The Elizabeth line must be “flawless” before it can officially launch this year, London’s transport chief told a press tour on Monday, amid speculation that the £18.9bn Crossrail project’s opening could be moved to the spring – before the Queen’s jubilee celebrations.
On the first media trip to see the line in action, riding on spacious trains along the tunnels winding from Paddington to Liverpool Street, flaws appeared conspicuously absent. Twelve trains an hour are now running in the central section excavated under the capital, with an official deadline for opening at the end of June.
Andy Byford, the transport commissioner, said the opening would be “a massive fillip to London’s morale and confidence” after the capital was drained of so much life during the pandemic. “When people arrive, day one, they will be blown away by the scale and by how quiet and smooth the train ride is.”
On the concourse below the glass roof of Paddington’s Elizabeth line station, Byford’s words seemed no exaggeration, with trains arriving barely audibly behind the screens sealing the track from the platforms.
Mark Wild, the chief executive of Crossrail, said it was “epic, a beautiful outcome”. Most of the volumes of the newly built stations, such as the control rooms, aren’t even visible, he said: “The Shard would fit in here quite comfortably.”
For passengers, there is little “clutter”, as he puts it: upgraded information screens are above the automatic doors on platforms; all the trains are fully accessible. On board, it is hard to imagine the trains crowded – each carries up to 1,500 people – but they are wide and high enough to contain two rows of straps for any who do stand, and none should have to crick their neck beside a door.
The scale is such that to walk to the cab for a driver’s eye view takes a good couple of minutes; at Liverpool Street, where the platform curves into the distance, one end comes out at Moorgate, a whole other stop on the tube till now.
The project is in its final trial operations phase, when volunteers are encouraged to dawdle, block the doors and get in the way, to see how it stands up to routine use. Bigger exercises with 1,000 people are due to be carried out, including staged emergencies ranging from fires to gun attacks – complete with huge cans of soup to simulate, for example, the vomit of a fainting passenger.
Bond Street, whose construction fell 18 months behind schedule, has been “clawed back”, said Byford, although it will not open with the rest of the line. It will instead be ready in late 2022, when direct through-trains from the west and east sections that run to Reading or Shenfield respectively will also start running under central London.
Scepticism over Crossrail has grown after previous management promised it was “on time and on budget” until just a few months before the official opening planned for December 2018 was aborted. Now, though, it is tantalisingly close.
However, Byford said he would not give the go-ahead until entirely satisfied: “It has to be flawless. Better to take an extra couple of weeks, after how long Londoners have had to wait, than have people loving the surroundings but disappointed by the reliability,” he said. “Some days it is 98% on time, but some days have been 80%, and that’s not good enough.”