Eight years after construction started on the £14.8bn Crossrail project, the first Elizabeth Line train entered passenger service last Thursday between Liverpool Street main line and Shenfield.
The train, complete with air conditioning and walk-through carriages, will be part of a fleet of 66 that operate on the new line, with eleven being introduced by the autumn.
When the line is fully open in 2019, it will increase central London’s rail capacity by 10 per cent, carrying over half a million passengers each day. Transport for London (TfL) says the line will also help it keep pace with London’s growing population set to rise from 8.6m today to around 10m by 2030.
“Actually allowing London to grow is the most important, most fundamental benefit of these big schemes,” said Howard Smith, TfL's operations director for Crossrail, on the train's first outing for passengers from Liverpool Street to Shenfield, and then back.
Connecting places across the capital that weren’t previously joined up and “changing London’s geography” is a hugely significant benefit. “Coming from this side of London for instance in the past was quite tricky to get across to Heathrow; from 2019 you’ll be able to go straight through.”
It has been a long time in the works, but the mammoth infrastructure project, which is 85 per cent complete, is on time and on budget.
Despite the smooth sailing appearance from the outside, Smith said it hasn’t been quite such smooth sailing behind the scenes.
“No project I’ve ever worked on is quite as easy as we try to make it look, so the analogy we often use is about ducks peddling like mad under the water while it all looks very serene on the top,” he said. “But an awful lot of people need to come together to deliver something like this, and that’s something we’ve worked very hard on over the years. We have to have the manufacturers, Transport for London, the operators, Network Rail, everybody coming together.”
Smith has worked on Crossrail since its early days in 2004 and says much of the success comes down to getting the planning spot on.
“It’s about getting the right route plans in the first place, getting the bill through parliament, actually doing the design right, so you’ve got something that you can deliver,” Smith said. “If you start off with a flawed plan you’ll struggle. Crossrail is a well-thought out plan, so we thought very hard about how we would contract, for instance, these trains.”
The trains are being built at Bombardier transportation’s UK site, and Smith added: “The manufacturer is actually going to maintain them for the next 30 years, so when they’re building the trains, they’re thinking about how they’re going to keep them reliable, keep them operating efficiently in the future.”
There are numerous benefits Smith thinks Crossrail should bring. At the passenger level, quite simply, “they get better trains”. The trains on the Elizabeth Line will be bigger, they’re air conditioned, and there will be more of them.
“They also get trains that take them straight through into the city. One of the most curious things if you landed from Mars would be why traditionally, in most Western cities, we take people into the main line stations and then we make them go down stairs to different trains, not just London, everywhere else,” Smith said.
Then of course, is the economic boost. It has been projected that the new line will have 57,000 houses built along it, while at peak construction of the project itself, more than 10,000 people were working on more than 40 sites across London.
“If you look around any of the stations, you’ll see houses going up, businesses moving in. In central London, you’ll see rents in places like Oxford Street, the West End, rising because of the accessibility, the more people you can bring in on something like this,” Smith said.
The rebrand to the Elizabeth Line, complete with a royal purple design, has also caught the eye.
“TfL has a really, really good heritage in design, so we have a design department who try it all out. In my office I’ve got about the last five attempts at different coloured seats, and at one point they were actually red, almost pink. We’ve got different blues, purples, and without bigging it up too much, that’s one of the things we’d like to think we do well at TfL; we really think about stuff like that," Smith said.
"The doors on the trains you’ll see have got glass in them that goes high enough for tall people to see where they are, low enough that you get light in, if you look at other trains around the place you won’t necessarily see that. The grab handles, again, not so soft they flop around, not so hard that they whack your head, so it’s that sort of detail, that I think people will really appreciate.”