Crossrail may be billions of pounds over budget and three and a half years late, but the new line — named in honour of the Queen — is now into its final phase of testing and within months of opening.
With the push of a button a warning signal sounds and the doors of the 200m Elizabeth Line train close. With the driver’s push of a second, the train pulls out of Farringdon station, snaking far below the busy streets of the capital, accelerating to a cool 60mph.
Trains are already running, branded as TfL Rail, between Reading and Paddington in the west and Shenfield and Liverpool Street in the east. The remaining piece of the jigsaw is the most complex and vital — connecting the two ends through the heart of the capital and out to Abbey Wood in the east. No one will give an exact date for the full opening, except that it will be in the first half of 2022.
“I’m not being coy,” said Andy Byford, the boss of Transport for London. “We just absolutely do not want a repeat of Heathrow Terminal 5. We will not settle on an opening date until we can be certain to open reliably. No one will forgive us if we don’t get it right.”
As part of that determination, 12 trains each hour are already running, like clockwork, east and west beneath London, albeit with one glaring omission: passengers. Once in full operation, 24 nine-car trains will be able to run each hour in the central section, with the option of up to 30.
In a rare case of Britain planning for the future, platforms have been built longer and could, if needed, accommodate 12-car trains.
Byford said: “We are now in the trial operations phase where our staff are working through 150 practical scenarios, ranging from what happens in the event of an active shooter, to what do you do if you lose all of the escalators, all the way to full mass evacuations.”
Other scenarios include dealing with drunk passengers. Ralph Davison, one of London Underground’s lead delivery managers, said they had been “known to use cans of soup” in the tests. “We have to be careful with the trains though: just like you wouldn’t want to ruin your carpet at home.”
There’s also the issue of preparing the ten huge and glistening central London stations. The new Paddington is the size of three Wembley football pitches and has natural light as far as the platform entry. It comes from a 120m glass canopy which has cloud formations by the artist Spencer Finch digitally printed on to it.
At Liverpool Street the ceiling above the escalators is designed to resemble pinstripes in a nod to the suits of City workers. The surface of the glass reinforced concrete used in all the London stations has been coated with an anti-graffiti layer that means any paint — or other bodily fluids — can be easily removed.
Hurdles remain and it is impossible to ignore the ballooning costs of the project. In August 2020, the outgoing Crossrail board warned of a £1.1 billion budget overrun, bringing the total cost of the project to £18.7 billion. The government had to loan £825 million to complete the project.
Byford said he had been very clear that he wants to complete the project with the existing funding available and has wound down the work of the main external contractors, with the intention of completing it in a more cost-effective way.
Bond Street station is also three months behind schedule and has been decoupled from the opening of the line. There are also technical issues to iron out. When the central section opens, trains will initially run between Paddington and Abbey Wood. Passengers travelling from the west or east will still need to change at Paddington or Liverpool Street mainline stations to the Elizabeth Line platforms.
By the end of the year the plan is that trains from the east will run as far as Paddington while those from the west will terminate at Abbey Wood.
Next year the whole line will be joined up to make a single railway, completing the project.
“When we opened the two new Northern Line stations last year we had people from as far as Scotland camping overnight to be the first in,” Byford said.
“When the Elizabeth Line opens below London we think people will be blown away.”