You learn, once you’ve lived in London for a while, that it takes an absolute minimum of 20 minutes to get to anywhere. The capital may have the sort of comprehensive and integrated transport system that makes those from elsewhere in the country furious about its privileges, but it is also very, very big. And so, after a while, you learn to either leave a lot of time to get anywhere, or you just commit to being fashionably late for everything, depending on how cool and/or considerate you are.
The reason I mention this is because, a few weeks ago, I got to try out the rail link formerly known as Crossrail, the first stage of which will finally open on Tuesday 24 May. And besides the stylish design of the newly dug stations and the beautiful new trains, the thing that stays with me most about the experience was quite how insanely fast it is. Travelling from Paddington to Canary Wharf — the entire length of central London, and then some — takes all of 17 minutes. From Paddington to Liverpool Street takes just ten. Cross-town journeys from West End to Docklands, City to Heathrow, are about to get a lot, lot faster.
Actually, that’s not the biggest surprise about the new line. The biggest is that, after all these years, it’s finally opening at all. Cross-London rail links of this sort have been discussed for about as long as the railways have existed, and the name Crossrail first appeared in a government planning document in 1974. Pamphlets first appeared at my local station, describing the new line and generally leaving me bouncing off the walls, some time in the early 1990s, but even then it took a change of government and another 15 years or so before anyone actually agreed to build it.
We were originally told, what’s more, that it’d open back in December 2018. For a long time Crossrail was the counter-example given whenever anyone said that it was inevitable that construction projects on this scale would end up behind schedule and over budget. Then it turned out, in a hubris-to-nemesis arc that seems painfully inevitable in retrospect, that the line was both behind schedule and over budget. Walking the length of the line that September, it was suddenly blindingly obvious the shiny new stations were nowhere near finished. It says something unflattering about those of us who reported on such things that we hadn’t previously bothered to check.
Finally, though, it is here, and its speed is not the only way in which it will change the geography of the capital. New rail links in London have often affected where people live, work or socialise. The DLR helped to create modern Docklands, the Jubilee line extension opened up the South Bank and the creation of the Overground boosted places like Dalston and New Cross.
So over the next few years, I suspect, a new fast train to central London will mean a lot of people suddenly discovering the delights of previously unknown suburbs such as Forest Gate, Woolwich and Southall. The boroughs which have remained most resistant to London’s swing to the left, what’s more, are those on its eastern fringe. Two of them are served by the new line. Crossrail could do more for Labour’s prospects in Havering and Bexley than any number of door-knocking campaigns.
For all the excitement (that’s my word, and I’m sticking to it), there are two ways in which the new line is likely to prove at least a little controversial. One is that it’s a visible sign of the government’s willingness to pour money into the capital at a time when the entire country is broke. To some extent this is unfortunate timing — the new line received royal assent in July 2008, a few weeks before Lehman Brothers collapsed and our current, more austere era began — but nonetheless, it doesn’t look good.
The counter-argument, though, is that London needs this sort of investment if it’s to keep moving and thus keep making its current contribution to the national finances. Those in Leeds — to pick the place commonly cited as the largest city in Europe without any sort of a metro network — are right to point out that their city hasn’t even been allowed to build trams, leaving the locals reliant on overpriced, under-regulated and upsettingly infrequent buses. That, though, is an argument against the Treasury, not an argument against Crossrail: we should be investing in transport in other cities, too.
The other controversial thing about Crossrail is the name I’ve been studiously refusing to call it by. Although it was planned and built as Crossrail, it will be known officially as the Elizabeth Line. Since nationalisation in 1933, in fact, London has built three new underground railways, and named every one (Victoria, Jubilee, Elizabeth) after the royals.
And unlike Victoria when her own line opened in 1968, Elizabeth II is still alive. If memorialising dead royals can sometimes feel a little cringey, memorialising live ones feels just plain weird. But this, I suspect, will be far from the last thing we name after Britain’s longest reigning monarch over the next few years; maybe over time the name will come to feel normal.
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter anyway. In just over two weeks the central section, from Paddington to Abbey Wood, will open; by the autumn the suburban branches should be up and running too. Crossrail or the Elizabeth Line: whatever you call it, it’s arriving at last. And it’s going to be brilliant.