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A City Pushing Forward

London. This magnificent, enigmatic – perhaps a little cloudy – city is pushing forward once again. A city where the old and new mingle freely. A city with an old Tower that has stood for nearly a thousand years, and a new tower just seven years old, reaching imperiously skyward. Samuel Johnson was right, ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’.

This has always been a city of construction and projects. London has been built, and re-built time and time again, often right over preceding layers. When we think of London, we think of palaces, of great sprawling parks – and perhaps even a slightly goofy, yet loveable Hugh Grant selling books in Notting Hill. But this is, and always has been, a city that has shouldered the burden of progress, leading where others follow. London is now nearing the end of a mammoth project long in the imagination, long overdue and far over budget. With a peak workforce of 10,000, across 40 different sites, it was Europe’s largest construction venture. But gazing across the city, you will never be able to see it.         

The London skyline has changed rapidly since the destruction that rained down upon it during the blitz. While St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London still stand proudly, they have been joined by young upstarts like The Shard, once Europe’s tallest building, and 30 St Mary Axe, which you probably know as The Gherkin. But nothing has quite matched the Crossrail project in terms of cost, time and ambition. The 73 mile (117km) rail line might not sound particularly impressive, but with its larger than normal twin-tunnels burrowing for 13 miles, at a depth of 40 metres, under one of the most densely packed areas in Europe, you start to get a scope of what has been happening out of sight since 2009.  

The line running from Reading in the west to Abbey Wood and Shenfield in the east cuts directly through central London, connecting many of the busiest stations in the city, in particular Paddington, Tottenham Court Road, Liverpool Street, Canary Wharf and Stratford, while also connecting Heathrow Airport in south-west London. Crossrail will move passengers through London faster than ever before. Today, a journey between Paddington and Tottenham Court Road, a distance of just 2 miles (3.2km), takes 20 minutes, when Crossrail is operational this will be just 3 minutes.      

But this is also a megaproject that has begun to be beset with issues. At an estimated cost of £18.25 billion, it is nearly £3 billion over budget, and behind schedule by at least 2 years. Though assurances have been made that the Elizabeth Line, the central section of the project, will open in 2021, Londoners have understandably begun to eye Crossrail with an air of scepticism – alongside the anticipation.    

A New Way To Travel     

In 1863 residents and visitors to London were treated to a very new way of travelling. The world’s first underground railway, known as The Metropolitan Railway, opened to the public on 10th January and ran between Paddington and Farringdon, in an East-West direction. In total, 38,000 people used the service on the first day alone, while by the end of the year that number had reached 9.5 million passengers. Despite the thick smoke of the locomotives, that was said to enter every possible human bodily cavity, the underground line, which took around 18 minutes from end to end, was an enormous success. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

The London Underground system rapidly expanded from there. What began as a single line with seven stations, now includes eleven lines and 270 stations, stretching far outside the traditional boundaries of the city. But London wasn’t alone. Mass underground railway systems have become common around the world. Currently, 178 cities across the planet whisk passengers through tunnels underground, with many more under construction. As our roads have become more and more congested, we have looked to tunnelling underground as our best solution.               

Victims of its Success

But while newer underground systems run efficiently thanks to a more modern set up, the London Underground has suffered. Between 2016 and 2018 there were a total of 884 hours of delays, caused by more than 4,000 signalling problems. The reasons for these are normally quite simple, a system that was once world-leading is now archaic and struggling badly with rapidly increasing numbers using it.      

If you have ever travelled on London’s Central Line during rush hour you will know it’s difficult to marvel and this engineering wonder while pressed tightly into the sweaty armpit of a fellow passenger. On average, 5 million passengers use the London Underground each day – and I’d hazard a guess that at least half are on the Central Line during rush hour. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but you get my point. With a population about to cross the 9 million mark, a substantial upgrade was needed. 

If you don’t know much about the London Underground, or the Tube, as we call it, the Central Line runs east to west through the centre of the city. Crossrail has been designed to alleviate much of the pressure on this line, but also the Piccadilly and Jubilee lines. It is thought that when fully operational it will boost the tube’s capacity by 10% and is forecasted to raise £500 million in revenue in its first two years, a figure that should pass £1 billion each year after that.      

