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Ten years, three mayors and £19 billion — Crossrail will change the capital forever

Crossrail will blow your mind. It’s much more than a new Tube line. It’s a fundamental, now and forever reshaping of what it means to live, work in or visit London, a reconstruction of the city’s geography that will shrink time for millions of us and become a core part of our lives. That’s why its opening day will be a far bigger moment for London than the passing joy of the 2012 Olympics. To be fair it’s cost a lot more than the Olympics, and taken longer, too.

But the wait is almost over. At 6.30am on Tuesday, May 24 — in time for the platinum jubilee — the first sleek trains, almost double the length of the ones now on the Tube, will set off from Paddington in the west and Abbey Wood in the east.

They will weave their way under the Thames and below skyscrapers through 26 miles of new tunnels, calling at stations that are like nothing London’s seen before. They are carved out in pristine bright white, with soft curves, rows of escalators and natural day light filtering down into the depths. Below the surface, each stop shares the same simple, purity: but at the surface they’ve been given their own character: a man-made glass sky at Paddington, for instance.

Stepping from these new public palaces back onto the old Tube lines next door will be like going back a century. Rattly, cramped old Central line or smooth, sleek Crossrail? It’s not going to be a fair fight. And it has come at the right moment. You can imagine the reaction if it had opened in the depths of the pandemic. Crossrail would have felt like a white elephant. Now, hybrid working means we might not travel every day. But when we do, we’ll need it.

Officially, of course, it’s not called Crossrail but the Elizabeth line, its operators Transport for London say. Whether that’s what Londoners end up calling it we’ll see. For now I’m sticking with Crossrail — a project I’ve been watching close up for a decade. At the start I crawled through one of the huge boring machines that went on to munch miles under the capital. It was like going down a mine, wrapped up in safety gear, looking at the sticky London clay as the digger cut deep and conveyor belts carried the waste away.

A couple of years later I marched down a clanking scaffolding staircase into what will soon by my local Crossrail stop, at Whitechapel: JCBs beeped as they darted around teams spraying liquid concrete onto walls and the huge teeth of the boring machine glistened at the end of tunnels where trains now run. You could just start to imagine this as a station, not some subterranean hell-hole built by giants. By the time of another visit, to Farringdon, it really did look like a railway. The platforms were in place and bits of escalators piled in heaps. The team then was upbeat: not much longer to go, they promised.

That was back in 2017. During a later visit, to Bond Street, the most difficult and delayed station on the line, I watched the furrows deepen on the face of TfL’s then-boss standing next to me as it finally sunk in how much more there was still to do. Everyone back then was still pretending it was going to open just weeks later, on time and on budget. Staff had even been hired to run the stations and trains. It was madness.

Crossrail will end up costing about £19 billion —£4 billion more than planned — and is making its debut in 2022 not 2018 — although it’s not the only big project around the world to hit problems. Berlin’s new airport, for instance, was nine years late.

What went wrong? It boils down to this: the building of the tunnels and the spaces where stations sit — the muscular bit of moving mud and pouring cement — was done brilliantly and on time. The first sections of tunnel we will get to use this month were actually completed almost a decade ago. But turning these dark caverns into a massively complex railway— the most digitally-advanced on earth — was a whole different job, and much harder than anyone realised. Even once the millions of parts were put together, there had to be months of testing and constant software updates to get the trains and signalling to work reliably. It became a 73-mile long IT upgrade nightmare. But it’s done now.

So what is Crossrail? Why was it built? And what will it be like to use? The line stitches together existing railways from the east and west — so that trains from Reading and Heathrow, which now have to halt at Paddington — can glide to stops in the West End and City before heading east on two routes, one past Stratford to Shenfield, and the other through Canary Wharf and under the Thames to Abbey Wood, with bus and rail links fanning out across south-east London. Fares will be the same as on the Tube.

Doing something like this isn’t a new idea. There were proposals in the 19th century. In 1974 a key report backed it. Margaret Thatcher’s government did it again in the Eighties (I was told, by someone who was there, that at a crucial meeting she picked the route, against a competing one linking Chelsea to north London, on the grounds that no one she knew in Chelsea would ever want to go to Hackney, “so we had better have the other one”).

Work began in 2008. It’s taken three London Mayors and four prime ministers to stick with the scheme. Now we can get to travel on it. From this month 12 services will run each hour in each direction through the main tunnels from Paddington to Abbey Wood —although they won’t stop at Bond Street until it’s finished in the autumn. That’s when the branch out past Whitechapel to Stratford and Shenfield should open as well. This is the moment that through trains will also start running west from Paddington to Reading and Heathrow, too, with the final timetable in place by this time next year.

Or so TfL’s dynamic boss Andy Byford hopes. He’s been battling to get the project back on track, promising it would be open in the first half of this year — and he’s hit his target. “We have sweated blood on this and I was determined that it wouldn’t slip on my watch,” he says. “Now I am totally focused on getting the next phase in, along with Bond Street, in the autumn”.

Work began in 2008. It’s taken three Mayors and four prime ministers to stick with the scheme. Now we get to travel on it

The fact that the stations are beautiful and the trains quiet is not the main point of course: what counts is how it makes our lives easier and our city richer. Among the winners are places like Thamesmead, in south-east London, not on the Tube map but now just a hop from Abbey Wood station.

The game changer will be to join up places which now seem far apart. Canary Wharf to Paddington in 17 minutes. Bond Street to Woolwich in 23. Places like Abbey Wood will become among the best-connected in London — and still with just about affordable prices. Ealing Broadway — until now a long haul on the Tube — will be plugged into the City and West End.

But even if you don’t live on the new service, you can still gain. By taking the strain off the Tube it will make many other journeys bearable. The Central and Jubilee lines will gain the most. Commuters at Waterloo, for instance trying to get to Canary Wharf on the Jubilee, should no longer have to wait for a train with enough space to pull in: lots of Jubilee line passengers are expected to switch to Crossrail at Bond Street. In the future, when the HS2 line to Birmingham opens, there will be a quick interchange at Old Oak Common station in the west.

There are surprises all over the place. We’ll find new entrances at familiar stations — on Dean Street, in Soho, for instance, for Tottenham Court Road station. Trains are 200m long so we’ll need to make sure we get off at the right end. At Liverpool Street for instance exits will also take you to Moorgate — a Tube ride away on old lines but now both part of one station. There are lifts everywhere including some which glide sideways alongside escalators, so elegant there will probably be queues to ride them.

And this isn’t even the only big boost the network is getting this month. At Bank, not on Crossrail, the Northern line has been moved to a new platform to create room for massive new passageways, escalators and lifts, making the station 40 per cent bigger. It is set to open on May 16, when the Northern line will start running under the City again. This summer, the Overground extension to Barking Riverside will open too.

And after all this? Covid — and TfL’s financial crunch — has put a halt to other mega-projects, such as Crossrail 2, planned to run diagonally from north-east to south-west London, and the Bakerloo line extension. The days of digging are over, for a bit. From next week Londoners, who have put up with a decade of disruption, can sit back and enjoy the ride.

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