There is nothing quite like a great national party to kick-start a giant piece of national infrastructure. And next month’s celebrations of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee are no exception. For they have now proved to be the catalyst that will finally unlock one of the great post-war feats of engineering in Europe: London’s new Elizabeth Line.
During the peak of construction work, this new East-West monster tunnel was the largest engineering project across the continent. But then its scheduled completion date — 2018 — would prove hopelessly optimistic, as technical issues (especially signalling) dragged on for years, followed by the pandemic. All the while, the costs just kept on rising.
However, the forthcoming festivities for the line’s illustrious namesake have suddenly had a miraculous laxative effect on the hard-hatted, hi-vis pencil-chewers running this project.
With the main Jubilee festivities just days away, the authorities have now been galvanised into naming the date and finally allowing the paying public to see what they are getting for their £19 billion.
This is a new network that will redefine urban transport in this country, instantly adding 10 per cent extra capacity to the capital’s creaking rail systems. Above, the Queen unveils the new roundel in 2016
Almost overnight, new signs for the Elizabeth Line — its livery and decor are in a suitably royal purple (like the Queen’s racing colours) — have started sprouting across the capital. In less than a fortnight, subject to royal confirmation, we expect a VVIP ribbon-cutting somewhere along the route. Then, come dawn on May 24, the gates will open and the first passengers will climb aboard this 90mph jumbo-metro hurtling between the Berkshire countryside plus Heathrow Airport in the West and rural Essex in the East via the beating heart of London.
And it cannot come too soon. For this is a new network that will redefine urban transport in this country, instantly adding 10 per cent extra capacity to the capital’s creaking rail systems. Overnight, the historic nickname for the London Underground — ‘the Tube’ — will suddenly seem redundant. For the last thing you can call this monumental subterranean endeavour is a ‘tube’.
I am standing 100 ft below the surface at Farringdon, one of several newly mined stations hacked out beneath London, and this place is considerably larger than some of our greatest cathedrals.
Broad, curved, airy hallways the size of a football pitch lead down Himalayan escalators to shiny, palatial concourses. These open on to platforms that, in some places, are more than 800 ft in length — as long as the Titanic.
The platforms have to be huge to accommodate trains with double the capacity of those old rattlers you find growling along the rest of the Tube system. Each nine-carriage train will carry up to 1,500 passengers. In several places, they also clock up more than double the speed, hitting 90mph.
For weeks now, empty trains have been running day and night as engineers test the new system to destruction ahead of the big launch. Everyone hereabouts can recall the public relations disaster when Heathrow Airport unveiled its new Terminal Five prematurely in March 2008 and the whole thing seized up, losing 500 flights and nearly 50,000 suitcases.
I am standing 100 ft below the surface at Farringdon (above), one of several newly mined stations hacked out beneath London, and this place is considerably larger than some of our greatest cathedrals
The initial plan is to have a train in each direction every five minutes — although this autumn, that will double. And it is a curious experience waiting for one to arrive. Because the trains run behind a thick, floor-to-ceiling-sealed tinted glass wall (on the below-ground central section), the train only fully appears when the glass doors slide open on arrival. It makes the whole process eerily quiet.
Indeed, when the line is up and running, the main noise down here is going to be that of travellers yacking away on their phones. For better or worse, the Elizabeth Line stations are all kitted out with wifi, thus depriving legions of commuters of the excuse that they can’t talk because they are ‘going into a tunnel’.
Similarly, it’s bad news for the WFH refuseniks — including half the Civil Service. Once the new system is open, it will be that much harder for the pyjama platoons to insist that commuting takes too much time and that they can get just as much done at home.
Since the new line puts another 1.5 million people within a 45-minute radius of central London, there is now even less excuse for not getting out of the deck chair, getting dressed and getting back behind a desk. Just one example: a journey from Paddington, in West London, to Canary Wharf, in the old East End currently takes well over half an hour. Once the Elizabeth Line has opened, that will take just 17 minutes.
Nor will trainspotters and railway buffs be the only ones left dumbstruck when they come down here for the first time. It feels like arriving at an airport or a very grand department store rather than a Tube stop.
A team of ten architectural practices were recruited to give these stations individual identities. One City of London station, Liverpool Street, has a pin-striped theme in honour of the banking and broking heritage above ground.
Here at Farringdon, the designers have gone for an artisan vibe as a homage to the goldsmiths and jewellers who used to proliferate in these parts. Due to the complexity of the London sewage system, which forbids a vertical lift, Farringdon boasts a sloping elevator, like a funicular railway.
But there is also a common architectural ‘language’, too. All the stations have vaulted, rounded corners (meaning no sharp turns and better sightlines) along with clean, bright, uncluttered walls. The designers have requested a blanket ban on billboards — for now, at least. Like all artists, they don’t want to see their shiny new creation splattered with posters.
