OPINION - Crossrail will change how we think about London – I’m giddy with excitement
I’m a self-professed transport geek and I love London’s tube. It’s not just a way of moving people from A to B, it’s integral to what makes London as a city.
It was the world’s first underground railway, and the globally recognised roundel is one of the most trusted symbols in the city.
News that the long-awaited opening of the Elizabeth Line will be on 24 May has therefore me giddy with anticipation.
A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview, travelling from Paddington to Liverpool Street through the new tunnel.
What I saw left me in no doubt Londoners will be blown away. The project is an engineering marvel. Burrowing two huge tunnels from east to west through the centre of a crowded city like London, avoiding other tube lines, utilities, basements and the odd Roman remain and plague pit along the way, is a hell of an achievement.
Cathedral-like stations and cavernous platforms – twice as long as a normal tube station – reveal the scale of the project. There will be no stooping on the trains for tall people like me at 6’4 – carriages are the size of normal trains, air conditioned and kitted out with their very own unique moquette patterned seats.
It’ll relieve overcrowding on the hot and sweaty Central and Jubilee Lines, knocking time and effort off journeys from east to west. The West End, Canary Wharf and beyond will have direct connections to Heathrow, cutting up to 25 minutes off journeys.
Areas out east, including the vast developments taking place in the Royal Docks, will now be a matter of minutes from Tottenham Court Road, transforming our mental geography of the city.
The project has been under construction since 2008 and there’ll continue to be recriminations over why it went over budget and was three and a half years late. It’s critical we learn from what worked and what didn’t, but we shouldn’t allow these problems to be used as an excuse to avoid building future big transport projects in the city.
Some also question whether the post-Covid world means the Elizabeth Line is redundant, due to more home working reducing the numbers of commuters. To that, I say it is too early to tell what the long-term trends will be, but making it easier to get into central London is only likely to persuade more people to return to the office or visit the shops, theatres and bright lights of the West End.
I wasn’t even born in 1974 when the first concrete plans for Crossrail emerged. They didn’t go anywhere, nor did a revived scheme in 1989. Only in 2008 did it get off the ground, and it is testimony to Mayors and Cabinet Ministers both Labour and Tory that it survived changes in the party running both the city and the country to reach where we are today.
With 70 per cent of the cost funded by the city’s residents and businesses, it also shows what devolution can achieve. And with two million more people in London than there were twenty years ago, capacity improvements like the Elizabeth Line are crucial.
But investments like these also matter because they boost the competitiveness of the city as a place to live and work and enable London to compete with global cities like Berlin, New York and Hong Kong. And after the last couple of years, London needs the big boost to the city’s confidence the new Elizabeth Line can bring.
But, in the near fifty years it has taken to build the line, Paris has managed six equivalents. And this teaches us that we can’t afford to stand still – further investment in London’s network is crucial.
That means turbocharging the plans for the Bakerloo Line and Dockland Lights Railway extensions. And it means resurrecting the shelved Crossrail 2 plans, because as Crossrail 1 has shown, the time from inception to completion is so long that we need to do the hard work getting it off the drawing board right now.
It is self-defeating to starve London of investment, as a stuttering London economy isn’t just bad for the city, but for the whole country.
Nick Bowes is chief executive of the Centre for London