Original Proposal

While construction didn’t begin until 2009, the idea for the Crossrail project has its roots much earlier. In 1941, with Britain locked in conflict during World War II, a railwayman by the name of George Dow, penned a piece in The Star newspaper in which he discussed the benefits of an underground railway line running west to east under London as a way of alleviating pressure on the existing system. The idea was incorporated into several studies and plans during the war and the years that followed, but while many agreed it was a wonderful idea, with the country virtually bankrupt after the gruelling war, the finance and political will wasn’t there. 

In 1974, the term, ‘Crossrail’ appeared for the first time. Though the idea was still considered imaginative at this point, a London Rail Study Report estimated the cost at £300 million. But once again things went quiet. 

The late 1980s and 1990s were times of plans, reports and bills in parliament regarding Crossrail. But it was one of many ideas floated to improve transportation within the capital. Things took off as we entered a new millennium, and by July 2008 the Crossrail Act had been granted Royal Assent, essentially green-lighting the project for the first time. A handy £1 billion was loaned from the European Investment Bank as the dream finally looked within touching distance. 


On 15th May 2009 piling work began at Canary Wharf station, which started the slow process of laying a foundation deep below the surface. But this was an expansive project, with multiple stages, and countless locations that would either need to be constructed out of scratch or vastly upgraded. 

Canary Wharf

In total 10 new stations needed to be built, and 31 upgraded to accommodate the new service and the new trains – which I’ll get to shortly. And this is before we’ve even started talking about the track and the tunnels. 

Boring began on the tunnels in May 2012 at a depth of 40 metres. For those interested in these vast beasts digging through the earth, bear with me here, we are going to get to those too. On 4th June 2013 boring work was completed as the final tunnel sections were joined at Farringdon. There are in total 200,000 factory-built concrete segments that line the tunnels, with around 9300 miles (15000km) worth of cable to power the whole system. That’s still about 600 miles short of travelling from London to Perth in Australia.   

By September 2017 the track had been installed along the length of the line. Surely we were nearly there? Well, yes and no. 

As of early 2020, most of the physical aspects of the project have been completed. Gleaming pictures from inside some of the finished stations show us how tantalisingly close we are. In 2018 a video showing a test train travelling through the tunnels appeared, but it quickly became apparent that despite the flying start the project had made, the end was yet not in sight.    


OK, let’s take a look at the work that was done underground. Firstly, remember that not all of Crossrail is underground. In fact, only 13 of the 73 miles dips below the surface. Of that, it is actually broken into three different tunnels. The longest of which runs for 9.6 miles (15.39km) from Royal Oak to Victoria Docks, crossing much of Central London. Two further tunnels lie in the south-east of the city. A 1.7 mile (2.72km) tunnel from Pudding Mill Lane to Stepney Green, and a 1.6 mile (2.5km) tunnel running from Plumstead to North Woolwich – the only tunnel that passes below the Thames River. But don’t forget these are twin tunnels, imagine two tunnels very close to each other, but completely separate. So to calculate the total length of tunnels dug, all of these distances need to be multiplied by two. 

So how are such tunnels constructed? Well, in short, with monstrous German engineering of course. These tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are vast contraptions. Weighing nearly 1000 tonnes and stretching over 100 metres in length they eat through the earth at a slow and steady rate of 10 metres (35ft) a day. To accommodate much bigger trains, the TBMs used on crossrail were significantly larger than anything that had dug under London before. As a comparison, the Victoria Line tunnels have a diameter of 3.81 m (12 ft 6 in), while the Crossrail tunnels are almost twice the size at 6.2 m (20 ft 4 in).   

8 TBMs were used on the project, but with two variations. A ‘slurry’ version was used to dig the tunnel under the Thames in a ground rich in chalk, while the others used the slightly more formal sounding, Earth Pressure Balancing Machines for tunnelling through clay, sand and gravel. As per tradition, before any actual digging took place, they needed to be named. A nationwide contest was launched in January 2012 in which 2500 pairs of names were whittled down to a shortlist of ten, with a public vote then determining the final four: 

  • The Royal Oak to Farringdon section was named Ada and Phyllis, after Ada Lovelace, a brilliant mathematician and author and Phyllis Isobella Pearsall who founded the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company, which had become hugely popular in London during the second half of the 20th century.    
  • The TBMs used on Limmo Peninsula to Farringdon section were named Victoria and Elizabeth, in honour on Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria. 
  • The Plumstead to North Woolwich section became Mary and Sophia, wives of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a hugely influential 19th-century civil engineer and Marc Isambard Brunel, an engineer responsible for the design of the Thames Tunnel.
  • The Pudding Mill Lane to Stepney Green and Limmo Peninsula to Victoria Dock sections were named Jessica and Ellie after Jessica Ennis, a former track and field athlete and Ellie Simmonds, a British Paralympian swimmer.

