood, would now not open until autumn 2019 to complete building work and allow for extensive testing to ensure it opened as a safe and reliable railway.

This is not a huge surprise – as you can tell from the fact I warned this might happen at the bottom of the article. And the authorities claim that construction work is largely complete, so hopefully the timetable wont slip any further. 

But nonetheless it means that the answer to the most obvious version of the question When Does Crossrail Open? is now autumn 2019. This is sad, and everyone at CityMetric Towers will be wearing black armbands for the next 12-15 months as an act of mourning.

Anyway: the text below contains a lot of information about both what should have happened, and what in many cases still will, so with a few minor edits I have left it in place. Read it, if that’s your bag.

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.

It was supposed to be gone by the end of this year, in fact.

Bloody hell. Image: TfL.

A profusion of purple

A second TfL Rail service actually opened in May 2018: this one runs between Paddington and Heathrow, replacing Heathrow Connect and some of the Great Western suburban services.

But this one was intended to only last for seven months, because, in December 2018, this was meant to happen:

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 was meant to be a temporary state of affairs because in May 2019 the Shenfield branch would be hooked up to the new network. In December 2019, the Heathrow and Reading branches would join the line too, and the project will be complete.

The full line map. Image: TfL.

So: why is Crossrail/the Elizabeth line meant to open? It depends which bit you want. The central section and Abbey Wood branch should have opened this December; the Shenfield one in May 2019; the western branches in December 2019.

Unless...

Except of course that isn’t actually happening at alll: on the last day of August TfL quietly admitted the opening of the central section would be delayed by up to a year.

All this was precited. In February, the excellent London Reconnections published a long read 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 pointed 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 concluded:

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.


So: Crossrail will be a few months late. But after over 70 years, what’s a few months between friends?

The interesting question now is whether this means that, when it does open, it can open in full: perhaps rather than the phased opening originally intended, the Paddington and Liverpool Street branches will be operational from day one.

Whenever day one turns out to be.

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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How the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  


While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.