This time next week, people will be commuting to work on the Elizabeth line for the first time, but what did it take to get the railway built?
I’ve had a remarkable 14 years reporting on the construction of the new railway, from early public meetings to the first holes in the ground, and now the finished product. There have been lots of good times, and in 2018, a very bad day when the first of a series of delays was announced.
Going on to the building sites meant busy people having to give up their time to shepherd us around, but one thing that was always easy to see was how proud and excited people were to be working on the project. They’re building something that’ll last for a couple of centuries at least, and be used by hundreds of millions of people over its lifetime, which is not something many of us will ever do. Every site visit included briefings from the project manager, and as an “informed amateur”, I’ve personally learned so much about the construction industry over the past decade, and come away with a fresh respect for the people who work on the sites. From the heavy protective clothing people have to wear, and oh boy is it nice to take that off on hot days, to the need to carry oxygen rebreathers in early tunnel sites, just in case they’re needed, undeniably it’s hard work.
And I was usually only there for half a day on most visits, so just imagine doing that every day.
Going onto a building site is a mixed emotion. I am there to do a job, and I am only there because the site owners want to show you, my readers, what they are doing, but undeniably, for someone who doesn’t work on building sites, every visit is really good fun. It’s hard to remember to stay in “serious work mode” and stop walking around with a big excited grin when seeing these amazing places being dug out of the ground.
So I’ve compiled a list of the 25 of my favourite photos from the past decade. Some are chosen for aesthetic reasons, others because they tell a bit of the story that I found enjoyable.
It’s taken a long time, longer than planned, but at long last, I am about to run out of reasons to write about building the Elizabeth line. You know something, that’s a bit emotional.
1] March 2011
This was my first official site visit with Crossrail, and it wasn’t even in London. It involved a trip to a warehouse in Leighton Buzzard, where an early model of the central tunnel stations had been constructed to test some of the early design ideas for digital displays, the lighting panels and the curved walls. Even though it was in a warehouse, once you stepped inside it felt remarkably like you were deep underground.
2] April 2011
One of my favourite parts of the project has been the reuse of an old Victorian railway tunnel under the docks in East London. The engineering challenges it presented were impressive but no less so than the sheer grandeur of the brickwork and the indomitable project manager, Linda Miller.
3] May 2011
This was the point where they had dug down to the very bottom of the future station at Canary Wharf, and we’re walking on a sand bed that was laid down some 58 million years ago, which puts the whole project into some sort of context for me as to how old the land is we dig through. I always regret not bringing a handful of it back with me.
I liked this photo as it showed the station in its primaeval raw state before all the clean concrete covered it all up, and the people in the photos give scale to the huge long box that was dug here.
4] September 2011
Gratutitous selfie moment – this was taken in the tunnel portal at Roya Oak, where a few months later a giant TBM would be chewing away at the concrete behind me.
5] April 2012
A return visit to the Connaught Tunnel, and this was one of those “snap a photo and it turns out great” moments. I recall we were walking down the tunnel, and someone from Crossrail was ahead of me. He looks like he’s in deep contemplation of the tunnel – actually he’s stopped for a few seconds waiting for the rest of us to catch up, and I quickly snapped the photo as I was walking behind and I love the result.
6] July 2012
The Elizabeth line passes close to Canning Town station, and next to it two deep shafts were dug to launch the Tunnel Boring Machines. On a visit, some workmen were getting a lift back up out of the shaft in a bucket. I snapped this as we were walking around the shaft to go down the stairs and it ended up being one of my all-time favourites from the whole project.
7] July 2012
The Kingsway subway under Holborn was being used by Crossrail to dig a small shaft down inside the subway to pump out grout under the nearby buildings to prevent subsidence as the TBM passed underneath. For me, this was an exciting site visit as the Kingsway subway was almost impossibly difficult to get permission to visit at the time, so while the shaft was important, it was the wider site that I really wanted to see inside. One of the perks of the job.
It was a very difficult site to photograph to show what was going on though, but I like the slightly eerie way the green netting gives this an almost science-fiction feel about the site. Quatermass watch out.
8] August 2012
Here Berkley Homes is excavating the site that will become the Woolwich station for the Elizabeth line.
9] December 2012
On an appallingly wet day, a visit to the Plumstead portal involved walking around with the camera under jackets and flipping it out occasionally to take a photo. All tunnels that are under construction have an icon of St Barbara, the patron saint of miners, and I quite liked the combination of ancient religion in a modern building site.
10] February 2013
This was a site visit to mark the completion of building the concrete box for the Woolwich station — at a time when it was still uncertain if it would be fitted out and opened to the public. I just loved the long line of massive concrete columns, needed to support blocks of flats above, and the two figures in the far distance, combined with the slightly unsettling thought that it might never be a finished station.
11] March 2013
The ugly duckling of the project. I am in hindsight really kicking myself, as I knew there was a delay at Bond Street, but swallowed the PR cool-aid and accepted assurances it was all going to be fine. Had I been more cynical, who knows how much earlier the Bond Street station delays would have been revealed.
I chose this photo as it’s the concrete sprayer in protective white overalls wearing an oxygen rebreather taking a break from manually spraying concrete onto clay walls to create tunnels. A lot of the project away from the big fancy machines was dug manually and in often quite challenging conditions.
12] June 2013
I love this photo of the tunnels being dug at Tottenham Court Road station because it includes a full-size truck in the tunnels. People are so used to tube tunnels being fairly small, but Crossrail were driving full-size trucks deep under London. It really shows just how massive some of these underground construction sites were.
