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A Brief History of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail

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The United Kingdom’s great new engineering marvel, a seventy-three-mile railway dubbed the Elizabeth Line, opened in 2022 and runs through Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, and London.  It is the longest commuter rail in the country and is able to bring in more people to London at speeds approximating 90 mph.  Of course, all of us are just a little bit excited about this and want to share with you everything we’ve gleaned about the project since its announcement.  We will walk you through the fascinating (and surprisingly long) history of Crossrail, the construction challenges, how it works, and how to use it.

History

You might be amazed to discover that the roots of Crossrail don’t go back just a couple of decades but well over a century.  The scheme was first thought up in the 1880s, but ultimately, nothing was done about it even as stations were constructed in London.  The idea wouldn’t come up again until 1943, and even though World War II was not yet over, planners for the city were already thinking about what would become of London after the war.  It was part of Patrick Abercrombie’s County of London Plan, released that year, and his Greater London Plan, published in 1944.

The Railway Committee, which was part of the London Plan, was formed in 1944 and reported in both 1946 and 1948.  The committee devised several routes labeled “A” through “F” but only ended up giving the go-ahead for route “C,” which eventually became the Victoria line.  However, while the original scheme proposed larger tunnels, the Victoria line was built with smaller-diameter Underground lines.  The idea of larger Tube lines was largely forgotten about while London had other issues on its plate.  Ultimately, however, while Abercrombie’s early Crossrail-type proposal did not go through, other ideas, such as London’s “Green Belt” and “New Towns” for displaced Londoners, were adopted.

Crossrail would not pick up steam again until 1974 when the Greater London Council and Department of the Environment published the London Rail Study.  This was the birth of the modern scheme for Crossrail, and the report even gave the new line its name.  The point of the report was to estimate London’s future transport needs and proposed two tunnels:  a northern tunnel that would join British Rail’s Western Region lines before Paddington to the Eastern Region lines past Bethnal Green.  The London Rail Study report was the first to actually propose a concrete scheme that was more than just another Tube line, but a mainline railway that went underground.  However, the £300 million price tag was just a little more than London could afford at the time.

The Central London Rail Study of 1989 picked up where 1974 left off, proposing “East-West Crossrail,” “City Crossrail,” and “North-South Crossrail” schemes.  The “East-West Crossrail” scheme won out in 1990, but a private bill submitted to Parliament in 1991 had an overall cost of £2 billion in 1993 money, and the Private Bill Committee rejected it in 1994.  The committee felt that a case “had not been made” for the Crossrail scheme, but even though it didn’t approve Crossrail at that time, it still put in place “Safeguarding Directions” under the Transport and Works Act system to keep development in London from interfering with the scheme.

Seven years later, Transport for London and the Department for Transport would form the Cross London Rail Links venture to promote Crossrail.  This joint venture then made over fifty presentations in thirty different locations between 2003 and 2004 to explain the plans and enlist public support.  The Crossrail Bill was then introduced into Parliament in 2005, and Transportation Secretary Ruth Kelly issued new safeguarding directions to protect the proposed routes of the final Crossrail scheme.  The bill then went to the House of Lords in February 2008 and was amended before receiving Royal Assent in July and officially became the Crossrail Act 2008.  At the time it was approved, the final cost was estimated at £15.9 billion.  Of course, now that the scheme was approved and the funding secured from TfL, DfT, Network Rail, BAA (now Heathrow Airport Holdings), and the City of London, the real fun could begin.

Construction

A Brief History of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail

The work to build this massive transportation project began on May 15, 2009, when construction crews started to do the deep foundation work at what would become the future Canary Wharf station.  Other stations soon followed, including Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, and Paddington in 2010, then Whitechapel, Woolwich, Bond Street, and Liverpool Street in 2011, and more from 2012 through 2013.  Ultimately, construction added ten new stations while another thirty-one stations would be upgraded as part of the line and connect to the twenty-six miles of tunnels.

And speaking of tunnels, those twenty-six miles were dug by some of the most marvelous machines on the planet.  The TBMs (or tunnel boring machines) were essentially drilling rigs on wheels, each with a diameter of twenty-three, as long as fourteen London busses end-to-end, and weighing as much as 143 of those busses.  A total of eight custom machines were made just for this project, and they worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, across ten different tunneling sections of thirteen miles from May 2012 to May 2015.  Each tunneling machine had a name, and it was TBM Victoria that made the final push into Farringdon to complete the tunneling part of the construction.