The last point on the tunnels and this is something that we never really think about, but where does all of that earth go? Well, in the case of Crossrail, a very eco-friendly use was found. Between 4.5 and 5 million tons of earth was transported the 45 miles east to Wallsea Island on the River Roach where a new 1500 acre wetland nature reserve was created using the recycled earth. 


Now, this entire project doesn’t really count for anything unless we have the trains running along with it. And this is another area where Crossrail will, eventually, really stand out. At its peak, and in the central section, there will be 24 trains running per hour, but this number will drop off as you get further out of London.    

Crossrail will use specially designed trains which can carry as many 1500 passengers each, considerably longer than anything that has ever run through London. On the Northern and Piccadilly lines the trains today are about 108 metres (354ft) in length while the Victoria and Central line trains are slightly larger at 133 metres (436ft). But Crossrail will blow them all out of the water with trains stretching for 205 metres (672ft). These large trains will enable 200 million passengers to use the service per year. A total of 70 nine-car trains, capable of running at 90 mph (140kmph), have been built by Bombardier Transportation at a cost of just over £1 billion. 

Accidents and Controversy

Even before the delays to the opening, Crossrail has had its fair share of controversy. Accusations of bullying and intimidation during the purchase of homes and commercial buildings rumbled on, but without any real clear evidence. The project has also been accused of blacklisting certain companies and individuals, resulting in lawsuits brought against some companies involved. 

The most serious accident occurred on 7th March 2014 when Rene Tkacik, a Slovakian construction worker, was killed when over a ton of wet concrete was poured accidentally from above. As a result Crossrail was fined £300,000 for failing to adhere to health and safety regulations. On 29th March 2012, a gantry on a building site in Westbourne Park collapsed, but without any injuries.

Three workers died from suspected heart attacks over a period of 6 months in 2019, leading to an investigation into air quality, especially around Bond Street station. After extensive testing, no sub-standard working conditions were found, and work resumed.

Digging Through History

Crossrail has come to be hailed as one of the most extensive archaeological studies ever seen in the UK. Across 40 sites, and spanning 55 million years of history, this project has thrown up some fascinating discoveries, including medieval ice skates, a woolly mammoth jaw bone and Roman coins.   

But one dark aspect of London’s history that most know, but often don’t consider, are the countless mass graves that still sit beneath the surface. Like any big city with a rich history, London has seen its fair share of tragedy, but concerns were raised about unearthing somethings that we really don’t want to ever see again – the plague and anthrax. Even before construction began there were warnings that any finds would need to be tested carefully before proceeding. Lord James of Blackheath was the first to highlight that 682 victims of anthrax had been buried somewhere around Farringdon in 1520. During the construction of Crossrail,  Fifty-five skeletons have been found, across two mass burial sites, but thankfully after testing, no traces of anthrax or plague were ever found. 

The Future      

In August 2018 it was officially announced that Crossrail would be delayed by nine months to allow further testing to take place. This has since been extended to 2021 at the earliest, but even then, only part of the line will be fully operational. While we’re not quite at the fiasco stage yet, patience is wearing thin. 

As I said earlier, most of the building work has in fact been finished. What is taking vastly longer than anticipated is the testing and computer programming that must be created and installed. The software for signalling, in particular, seems to be one of the major hold-ups, along with issues at Bond Street and Whitechapel stations which have prevented complete safety tests from taking place. 

But we are close. When Crossrail is finally completed, it will stand as one of the most advanced underground lines anywhere in the world. At that stage, it’s thought that Farringdon will become the busiest station in London, with around 140 trains passing through each hour. This is particularly poignant because Farringdon Street was one of the original seven stations included on the world’s first underground railway which opened 157 years ago. It is here that London’s fabled history, and its ambitious future, will really meet. This rickety system that paved the way of progress, will once again, stand tall.

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