One of the more complex stations being built by Crossrail is at Whitechapel where they not only had to build a new station above existing running railways but also tunnel underneath them as well.
Whitechapel station is of course, also the answer to the famous pub-quiz question, of which station has the Underground pass over the Overground. The Overground runs north-south in a deep cutting, while the Underground runs above in a shallow cutting in an East-West orientation.
Thanks to the area’s heritage of different lines, lots of lost freight sidings and rebuilds, we’re left with a lot of Victorian engineering, in a very tight space squashed in behind shops and homes, and in a very busy area. For any construction site that would be a difficult site to build on, but having a live railway in the middle of it also massively complicated things.
The project can almost be seen as two separate building sites – the tunnels deep underground, and the huge redevelopment above ground to tie three lines into one station.
Having just a few hours each night to do works over the railway lines was a serious, but known impediment. Less helpful, they were only granted one significant blockade of the line, when the Overground tunnels were closed for 9-days in August 2016.
Very unhelpful though was the totally unexpected arrival of the night tube on the London Overground wiped out two nights a week of work time
Maybe unsurprisingly, this particular Crossrail station is now over budget and late. Although the specifics of the delays are still being reported on, initial reports across the entire Crossrail project have generally laid the blame at the lack of project management downwards by senior Crossrail staff, and the lack of reporting upwards of problems by contractors.
A new team are in charge at Crossrail, and one of the things they have now are weekly briefings. For example, the Whitechapel staff hold a meeting on Monday to discuss issues, then that’s fed up to Crossrail on Tuesday, and to the boss, Mark Wild on Thursday — with the intention that Crossrail can look across its suppliers and contractors for a solution that might not have been available at the contractor concerned.
There’s also a level of awareness now that maybe the early contractors were treating the project as a construction site in a difficult location, and didn’t take into account the relationship building, the complexities, and bureaucracy that comes from building next to four live railway lines.
A lot of last-minute hold-ups due to the necessary permissions for works over the railway lines arriving very late in the day, which might have been less of a problem had they spent more time liaising with the railway side of the building site. That’s in the past – new reporting methods and project management is in place to get the site finished, and to support the testing of the Elizabeth line trains which now pass through the station platforms.
The design of the new station is complicated at first glance, but actually fairly simple when looked at carefully.
The Underground section used to be two separate platforms, with four railway tracks, but is now one very wide platform with tracks on either side. The exit used to be via some narrow stairs up to a narrow corridor to the ticket hall. That concept will remain but now going up a very wide set of steps (and lifts) to a new much larger corridor.
Where the old narrow corridor skirted around the Overground tracks below, the new corridor sits right on top of the Overground and is, in fact, the dominant feature of the new station design.
A huge curving roof and corridor will run above the full length of the Overground platforms, and at the northern end, will be the new escalators down to the Elizabeth line. This image shows the site in profile, with the London Overground tracks running beneath the new curving corridor. The Underground tracks are at right angles to this image, under the apex of the curved roof.
To build this has not been easy
For the tunnels underground, it was almost a routine task. A shaft dug down in the former Sainsbury’s car park allowed access deep underground to start digging out the station tunnels.
Two more shafts were dug at the far ends of the Crossrail platforms, one for ventilation and emergency services, and one for the escalator box to be used by passengers.
The escalator box was a delicate task though, as it sits right next to the Overground tracks, and they needed to ensure that as they dug down, that the Overground tracks didn’t end up offering an unexpected diversion down into the Crossrail tunnels.
A three escalator barrel has now been fitted out, with a very dramatic profile for people heading downstairs. At the moment it’s quite dark but does have a glass roof which will be revealed later.
Down in the platforms, they have the large curved concrete walls we’ve seen elsewhere on the project.
Floor to ceiling glass screens with digital displays for arriving trains, provide protection from the wind as trains approach, but more importantly, as these are mainline trains powered by overhead cables — they need a barrier to stop accidents happening. The upper area also houses the ventilation, and in case of fire, the smoke extraction fans.
A design that looks good has been born out of safety.
Along the length of the platforms are black boxes — and their locations reveal something interesting about the length of Crossrail platforms.
They’re a bit too long for fire hoses.
So the black boxes that house local electrics and supplies, also house a fire hydrant that the firemen can plug into, should the worst ever happen, and they are specifically located at the distance that fire hoses can reach.
This side passage used to be at the bottom of that original huge shaft dug down to start constructing the platform tunnels. It’s been filled in since then as it’s not needed for the station operations.
It’s above ground where the most work needs to be completed before the station can be handed over.
The original ticket hall has had all its internal walls removed to create the much larger space needed, and that will lead up to the new corridor and the ticket barriers.
The amount of scaffolding though is slightly misleading. That side is next to the running railway, and they can only use mobile cherry pickers to get up to the roof next to the railway at night — but scaffolding allows work during the daytime. If the railway wasn’t there, they wouldn’t have needed all that scaffolding.
The physical structure is largely complete, with fresh tiles and ticket barrier machines covered up in wooden cladding — the works are fitting out the electrics and system equipment.
The whole structure sits on top of the Overground tracks, and during the 2016 blockade, they filled the Overground tracks with massive blocks of polystyrene to protect the track as they drilled down for piles and build the new concourse above.
At the moment the Overground platforms are very dark, but when completed, light will flood down from above when all the covers are lifted from windows running the full length of the corridor.
Also running the length of the corridor will be a public pathway linking north and south so people can avoid a detour around the side streets.
There are a number of key deadlines coming up to prepare the station for the public to use.
By the end of October they need to have the station about to allow modest evacuations from the tunnels and the fire bridge down, as that’s required for the Elizabeth line testing.
Later this year, full-scale testing of the railway should be able to start, with potential for hundreds of people to be test-evacuated from the station. Then follows several months of familiarisation for London Underground staff, and it’s likely that the public will be able to start using the new station from next June.
The Elizabeth line will arrive somewhat later, but Whitechapel Station will be open for business.
Thanks to Crossrail and the staff at Whitechapel station for the site access.
Some more photos
The gates and hoist will be used roughtly once every 30 years to replace worn out equipment.
The transition from wire to fixed bar for the overhead power supply.
The fitted out railway tunnel – looking towards Liverpool Street.
Confirming the location.
In the emergency escape, black paint behind the yellow handrails gives a sharp colour contrast to help with visual difficulties.
At the top of the stairs from the Underground lines – all the metal panels are dark to reduce sun glare affecting the train drivers.
Working on the new concourse above the Overground platforms.
This is the space behind the blue hoardings on the Underground platforms — will be open to the public next June(ish).
Looking down on the Underground platforms, with an eastbound train arrived.