With only 900 (count 'em) days to go, building work on Stratford's Olympic site continues apace. The stadium's up, and umpteen rows of terracing are now viewable through gaps in the outer wall of the arena. The swimming pool roof's up, and its undulating form dominates the trackside west of Stratford station. Elsewhere there are velodromes, pumpingstations and athletes' accommodation blocks springing up all over, plus several more minor yet equally-event-critical structures all about. Short of an unexpected meteor strike, there's surely no risk of the infrastructure for the 2012 Games being delivered late.
But now there's a new construction project in the area, immediately alongside, and what's more it's on a similar ginormous scale. It's Crossrail, more specifically the northeastern arm of Crossrail heading towards Shenfield, and it'll be burrowing up out of the London Clay just to the south of the Olympic Park [plans - pdf]. If you thought the Olympics were taking a long time to build (2007→2012), then Crossrail's schedule (2009→2017) is almost glacial by comparison.
You've quite possibly stood on the site of the portal where Crossrail trains will dive into the earth on their way from Stratford to Whitechapel and beyond. The precise spot is called "Pudding Mill DLR station", as plans require this quiet light rail outpost to be rebuilt (slightly to the south), then the original demolished to make way for giant tunnels. A big cut and cover trench will be excavated between here and the River Lea, about a quarter of a mile to the west, in readiness for the emergence of two tunnel-boring machines (which are due to be despatched from Stepney in 2013). It's a technically demanding project, not least because the tunnel's angle of ascent will be fractionally greater the usual legal maximum. This steep climb will allow Crossrail's tunnels to nip over the underground Hackney Wick Sewer (which is great news because it means those pipes won't have to be diverted and rebuilt within metres of my house as originally planned). They'll then ascend under the River Lea, out of the ground on the far side and over the elevated Greenway (East London's most important sewage outfall). An engineering nightmare, but absolutely essential if the project is to be completed to cost and on schedule. [more info, & map]
Which leaves a lot of building work to do, and a Crossrail construction site is currently being cleared to the north of Stratford High Street. All those businesses on the Heron Industrial Estate who thought they'd been given a reprieve when Olympic bosses decided to relocate the 2012 Media Centre in Hackney Wick, they're all closed or closing. Grieve not for the tradingsheds and smelly wastemongers, but pity the wholesalers and manufacturers whose lifeblood is now but a rotting shell, or indeed completely flattened.
A stroll along Cooks Road - the first sidestreet to the northeast of the Bow Flyover - is now an eerie experience. I took the plunge on a work-free Sunday morning, and found the doomed ambience even more unsettling than when this was a semi-industrial backwater. I was initially bemused by the number of feral rat-faced hoodies stumbling dead-eyed down the street toward the local McDonalds drive-thru. But I soon discovered where they were coming from - a doorway leading round the back of the Continental Nursery Furniture warehouse, through which came the telltale sounds of heart-pounding beat-thumping techno. A few shadowy folk sat in their cars outside, I'm sure not all of whom were drug dealers, and they eyed me suspiciously as I wandered past towards a signposted dead end.
After the last few locked gates and plenty of "we've moved" signs, the blue wall began. Crossrail's demolition team have been hard at work in Barber's Road, and this curving barrier hid all trace of the businesses that used to trade here. No sign of Cromwell Tool Hire, Jardine Motors nor the BOC Group, all of whom moved into renovated premises at the "Stratford E15 hub" less than three years ago, but all of whom have now been forced to relocate elsewhere. Their workspaces and offices are scheduled to become a sloping track-filled trench, although I couldn't quite picture this echoing cul-de-sac as anything other than a desolate demolition site. Faced by an impenetrable barrier I had to retrace my steps, past the dodgy ravers, on a lengthy detour round to the DLR station and main Olympic site at the end of the road.
Next week, as Crossrail's incursion ramps up, the River Lea towpath between the Greenway and the Bow Flyover will be closed off until Christmas. This is to enable engineers to divert the 400KV cables which run immediately beneath the towpath, thereby allowing the tunnel-boring machines to emerge in safety a few yards beyond. Joggers and cyclists will have to endure diversions for 43 weeks, with no doubt an even lengthier barricade post-Games once the big drills start to surface. Pity we residents on the E15/E3 borderline, for we face not one but two enormous building projects over the next few years. Those Olympics are only the half of it (and, alas, the fast track to Heathrow isn't going to be anywhere near ready in time).