We Went Behind The Scenes at the Liverpool Street Elizabeth Line Construction Site

By James O Malley on at

We’re now just two years away from December 9th, 2018 - the day when the first Elizabeth Line trains will begin passenger services through the new tunnels under central London. It’ll mark the culmination of nine years hard work, which began in 2009. However, the project won’t be entirely finished until 2019 when you’ll be able to catch a train all the way from Reading or Heathrow in the west, and to Abbey Wood in Shenfield in the east.

How close are the new stations and tunnels to being complete? Intriguingly Crossrail’s Nick Mann was able to give me an oddly specific number: The project is apparently 77% complete. And this raises the question: What does this actually mean? What’s actually going on behind the blue hoardings that snake across London? Brilliantly, he offered to take me down to the construction site at the joint Liverpool Street-Moorgate station to have a look.

In The Tunnels

After donning the all important hi-vis gear, a pair of sturdy boots a hard hat, and receiving a safety briefing (“don’t touch anything”), we took a temporary lift being used by construction workers directly to the platforms. Within minutes we were suddenly standing deep under the streets of London in a massive tunnel. Here I am standing in what will soon be the trackbed.

Crossrail is a railway that is being built for high capacity from the beginning. The railway is being designed to last 100 years (though it will surely last longer), and given that London’s population is seemingly ever increasing, the engineers aren’t cutting corners.

Crossrail is being built for “full size” trains, and tunnels are a full 6.2m in diameter - much larger than the 3.56m standard for the existing deep-level Tube tunnels. The station tunnels - like the one I’m standing in above are even larger, with a diameter of around 12m. And the length of the stations are also huge - being designed to handle trains up to 235m in length (though initially trains will be ‘only’ 200m long). By contrast, the Central Line is the Tube line with the longest trains - and they only clock in at a paltry 133m. And amusingly, Crossrail trains come close to being longer than the gap between the two closest Tube stations: Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line are only 260m apart.

But you probably have to be in a tunnel to appreciate just how long that is.

The above photo was taken standing at one end of the platforms (albeit standing where the tracks will go), looking back on the station, and you can’t even see the other end because of the vanishing point.

When train services launch in 2018, the central section will have 24 trains per hour (tph) pass through - that’s one every 2.5 minutes. Which is pretty quick - though if demand increases, throughput could be increased to 32tph. No wonder that singlehanded, this one new line is increasing London’s rail capacity by 10%.

What’s also cool is seeing how the station is starting to look a little bit like, well, a train station. The platforms lining the side of the tunnel are the actual platforms that we’ll all be standing on in a few years. In fact, here’s a photo showing exactly what it will look like to stand on the platform waiting for a train:

Worry not about the lack of yellow line - the Elizabeth Line will be like the Jubilee Line, and in the underground section will have platform edge doors that will only open when there is a train behind it to step on to.

(This is actually a render of what Farringdon will look like, it but it should give you a flavour of what to expect.)

These doors haven’t been built yet, but due to a quirk in the construction process you can actually get a good idea of what this will look like. You just have to use your imagination a bit.

This is the view looking down the platform - and the ‘doors’ are the wooden structure on the left. In actual fact, this barrier - which will eventually be replaced by the real things - is used to separate two largely independent worksites. Due to Crossrail’s enormous scale, contracts for building each station and digging the tunnels have been handed out to completely different contractors - and the barrier acts to keep the two groups separate.

Below is the view looking out into the tunnels - which were completed last year. All that they need to do now is add the tracks, power and the signalling systems, and they are more or less ready to go. Don’t expect the tunnels to be quite so well lit when you actually take a train - the lights are temporary and will be replaced with the overhead power system.

The good news for Giz readers too is that Crossrail is promising that both the stations and (more excitingly) the trains will have wifi - meaning that you should be able to remain connected throughout your journey. The only thing that isn’t clear is whether it will be Virgin Media supplying the wifi, or whether you’ll have to switch network when moving from the Tube to the Elizabeth Line.

