The Elizabeth Line, previously known as Crossrail, finally began central London operations in 2022. The scheme fully opens, including the final central London station at Bond Street, as well as through running and increased frequencies, at the start of November. This large piece of transport infrastructure had been considered for many decades, was planned for over 30-plus years, was approved in July 2008, and construction started a year later in 2009.
In essence it provides: a significant increase in aggregate urban rail capacity across Greater London — a 10% increase in Central London rail capacity; decongests a number of historically overloaded railway lines such as the Central Line; improves the operational efficiency of Paddington and Liverpool Street mainline station terminals in Central London for local versus regional use; improves connectivity across the urban area to key destinations such as the West End, Canary Wharf, Stratford, and Heathrow Airport; and has enabled the rebuilding and improvement of a number of key interchange and mainline stations, such as at Tottenham Court Road. The Elizabeth Line will also eventually provide a key interchange in West London at Old Oak Common to the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway to northern England early in the 2030s.
There are so many aspects of the scheme it is impossible to cover them all in one article. I will highlight several the key features in this article and go on discuss some of the larger impacts of the scheme on the future of transport in Greater London and the UK.
The Elizabeth Line Project
Firstly, and importantly to London, Transport for London’s finances, and the future of these kinds of investments in London and the UK, the scheme was unfortunately four years late and about $4.5 billion over budget at approximately $21.4 billion> This was a result of a series of reasons, including project management control in the initially programed later stages of the project and the technical complexity of the overall task — particularly regarding signaling.
The final project includes over 60 miles of railway; 41 accessible new or improved stations including seven new underground Central London stations; and 70 new nine-car Class 345 train sets provided by Bombardier, which 660 feet in length and can carry up to 1,500 passengers.
The key central London stations all provide significant, if not redefined mobility access, interchange, and capacity in their respective locations, including at Paddington station, Tottenham Court Road in the West End, Farringdon reconnections with the recently expanded Thameslink north-south rail service, an additional Canary Wharf rail service and station, Custom House for a direct rail service from the central area to London’s main exhibition center, and crucially, the Elizabeth Line, will provide a direct and much faster access route to Heathrow Airport from the central and eastern areas of the metropolis.
The Elizabeth Line is comparable to the many high-capacity cross city rail lines that are being progressed in cities across Europe and around the world, including in Paris, Stockholm, Munich, and Seoul, but on a large scale. Some of the ticket halls remind me of a contemporary version of the BART system in San Francisco.
The completed scheme is truly beautiful. The trains are functional, spacious, and comfortable but also offer a sense of luxury. The new deep level stations are calm, spacious places and have been designed to offer very logical and direct access to the surface ticket halls and the street. They have numerous nice features, such as the use of platform lighting in the underground stations that simulates the sense of being on the surface. The improvements to access are remarkable in that now a trip from, for example, Paddington to the City at Farringdon is a mere 15 minutes away versus 40 minutes previously.
It is also a welcome relief to see the end of the hugely disruptive central London construction due to the project. For example, it is great to once again be able to use Tottenham Court Road as an integral part of the West End after a decade of construction.
But the pandemic has changed the paradigm for central area working, shopping, and entertainment in London — perhaps more than in other global cities. While the number of travelers has improved, the use of these places is not what it was. Working patterns have changed, and the peak crush of movement into the central area workplaces has modified in a new hybrid work pattern. Many peripheral parts of the central area seem to be the most affected by the post pandemic reality.
Consequentially, use of the central area has also changed as people spend much of their time differently and in a more dispersed pattern across London.
Clearly, a big city of nine million people needs a lot of high-quality transport, and the Elizabeth Line is not only about building for the future, but also dealing with the series of historic and persistent mobility problems in London, such as the need to interchange at Paddington to reach the main parts of the West End and City.
Ironically, in a decentralizing city where proportionally less activity is focused only on the West End and City, the Elizabeth Line hugely improves access to emerging sub-centers such as Stratford, Canary Wharf and area, and sub-centers west of Paddington. It also makes it much more feasible to live on one side of the urban area, but work/ travel regularly to the other side. This is also useful to offer a wider choice of locations for residential development in the urban area, and particularly, access to less expensive housing areas such as Woolwich and Abbey Wood in southeast London. The widening of feasible urban access may be one of the most important legacies of the Elizabeth Line in a still hyper expensive London residential market.
The original Crossrail was meant to have a brother in the Crossrail 2 scheme. At a later date, a connection was planned from the local suburban lines in southwest London and Surrey via a southwest (Wimbledon) to northeast (Hackney) tunnel through the West End via Euston/St Pancras onto Angel (Islington) and then the suburban lines in the Lea Valley in northeast London.
The scheme was meant to address similar long standing mobility needs. These included: decongesting Waterloo Station — pre-pandemic the busiest station in the UK with nearly 100 million annual users; improve access to otherwise deprived and poorly served areas in northeast London (the Lea Valley); and dealing with the pending capacity issues at Euston station. Ironically, the hugely expensive HS2 scheme, which is currently under construction, has not funded improvements to Euston at the Underground platform levels that as a consequence of the increased demand when this scheme opens in the next decade will become severely congested.
But four years late and significantly over budget, the impressive scheme will raise several issues.
In modern Britain, the Elizabeth Line highlights the role and affordability of major mega-projects in London versus the other urban centers in the UK — particularly in the North. The political appetite to simply fund yet another London mega-project is now significantly reduced, regardless of the regional or national need or benefits.
The potential for Elizabeth Line scale cost overruns and delays on the much more expensive High Speed 2 also hangs over any other proposals for major transport infrastructure in the country in the coming years.
As funding does become available for transport infrastructure in London, the debate now becomes about locally targeted and relevant schemes in parts of London, such as ongoing improvements and support to bus services — which carry more people each day than the Underground, returning to the development of light rail schemes, and connecting and providing access through the numerous developing residential and business sub-centers. This could be through better bus, light rail, or selected expansion of the rail system, as we have seen recently at Barking Riverside in east London. Local public realm improvements to enable Safer Streets, and thus, the use of micromobility by a much wider set of the population are also a priority versus the hugely expensive regional rail schemes.
The Elizabeth Line is welcome addition to the transport system in Greater London. It simply redefines many aspects of mobility in the city and creates significantly improved travel options. The cost increases and delays were unfortunate, but most would see an impressive outcome. The debate about the next significant investment in London’s transport infrastructure in the post-pandemic world and regionally realigned Britain is, however, much less clear.