This weekend will see the last of Crossrail‘s mass tests on the Elizabeth line as it nears its opening date, and ahead of that, a group of us were given a sneak preview of what it’s like to ride at speed through the new tunnels.
Starting at Paddington, a quick, very quick and smooth, trip to Liverpool Street was on offer, and a chance to have a look at the two completed stations.
A clearly very excited Mark Wild, Crossrail’s CEO was keen to show off not just the stations and railways, but also some of the subtle thinking that’s gone into them — with a host of facts for future pub quizzes.
There were also more details given about the final stages to be completed before the line can open to paying passengers, and what happens when it opens.
Something which was confirmed is that TfL Rail, the unexpectedly long-lasting temporary brand name used for the services running into Paddington and Liverpool Street will be switched over to the Elizabeth line brand on Day One of the core tunnels opening. TfL’s Chief Operating Officer, Andy Lord confirmed some of the details about how TfL Rail will transition to the Elizabeth line. He anticipates that the TfL Rail brand will start to be replaced with the Elizabeth line on trains and platforms probably a couple of weeks before the Elizabeth line opens. It can’t be done overnight due to the sheer volume of work to be carried out.
With the exception of the Waterloo and City, and the Victoria lines, every other tube line connects with the Elizabeth line, and they will all need station maps, line maps inside trains and all the other messaging to be replaced. Some will be newly made signs, but where they can, they will look to the same idea used for the Northern line extension, which was to put full-size vinyls over the old maps, so there’s a clean neat appearance, without spending a fortune on new enamel.
There’s also some testing going on in the stations with some temporary signs to be used at Liverpool Street for people coming from the west who need to change for the mainline service to Shenfield, as the tunnels won’t connect to that service until later this year.
Before that, there’s more testing to be carried out, and Mark Wild offered some insights into what’s left to do.
The final mass test takes place this weekend, with over a thousand TfL volunteers. Then the formal testing is over. From next week, the line will enter two weeks of Shadow Running, to bed in some more experience. Then it’s over to the rail regulator to sign off on the railway as fit and safe to open. That’s likely to take another month, so towards the end of April. While that’s going on, the roughly 1,000 staff working on the Elizabeth line will spend more time practising and getting experience in running the railway as a live service. Another software update for the trains is due in Easter to deal with some lingering reliability issues.
TfL’s CEO, Andy Byford has repeatedly stated that the line won’t open until he is confident it’s a reliable railway. He doesn’t want another Heathrow Terminal 5 debacle on his hands.
So, at the moment, baring any other issues, a few weeks after Easter could be when the line opens, but still within the target of the first half this year.
When it opens, the core will have 12 trains per hour with 9 carriages per train, running between Paddington and Abbey Wood. When the Shenfield branch connects later this year, that ramps the service up to 22 trains per hour in the core, with some reversing at Paddington, and others going on to Heathrow and Reading.
But, the line is built for more than that.
If it’s needed, the Elizabeth line has the capacity to run 30 trains per hour through the core tunnels, and the trains could be extended to 11 carriages from the 9 at the moment. A line that adds about 10% extra capacity to the central tube network, especially on the Central and Jubilee lines, could grow by another quarter if needed in the future.
Starting at Paddington, as a new station box, it’s so large that the Shard could lie on its side and fit inside, with space to spare. As large as the public spaces look, they are actually smaller than the back of house facilities. The back of house spaces has around 500 rooms, and is in total, some 20% larger than what the public will see. A reminder that most of the stations on the Underground are often far larger (and expensive) than they look at first sight.
The very distinctive brickwork on the side walls are in old Imperial sizes to echo Brunel’s station next door, and the panels are built to the same standard as Brunel’s original 10-foot square. The clouds on the glass ceiling artwork at street level are made up of real cloud shapes, that would not usually be seen together in the skies at the same time.
Something though that was added to Paddington station after the funding was approved was a new direct deep tunnel link from the platforms to the Bakerloo line. London Underground contractors built the link, and Andy Lord suggested that they are considering opening up the link before the Elizabeth line opens fully as it would help with offering step-free access for Bakerloo line customers.
At the other end of our preview journey, famously within Crossrail lore, the station at Liverpool Street joins up underground with Moorgate station, and TfL is expecting to have to do some educational work for people who might for example arrive at Moorgate on the Northern line and think they need to catch the tube to Liverpool Street, when in fact they could just walk through the Elizabeth line station. There’s a central corridor between the two platforms on the Elizabeth line specifically to assist in that.
It’s also a station with something that’s likely to become a bit of a tourist attraction when it first opens, two incline lifts that run alongside the escalators. The novelty of them in central London means I expect a lot of people will take a trip in them at least once, just so say they have.
Something else that can be seen is at Liverpool Street and will hopefully never be needed, are some huge fire doors in the passenger tunnels, that are rated to hold back a fire raging at 3,000 degrees for up to 2 hours. To put that into context, it would probably need two trains to arrive at the station at the same time and both be suffering catastrophic fires. Which has never happened before anywhere, but the fire doors will cope if it did happen. They never want another King’s Cross on the Underground, so fire safety is taken seriously in the station design.
Built by Booth Industries just outside Manchester, these are the second set of fire doors for this space, as the first set was sent to Germany to be deliberately destroyed in a fire test. Why Germany? Because it’s the only place that had a furnace testing rig large enough and also able to deliver the necessary amount of heat for long enough to doors as large as these. They’re the largest fire doors on the Elizabeth line.
A lot of the effort that’s gone into the project goes into the safety systems, and that’s often been the cause of some of the delays in completing the stations. Most of the systems are hidden away, but some are visible. In total, there are 10,000 fire safety doors on the Elizabeth line, some of them supplied by Rhino Doors, who also carried out fire tests on their designs.
Talking of doors, the drivers’ cab doors on the trains… turns out that they’re bulletproof. Just in case.
I’ve written over 300 articles about Crossrail over the years, from early public consultations, through station mockups, standing on mud deep under the stations before the concrete was poured, on engineering trains growling their way through tunnels, and in many of the stations as they’ve turned from empty shells into finished stations.
And yet, this was the first time I had been in an Elizabeth line train running at full speed through the core tunnels. The trains are already running out of Paddington and Liverpool Street, and I’ve been on them many times. However, there’s still something intangibly exciting about getting onto the trains for the first time to head through central London at speeds that are frankly, still quite surprising. You feel the acceleration as the trains leave and barely enough time to settle before we’re pulling into the next stop, which would have been a good 10-15 minutes on the tube.
And the journey is so smooth. It’s a new floating slab track and apart from the curves and gradients, it’s difficult to feel much vibration in the train. It reminds me of when the Jubilee line extension opened, and you could tell when you swapped from the old to the new because the ride suddenly switched from rough to smooth. The same happens as Elizabeth line trains come off the mainline railway and into the tunnels.
With the frankly, really annoying irritation of Bond Street not opening with the rest of the line – it’ll be about 3 months later – I think it’s going to be a shock to the public when they start using the Elizabeth line.
The passenger tunnels are huge, the station platforms are huge, the trains are huge. There are so many clever ideas in how they convey information on the display screens embedded in the full height platform edge screens. The lighting is subtle and delicate, and the curving walls add a sense of style and occasion rarely seen since the time of Charles Holden.
People will be arguing over the causes of the delays and budget overspending for years, although the general gist of what went wrong is pretty much understood now, and those learnings are already feeding into other projects such as HS2 to ensure they don’t suffer the same problems.
But what can’t be denied is that what’s been built is astonishing.
The Elizabeth line, it’s late, it’s over budget, but oh, it’s so very good.
And not long until everyone can go down into the stations and gasp for themselves.