If the above photos look a little too peaceful, it’s because the bulk of the work that is going on appears to be away from the platforms, as the passenger tunnels are being fitted out. Helpfully in order to do this, bang in the middle of Liverpool Street and Moorgate stations, right above the middle of the Elizabeth Line platforms is Finsbury Circus - a garden, rather than a building. And this makes for a super useful extra place for engineers to dig down. Here’s what it looks like from up top:

Somewhere inside there is the top of this massive hole, through which a crane can deliver all of the necessary construction equipment.

And at the bottom of this shaft is this rather busy intersection of tunnels.

This is where four different passenger tunnels meet - and it appears that there’s even a traffic light system in action. Sadly though, there are no plans for constructing a massive skylight as once construction is complete they need to turn the Square back into a Square - and restore the bowling green that previously occupied it.

The Ticket Halls

The next stop on the tour was the the massive hole that will soon become the new ticket hall at Moorgate, and the escalator shaft down to the trains. Perhaps better than anywhere else, it shows the complexity of the building environment that the new railway is being constructed in - with the works having to squeeze in between existing buildings.

To build, they’ve  essentially created a massive reinforced box to hold back the surrounding buildings. And to add even greater complexity, once the station is finished a new block of offices will be built on top (it’s this which is helping pay for Crossrail), so the engineers also had to pre-emptively build in supports for that deep into the ground below.

See that slope going down to what is at the moment a precarious drop? One day soon it will be an escalator down from Moorgate ticket hall. It is going to join up with where the blue “canti-deck” is in this photo:

And it’ll eventually look something like this:

Nick also showed me what is likely to become one of the longest pedestrian tunnels on the Tube network. Just as Londoners know that the change between the Victoria and Piccadilly at Green Park is a mammoth one, getting to the Northern Line from the Elizabeth Line is set to be a bit of a trek too. What it does mean though is that when it all opens, because of Crossrail straddling two stations, it’ll technically be possible to touch-in with your Oyster card at Liverpool Street, and then walk all the way to the Northern Line at Moorgate, all without needing to touch out or go above ground.

At the top of the shaft is what will eventually become the new Moorgate ticket hall. It’s slowly coming together. Here’s where the escalator will go again:

And here’s the actual roof, which is already installed:

Design-wise, all of the underground Elizabeth Line stations are being designed so that the platforms all appear pretty similar - and as you travel away from them, each station gradually becomes more distinct, to fit in with its existing architecture and the character of the area. For example, this roof design is striped, supposedly to evoke the pinstriped suits of the City of London.

Here’s what it should all eventually look like:

In order to build the new ticket hall, they had to demolish the old one - which required this glamorous temporary entrance:

It only opened last year - yet soon it will be closing and replaced by this entrance, just inside the current worksite:

See the slanted concrete above the box? One day that’ll look like this:

A short walk back above ground and we arrived back at the Bishopsgate ticket hall back at Liverpool Street - where things are looking equally like a work in progress.

Interestingly, when they were digging this out, they found around 5000 skeletons as the area they were excavating is the former site of Bedlam hospital. Since the discovery, most have been reburied, but the Museum of London has held on to some too.

Here’s what the connecting corridor with the rest of Liverpool Street Station will look like - though I assume they’ll give it more than just a single door once it is finished...

Unlike Moorgate, this one will seemingly be entirely underground - they’ve just added the roof, which will ultimately be turned back into a road - albeit with a rather snazzy entrance that bears a slight resemblance to the recently opened new entrance at Tottenham Court Road:

And that was my trip to see the work in progress that is the Elizabeth Line. It’s a pretty astonishing piece of engineering, and amazingly despite the complexity of the task at hand, everything seems to be going okay - the project has been the focus of remarkably little controversy since construction began and every sign is that it will be finished on time. I’m looking forward to my first ride already.