Elizabeth line: Crossrail complete after decades of struggle – a photo essay

Almost four decades elapsed between the first official proposals for an east-west “Crossrail” line under London, and the start of construction works for what would eventually become the Elizabeth line. After the knockbacks and political fights over who should pay for such an ambitious scheme, the actual physical work – above and below ground – would take only a relatively short 13 years.

The feats of engineering required quickly grabbed public imagination – mainly positively. The first official building work was in May 2009, when piles were driven into the ground at Canary Wharf, and excavation started for one of the first huge box-stations. Less popular was the demolition of the Astoria music venue in the heart of the West End, as Tottenham Court Road was cleared for redevelopment.

Even at that point, Crossrail’s future was not secure – but the following year’s election of a Conservative-led coalition preaching austerity led only to a cut to its budget, down to just over £15bn. Infrastructure spending was largely deemed the more acceptable kind by successive chancellors, and by 2012 the most significant part of the works began: the tunnelling of the central section under the capital.

That work was done by machines, each costing an estimated £10m, built in Germany but given reassuringly British names. The likes of Phyllis and Victoria were not so much giant drills as hi-tech factories, weighing nearly 1,000 tonnes, with teams of workers behind the machine head, excavating and building concrete tunnels around themselves with millimetre precision as they burrowed through the maze of rail lines and utilities already occupying London’s clay and chalk.

Between 2012 and 2015 the eight machines cut 13 miles of wide tunnel for future tracks, shifting out about 6m tonnes of earth. Around half of it was shipped to Wallasea Island on the Essex coast, creating a new wetland sanctuary for bird life.

Far greater numbers of workers were employed building adjacent tunnels for walkways and stations, spraying concrete after carving out new connections – or reopening older ones such as the Connaught tunnel.

Nearer the surface, archaeologists were combing earthworks in station developments such as Farringdon, turning up relics of how London used to be in times of greater crisis. The bodies of dozens of plague victims were uncovered in Liverpool Street and Charterhouse Square.

If there was visible disruption in the very heart of London, much of the construction went on underground with residents barely aware of the work going on around them. In the West End, vast caverns were being excavated and developed by huge teams of workers, just feet away from the hundreds of thousands of passengers using the tube.

By 2016, with politicians queueing in hard hats to be associated with this British triumph, even the Queen visited construction workers – and it was announced that the completed project would, once running, be named after her: the Elizabeth line.

The monarch was due to open the key central section in December 2018. Ten new stations were under way in central London – big enough that several had platform entrances spanning two existing tube stops.

Building work on stations such as Canary Wharf appeared almost complete, and in 2017 the last bit of railway track was laid. New trains, manufactured by Bombardier (now Alstom), entered into service as TfL rail in 2017 on the eastern, overground stretches of the line.

The £15bn railway was, richly paid executives assured the public and paymasters, on time and on budget.

Except, it wasn’t.

Some stations looked complete quite early in the process – masking the problems behind the scenes, not least in hooking up its digital signalling, which needed to integrate three different systems. The high-spec, state of the art designs had a level of complexity that apparently even the bosses did not fully grasp.

A fire at an electrical substation in late 2017 was the first hint of much bigger problems. Bond Street, it would later transpire, was about 18 months behind the plan. And yet only in summer 2018 did Crossrail bosses admit they had blown the budget and the schedule, just months before the official opening.

As Christian Wolmar, author of Crossrail: The Whole Story, puts it, those involved – and observers like himself – had “drunk the Kool-Aid”, as senior management either played down or ignored the problems. “My epiphany was a visit to Paddington in June 2018 when I saw 500 people in orange suits still at work – the platform doors were nowhere to be seen, the escalators were in bits,” he says. “The idea that they could have done the testing in six to eight weeks is incredible.”

“The railway is entirely digital, the most complicated built in this country … every system leans on each other,” Wolmar says. “They didn’t have the people who knew how to unify the systems – they had civil engineers trying to do the job.”

For a brief period, Crossrail lost its shine. The £15bn railway would eventually become a £19bn railway, in painful increments as fresh delays and overspends were announced. Hopes for an opening in 2019 gave way to a possible start in 2021. Bosses were replaced and TfL took sole charge of the project.

Yet on the cusp of opening, the delay and overspend – relatively minor in the annals of major infrastructure projects – starts to feel like a footnote in history. Crossrail’s designers, engineers and workers have built something unprecedented in the UK: an underground train service whose speed, comfort, and accessibility will transform the experience of passengers.

After a pandemic that all but emptied London’s transport, the lure of faster, better journeys is ever more critical to lure people back to the capital, reshape the south-east’s geography and boost the whole national economy. The world may have changed enormously since Crossrail’s conception – but the Elizabeth line is carrying politicians’ great hopes once again.

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