Of course, when you’re tunneling out that much dirt, there are several concerns to address.  Before the tunneling even started, core samples had to be taken along the proposed routes.  These samples turned up approximately five layers of geological activity that helped to tell a lot about the very ground under Londoners’ feet.  From the surface to the base, these layers included terrace gravels, London clay (a dense clay that formed from the sea that once covered much of southeast England), Lambeth group (a geological stratum that is composed of gravels, sands, silts, and clays about 55 million years ago, Thanet sands (close to 60 million years old), and chalk (70-80 million years old).  During both the construction of the stations and the tunnels, it was important to construct vertical shafts and horizontal pipes radiating from those shafts in order to keep the ground stable.  Once tunneling was completed, the shafts were refilled.

Another issue that inevitably came up during filming was the uncovering of artifacts.  In a city of so much history, where humans had lived as far back as 900,000 years ago, the Crossrail team knew it had an extraordinary opportunity to uncover more of London’s story.  Since construction began, a team of over 100 archaeologists worked with digging teams to recover tens of thousands of items from over forty excavation sites.  These efforts culminated in an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands in 2017 of 500 of the fascinating objects that archaeologists uncovered, from early-20th-century jam jars to 8,000-year-old flint tools.  Ultimately, the exhibition was a huge success, drawing in 96,750 visitors while it was open.

And if you’re wondering what happened to all that dirt dug up during construction, it certainly got put to good use.  Roughly ninety-eight percent of the excavated earth was reused, with three million tons helping to create a wetland nature reserve on Wallasea Island that is twice the size of the City of London.   Additionally, the dirty homes in landfills are restored to become commercial parks and green spaces, other nature preserves, golf courses, and even grazing pastures for livestock.

The process of constructing the stations, network rail works, railway systems, and the train and railway depots.  The final stages of construction began in 2017, with the final pieces of track being laid out in July.  The tracks included standard track slabs and direct fixed track as well as high attenuation sleepers, floating track slab light, and floating track slab heavy to reduce noise and vibrations in places such as Soho and the Barbican.  Thirty-three miles of rail were installed along with 63,000 sleepers, and over 13,500 cubic meters of concrete were poured along the tracks.  For the station tunnels, crews used sprayed concrete that enabled huge underground spaces and curved walls.

Then is when the major delays set in. A combination of factors led to an almost 5-year delay in the opening of the line. It took longer to integrate the signaling systems than they anticipated. It turns out, getting a state-of-the-art railway to work with Victorian engineering is a challenge! Some of the stations, like Bond Street, took way longer to fit out than they had planned. Costs spiraled out of control. It was set to be a major disaster.

And then there was a REAL disaster.

COVID struck in 2020, and that forced construction to grind to a halt for months until it could resume safely with new COVID protocols. This made things take even longer, and cost even more. Finally, in spring 2022, part of the network was ready to open, and then in Autumn 2022, the line was fully integrated and opened completely. You can now go from Heathrow through central London super-fast.

The line also got a new name – while the company building the line continued to be called Crossrail, the line itself is now called the Elizabeth Line, named in honor of Queen Elizabeth II. She was able to open the line in person in May 2022, one of her last major public events before her death.

Since opening in 2022

A Brief History of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail

The Elizabeth Line has made a promising start since its inauguration in 2022. Despite initial concerns about low ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the line has seen a steady increase in passenger numbers, carrying around 600,000 passengers per day in its first few months of operation.

One of the line’s most significant achievements has been the improved connectivity it offers across London. Passengers can now travel seamlessly from the west to the east without having to change trains in central London, reducing travel times and making it easier to commute across the city. This enhanced accessibility has also contributed to an increase in property values in areas served by the Elizabeth line stations.

Beyond its transportation benefits, the Elizabeth line is expected to provide a significant economic boost to the regions it serves, particularly in the east and west of London. Estimates suggest that the line could support up to 180,000 new jobs and generate £42 billion for the UK economy, making it a crucial driver of economic growth and development.

The Elizabeth line stations themselves have been designed with accessibility in mind, featuring step-free access, level boarding, and other features to accommodate passengers with disabilities or mobility issues. This commitment to inclusivity has been widely praised and sets a benchmark for future infrastructure projects.

Despite the initial delays and cost overruns during the construction phase, the Elizabeth Line has received positive reviews from passengers and commuters, who have praised the modern trains, comfortable interiors, and efficient service. However, its long-term success will depend on ongoing maintenance, operational efficiency, and the ability to meet the increasing demand for public transportation in London.

While the Elizabeth Line’s early success is encouraging, there are still challenges to address, such as the potential for overcrowding at already congested stations, the need for further integration with other transportation modes, and the possibility of disruptions during future construction phases. Nonetheless, the line’s impact on improving connectivity, supporting economic growth, and enhancing accessibility across London has been widely recognized as a significant achievement in the city’s transportation infrastructure.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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