Crossrail, the massive, swathes-of-London-levelling train project, has entered its final stretch, as it looks to launch this May. And if you've ventured to the capital recently, chances are that workmen have been busy beneath your feet, tirelessly slaving away on Europe's largest engineering project. Here's the full story…
What is It?
In case you've been living under a box for several years, Crossrail is a big, underground train line project to join the east and west extremes of the capital. The project's aim is provide a reliable and quick passenger service between parts of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, via central London, to Essex and south-east London.
The line is set to be some 85 miles in length when done and link 40 stations along the route. Through the central sections, nine-car trains will run at an intensity of up to 24 trains per hour. While two-thirds of the line will use existing track, 26 miles of new tunnels are being constructed beneath some of London's most built-up areas.
What Are the Trains Like?
Crossrail has said it will use no fewer than 65 brand-new 'British Rail Class 345' trains, with each 200 metres long and capable of carrying up to 1,500 passengers.
How Much Will This Thing End Up Costing?
Well, originally the project was going to set the country back £15.9 billion, but due to a saving – yes a saving – of £1 billion made throughout the construction process, it's now expected to come in at a mere £14.8 billion. Take that, Wembley Stadium! However, this saving comes from using a simpler tunnel strategy, which has pushed the original opening date back a year.
So When Will it be Completed, then?
The first services are scheduled to begin in May this year, running a limited service between Liverpool Street and Shenfield, Essex. This will be extended to other stations in 2018 and 2019, and integrated into the Underground/Oyster Card network. Below is an unofficial update of the Tube map to start getting your head around (click it for a bigger image to peruse):
How Long Has It Been Being Built Now?
While Crossrail seems like a very modern project, it was actually first proposed by railwayman George Dow in The Star June 1941 -- obviously in a very different form (back then he was only trying to connect Liverpool Street and Giz UK's home, Paddington). The term 'Crossrail' first emerged in the 1974 'London Rail Study Report', though, which looked at future transport needs for the city.
In 1984, a full decade later, the proposal resurfaced, with an official private Bill submitted to Parliament in 1991. While the bill was turned away in 1994, proposals reappeared again in 2001, 2004, and 2005, finally earning approval in 2008. So full marks for persistence, guys.
Enter The Boring Machines
No, not that kind of boring. The project uses eight tunnel-boring machines, which each weigh nearly 1,000 tonnes and measure 150 metres long. They're built in Germany and cost £10 million each. The naming of the machines followed tunnel-making tradition -- with Crossrail in January 2012. No, seriously. Over 2,500 entries were received and the names chosen were: Ada, Phyllis, Victoria, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia, Jessica and Ellie.
What are the Claimed Benefits?
Well, it's predicted that Crossrail will increase London's rail capacity by 10 per cent, and for anyone that's been crammed into a busy commuter train of late that will seem like a fairly good idea of itself. It will also improve connection links -- for example, reducing the journey between Liverpool Street to Heathrow from 55 minutes to 32 -- as well as improving the commute for many of London's suburbs (and in turn raising the profile of already over-priced flats as it convinces loads of people who don't live in London that they do). Oh yeah, and it's also created a load of jobs and apprenticeships.
So, Why All the Controversy, then?
Well, it only went and destroyed half of central London's decent music venues in one fell swoop, how about that?
Above is how Tottenham Court Road's looked for seemingly forever. That's The Astoria, LA2, Metro, Sin, The Ghetto, all gone. And now the excellent Curzon Soho cinema is under threat, too.
But besides the desire to rid the capital of any characterful entertainment corners and fill them with station-servicing Pret A Mangers, plenty of people have objected to such an expensive national project primarily benefiting the City, too. Everyone from local councils to train operators to humble residents have questioned it at one point – be it not running as far as they'd like, using up rail capacity or just for being pushed out of their homes.
That's right, a London Assembly report found that Crossrail's approach to compulsory purchase orders and land-grabbing for less than market value was tantamount to bullying. So there's that, too.
Right. Anything Else I Need to Know?
Yes, around five million tonnes of soil excavated during the construction will be used to create a new wetland nature reserve on Wallasea Island, if you wanted another pro on your list.
Engineers have also made several grim discoveries while underground -- for example a great number of plague victims underneath Liverpool Street Station and 5,000 bodies from the notorious Bedlem Royal Hospital -- Europe's first mental institution. A very expensive history lesson, but a fascinating one all the same.