London’s New Elizabeth Line – The Victorians Would Have Been Proud

Entrance to the Elizabeth Line at Liverpool Street Station

London’s new ‘Elizabeth Line’ underground line opened this past Tuesday, 24th May. My flat in London is only a few minutes’ walk from Farringdon Station on the new line, so I tried it out on Wednesday by making a short trip to Canary Wharf. This trip took around 20 minutes each way, from the front door of my flat to leaving Canary Wharf Station and the same on the way back. It would have taken at least twice that amount of time, in fact between 45 and 50 minutes, to reach Canary Wharf by other means, e.g., walking to Bank tube station, down through the labyrinth of tunnels to the DLR platform and to Canary Wharf on that line. I have also taken the new line from Liverpool Station Station to Abbey Wood at the south-east end of the line.

We have been waiting a very long time for the Elizabeth Line to open and it was a few years’ late in the end, but the delay happened to coincide with the peak period of the pandemic when far fewer people were travelling in any case. It was also a very costly project, with the overall cost topping out at £18 billion or so.

The Elizabeth Line is nonetheless a great achievement and I believe it would have impressed even the Victorians, who presided over so many vast infrastructure projects in the UK. My key impressions of the new line are:

Size and Scale

I had read that the platforms on the new line were very long (at around 280 metres), but I was surprised to see their sheer length. They are more than a city block long, and it takes three or four minutes to walk from one end to the other. You therefore need to pay close attention to which ‘end’ of the train you travel on, as that affects which entry/exit you should use when going in and out of stations. If you have to wait a few minutes for a train to arrive, you can use that time to position yourself in the best spot for exiting the train.

The entrance halls, escalators, landings and connecting corridors are also very large in scale, especially in the central stations like Liverpool Street. They lack the lavish decoration and individuality of the stations on the Jubilee Line extension. But there is a strong sense of spaciousness and airiness, despite the platforms being located deep below the surface.

Eastbound platform at Farringdon Station
Connecting corridor at Liverpool Street Station

The trains themselves, while being rather plain in terms of seating and decor, contain very large spaces for standing passengers and are open end to end without dividers between coaches. I understand they are also air-conditioned, but they do not yet provide mobile phone access.

The size and scale of the line reminded me of the newer underground lines I have travelled on in Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo. It is very different from the older tube lines in London. I did get the impression that the Elizabeth Line was designed for a city of 20 million or so, rather than a ‘small’ city like London of just eight million. I hope that London will eventually grow to that size, with three or more additional ‘Elizabeth Lines’, but that seems very unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future given the ‘anti-growth’ mentality in the UK. I am sure the Victorians would have appreciated that prospect, but we clearly lack the Victorians’ vision and confidence in the future.

Speed and Quiet Efficiency

My short trips to Canary Wharf and Abbey Wood were certainly much faster than they would have been by other means, but I do live very close to Farringdon Station. The trains on the Elizabeth Line cannot travel very quickly between the central stations like Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon and Liverpool Street, because the distance between the stations is only a couple of train lengths. However, there is a definite impression of speed between Whitechapel and Canary Wharf and further on to Abbey Wood.

The corridors and platforms in stations are also impressively quiet, even when trains are arriving at the platform. It appears that the planners of the line paid a great deal of attention to sound proofing in the design process.

An Important Asset for London’s Future

The Elizabeth Line has opened at a time when the number of travellers on London’s buses and underground lines is still depressed following the pandemic. Traveller numbers may take years to recover to pre-pandemic levels, if indeed they ever do. Still, the Elizabeth Line has added a large amount of additional capacity and it is to be hoped that will be fully used in time.

In short, the Elizabeth Line is a new infrastructure asset that should help London’s economy to recover from the pandemic and Brexit induced slowdown that are currently holding it back. It could also help London develop into a much larger centre, both in terms of population and its contribution to the UK (and international) economy. It would need to be supplemented by other new transport lines, plus additional runways at airports in the south-east, to fully realise that potential. It is to be hoped that our political ‘leaders’ and business people will be inspired by what has been achieved and discover the will to do even more in future.

I also hope that proper recognition will be given to the many people who were involved in planning and building the ‘Crossrail’ line over many years. It has been a constantly changing cast of characters, with many women engineers having key roles in the project. They have collectively delivered a very impressive end result.

Michael Ingle –

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