Building the Elizabeth Line

allIt took nearly 40 years between the first official proposal for an east-west “Crossrail” route in London and the start of construction work that would become the Elizabeth Line. After opposition and political struggles over who should pay for such an ambitious project, actual physical labor on the ground and underground will take a relatively short 13 years.

The demanding engineering feat quickly captured the public’s imagination. It was mostly positive. The first official construction work was done in May 2009 at Canary Wharf when stakes were ground and excavation work began on one of the first massive box stations. The demolition of the Astoria music venue in the heart of the West End became less popular as Tottenham Court Road was cleared for redevelopment.

Even at that point, the future of Crossrail was not secure. However, the following year’s election of a Conservative-led coalition declaring austerity cut the budget by just over £15 billion. Infrastructure spending was considered largely acceptable by successive prime ministers and by 2012 the most significant part of the work, the tunneling of the central section below the capital, began.

Construction workers at the Crossrail construction site at Tottenham Court Road subway station on October 27, 2009

This work was done with machines made in Germany but with British names, each costing an estimated £10 million. Companies like Phyllis and Victoria drilled and built concrete tunnels with millimeter precision through a maze of railroad tracks by teams of workers behind machine heads, rather than giant drills like high-tech factories weighing nearly 1,000 tons. Lines and utilities that already occupy London’s clay and chalk.

Crossrail workers strengthen, deepen and expand the Connaught tunnel to accommodate new trains in London, UK on 24 April 2013.  This 550 m long Connaught Tunnel was built in 1878 and has not been used by passengers since December 2006.
  • Crossrail workers will strengthen, deepen and expand the Connaught Tunnel to accommodate new trains on April 24, 2013. This 550 meter tunnel was built in 1878 and has not been used by passengers since December 2006.

crosswalk.  Looking at the back of the tunnel excavator 'Jessica'

Between 2012 and 2015, eight machines cut 13 miles of wide tunnels for future tracks, moving approximately 6 million tonnes of soil. About half of that was transported to Walash Island off the coast of Essex, creating a new wetland reserve for birds.

An excavator adjusts a levee off the eastern tip of Wallash Island near Rochford, England, on September 17, 2012.
Aerial image of RSPB Wallasea Island Nature Reserve at low tide, Essex, July 2019

Even greater numbers of workers have been employed to build adjacent tunnels for sidewalks and stations, to sculpt new connections and then pour concrete, or to reopen old tunnels such as the Connaught Tunnel.

Closer to the surface, archaeologists have dug up station developments such as Farringdon and uncovered artifacts from a time when London was in greater jeopardy. The bodies of dozens of plague victims have been found on Liverpool Street and Charterhouse Square.

Crossrail Archaeological Excavation at Bedlam Cemetery, Liverpool Street, 2015
Future Broadgate Ticket Hall Archaeologists (LR) Alexandra Stevenson and Alice Marconi are excavating a 17th century plague pit.
In March 2015, skulls were found at the Bedlam burial site, where more than 20,000 Londoners were believed to have been buried between 1569 and 1738.
Archaeologists at the Archaeological Museum in London are working on the Bedlam burial site.

If there was a noticeable chaos in central London, most of the work was done underground and residents knew little about the work going on around it. In the West End, a vast team of workers was excavating and developing a vast cavern just a few feet away from hundreds of thousands of tube users.

Queen Elizabeth holds a commemorative plaque given to her by Crossrail staff after the official unveiling of the new Rounddell for the crossrail line still under construction in London, England on February 23, 2016.  The Queen has been in business since December 2018, when the route opened to passengers in the capital.

By 2016, the Queen also visited the construction workers, as politicians lined up in hard hats for this British victory. And it was announced that when the completed project was put into operation, she would be named the Elizabeth Line after her.

The Monarch was due to open the main central area in December 2018. Ten new stations were under way in central London. Some were large enough to have a platform entrance spanning two existing metro stops.

Construction work on stations such as Canary Wharf appeared to be near complete, and in 2017 the final part of the railroad track was built. The new trains manufactured by Bombardier (now Alstom) started operating on the eastern ground in 2017 as TfL railways.

The Bombardier Railway operates in Derby.
The Bombardier Railway operates in Derby.
The Bombardier Railway operates in Derby.

The £15 billion railway has reassured the general public and payroll officers with well-paid executives on time and on budget.

Except it wasn’t.

Some stations seemed perfect early in the process. Specifically, it covered up the problems behind it, connecting the digital signals needed to integrate three different systems. The high-end, state-of-the-art design had a level of complexity that even bosses could not fully grasp.

Bond Street Site Construction Work, 3 Jun 2015

A substation fire at the end of 2017 was the first hint of a much bigger problem. Bond Street, which happened later, was about 18 months later than planned. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2018 that Crossrail bosses admitted they had blown away budgets and schedules just months before the official opening.

As Christian Wolmar, author of Crossrail: Whole Story, put it, stakeholders and observers like himself have been “drunk on Kool-Aid” by senior management ignoring or ignoring the matter. “My realization came when I visited Paddington in June 2018 and saw 500 people in orange clothes still working. The platform doors were nowhere to be seen, and the escalators were shattered into pieces,” he says. “The thought of being able to finish the test in six to eight weeks is amazing.”

Inside the finished train, February 2022
seat livery detail
elizabeth line sign

“The railroads are fully digitized and have the most complex construction in the country. All the systems depend on each other,” says Wolmar. “They didn’t have anyone who knew how to integrate the system, they had civil engineers trying to do the job.”

For a short period of time, Crossrail lost its shine. A £15 billion railroad eventually became a £19 billion railroad, a painful increase as new delays and overspending were announced. Hopes for an opening in 2019 have turned into the possibility of a start in 2021. The boss was replaced and TfL took over the project alone.

Working at Whitechapel, East London, November 2019
Working at Whitechapel East London in November 2019

But ahead of opening, delays and overspending (relatively trivial in the history of major infrastructure projects) start to feel like footnotes in history. Crossrail’s designers, engineers and operators have built something unprecedented in the UK. That is, a subway service where speed, comfort and accessibility will transform the passenger experience.

After the pandemic that nearly left London’s transportation system empty, the lure of faster and better travel is more important than ever to lure people back to the capital, reshape the southeast and boost the entire nation’s economy. The world may have changed tremendously since the concept of the Crossrail, but the Elizabeth route once again carries the great hopes of politicians.

A handwritten notice at the Farringdon Station ticket office reveals the opening date for public travel plans for the new 'Elizabeth Line' on May 19th.

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