However, once the network is operational, they will no longer have any say. Given the financial imperatives to make this thing earn its keep, I dare say the management will then want to recoup as much advertising revenue as possible.
Pictured, a 1,000-ton boring machine breaking ground. For better or worse, the Elizabeth Line stations are all kitted out with wifi, thus depriving legions of commuters of the excuse that they can’t talk because they are ‘going into a tunnel’
The overall impact is of space and light — which all seems very un-London Underground. Clearly, Transport for London’s instruction to the designers of the Elizabeth Line was a simple one: ‘Make everyone go: “Wow, look at the size of this thing!” It smacks of the famously opulent marble-clad Moscow underground network, albeit without the chandeliers.
Some of these stations are so big that they actually change the mental geography of London. There are no recorded voices barking: ‘Mind The Gap!’ There ought to be one which says: ‘Find The Map!’
For these stations will change the way people navigate their way around the capital. The new Farringdon interchange, for example, is so enormous that it extends all the way to the Barbican — an entirely separate station farther down the existing Tube line.
And just in case the trains should disturb any musicians performing at the Barbican Centre above, the rolling stock runs on a special ‘floating slab track’ as it passes beneath the conductor’s podium.
The new Tottenham Court Road station has one bright and breezy entrance leading out into the wide-open retail pastures of Oxford Street and another, with a deliberately dingier feel, that delivers you to the bohemian drinking dens, media offices, studios and fleshpots of Soho.
For the first few months, the line will work in three parts while the teething troubles are sorted. The public will also have to wait until later in the year before they can use the new station (the most chi-chi of them all) at Bond Street
The architects describe the Soho entrance/exit as ‘dark and cinematic, reflecting the nocturnal economies that characterise the area’.
Head east to Canary Wharf and the new monster station — nearly a quarter of a mile long — looks like a giant pillow from the outside. That is, in part, because the whole thing really is covered in air-filled pillows over a giant timber latticework. Inside, it is a world apart from the average grubby, draughty station entrance. Here passengers will find 100,000 square feet of bars and shops built around a massive roof-top garden before they descend to the purple-tinged void far below.
For the first few months, the line will work in three parts while the teething troubles are sorted. The public will also have to wait until later in the year before they can use the new station (the most chi-chi of them all) at Bond Street.
To begin with, one section will run from Berkshire to Paddington. Passengers then switch to another train for the central ride beneath the capital. The third section will then run from Liverpool Street to Essex. By the autumn, though, the whole lot will be joined up.
One of the other remarkable aspects of this whole endeavour is that this is one major national development which does not polarise opinion. There is plenty of political point-scoring over the delays and the extra £5 billion bill on top of the original £14 billion budget.
The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps this week accused the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, of foul play for announcing the opening date just before polling day in the London council elections. Yet the line has general cross-party support. From the Greens and Labour to the Libs and Tories, all of them are broadly of one mind when it comes to the merits of the new service. Much like the Queen herself, the Elizabeth Line seems to rise above politics.
Mind you, the gestation of this thing has gone on so long that it has been through six Prime Ministers. John Major was in Downing Street when the first (unsuccessful) iteration of ‘Crossrail’ was put before Parliament in 1991. New proposals went through under Tony Blair in 2005.
Gordon Brown was in charge (while Boris Johnson was Mayor of London) when the Crossrail Act received Royal Assent in 2008. Tunnelling began on David Cameron’s watch in 2012 and, in 2016, the Queen came to take a look at the time of her 90th birthday. At which point, the whole thing was renamed the Elizabeth Line.
Theresa May was at No 10 when the first trains were introduced on the overground Essex leg in 2017. Now it falls to Boris Johnson to see the whole thing joined up.
There should be quite a gathering of the great and good come the opening ceremony. The big question is whether the Queen will be there herself. Having already visited in 2016, however, she knows what it looks like.
This is, of course, the third royal addition to the famous London Underground map: in 1969, the Queen opened the Victoria Line (she even rode in the driver’s cab). The Jubilee Line came into being in honour of her 1977 Silver Jubilee, though it took the millennium celebrations, more than 20 years later, to get that line completed.
There will, inevitably, be grumbling from the regions about London getting yet another vast chunk of investment.
On the other hand, this project will serve 200 million people a year and is expected to generate billions in terms of the overall boost to GDP. And compared with the £100 billion cost of building HS2 from North to South, it is a mere branch line.
Besides, the whole Crossrail saga has generated thousands of jobs all over the country — ranging from 150 employees making signs at AJ Wells on the Isle of Wight to thousands of beneficiaries in and around the Bombardier/Alstom factory which has built the trains in Derby.
Ultimately, for all the delays and cost overruns, this is a reminder of what Britain can achieve when it thinks big.
And things don’t come much larger than this monument to our longest-reigning, longest-lived monarch.
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