13] September 2013
This was a site visit to Paddington, and I like it as it hides as much as it shows. It looks like they’ve only just started digging the hole for the station, but in fact, they laid the slab first, then dug the station out underneath, so lots of people in the offices around spent a couple of years wondering why nothing seemed to be happening. It was all underneath.
14] November 2013
A return visit to Canary Wharf as the newly dug out station box was starting to be filled in, and I like this as it shows that when the public are have descended down to whey they think is the very bottom of the station, there’s yet another floor for equipment and staff underneath their feet.
15] December 2014
Away from central London, to separate trains heading east-west from those that head toward Heathrow Airport, a huge flyover was built.
I was never entirely happy with my photos from the site, as it was just too big a site and curved around a corner to show off the size of the project, and the flyover was itself just one small part of a much larger site project to untangle a mess of tracks in the area for all trains passing by.
But I am glad I wrote about it, as these enabling works rarely get the recognition they deserve.
16] December 2015
A visit to see inside the huge box that was the Paddington station. And as impressive as it was, it was remarkably difficult to photograph as it was so cluttered with scaffolding and equipment that you couldn’t see that far in front of you. It was only when standing on the scaffolding staircase that you could appreciate the size of the building site.
That often worries me when going on a building site – that people are giving up a lot of time to show you around, and yet it’s a really difficult site to photograph so they might be disappointed when you publish a final article.
17] December 2015
Near Acton, a tunnel was dug underneath the existing railways to allow freight trains to get from one side to the other. This was necessary as very long slow freight trains would otherwise block the Elizabeth line several times a day. A bad thing. It’s another of those hidden bits of infrastructure that will never really be seen by anyone, but was critical to ensuring the line can run a regular service.
I like the photo for the atmospheric appearance as we stand just inside the tunnel lookout out to the ramp up. There’s a weird optical effect that makes the workman in the distance look absolutely tiny, as the tunnel really isn’t as big as it looks.
18] April 2016
This shows tracks being laid out for measuring as they are being prepared for installation at Tottenham Court Road, and I’ve always liked this visit as it allowed me to use an anecdote about the 1990 football world cup and how the recording of Nessun Dorma by Pavarotti was made in London, and on a good hi-fi, it’s possible to hear the Piccadilly Line trains rumbling past in the quiet parts.
But here at Tottenham Court Road they have installed a sound buffering system to prevent that from happening again in the recording studios under Soho.
In a way, the photo is nice, but for me, the story is nicer.
19] July 2016
A visit to Derby to see the new Class 345 trains that would form the Elizabeth line fleet.
Inside the trains, the seats had been fitted with a temporary fabric to protect them during tests. However, as I have long sighed about, people look at pictures and react without reading the text, so I tweeted a photo with the notice that this wasn’t the final fabric design, and was flooded with people complaining about the fabric design.
Then again, a roll of that orange fabric is probably now a valued collector’s item.
20] June 2017
This was the launch of the first of the Class 345 trains running under the TfL Rail brand between Shenfield and Liverpool Street. I am sure the Crossrail team long wished they hadn’t splashed that sign on the side of the trains though – and for me, it was a useful photo to use in later articles about delays on the line.
21] June 2018
This was a public open day where people were able to go down and see the nearly finished Farringdon station, and why I like this photo is it shows the back-of-house parts of the station people used on that day. The public so rarely get to see these hidden worlds, and yet in many of the new stations, there’s more back-of-house infrastructure than there are public spaces. A truly hidden world.
22] July 2018
This is Tottenham Court Road and shows the long corridors with their soon to be memorable totem lighting poles and signs. Normally the poles uplight the ceiling, but here they are in fire-escape mode with the side panels lit up. I think they look really atmospheric like this, but just hope you never see them doing this for real though.
23] February 2019
I had permission to visit the Elizabeth line depot in Old Oak Common to see how the trains will be maintained and serviced there. In a way, this is a photo that shouldn’t be possible to take as there should never be that many trains not in service at the same time, but we all know why they were here waiting, and it does make for a good photo.
24] March 2020
I like this shabby photo as it shows something that won’t appear on the tube map and is a perfect pub quiz moment.
The Farringdon station reaches almost to the Barbican tube station, but in the end, they decided not the link the two. However, there was a need during construction for a shaft to be dug down, so afterwards, they put in a lift. It’s only on the westbound platform on the Barbican and will not appear on a map, but it’s there for you to say you’ve used it at least once.
25] June 2021
A visit to Woolwich for the formal handover to TfL, and although I had been here several times, this was the first time we went down on the escalators, and I have to confess it fair took my breath away as the huge long cavern opened up for the first time.
The effect is not unlike a visit to the Jubilee line at Canary Wharf, and considering this station was an afterthought for the project, that’s even more impressive. Pay a visit, but if arriving by Lizzie line, try not to look around until you get to the top of the escalators, then turn around and come back down into the station for the wow moment.
And a final bonus…
This is from August 2015, and was one of my favourite site visits, as it was so unexpected and so rare that photography is allowed here — a salt mine not far from Crewe in Cheshire. It was here that the core samples taken before Crossrail started are stored for future researchers to use, and it’s a remarkable place to visit, deeper than any Crossrail tunnel and vast in scale.
The salt mine uses some of the caverns for storage as the temperature and humidity are perfect, and being deep underground, it’s very secure. It’s very Indiana Jones in the storage vaults, but for me, the experience of driving in a mini-van through miles of huge dimly lit tunnels was remarkable.
After the visit, we were running late to catch trains home, so the taxi driver drove fast, in very winding country lanes, and by the time we got to the station I was suffering bad travel sickness, which did not abate on the train home. I suffered so much for that story!