What are Overground staff doing before the East London Line reopens? That's easy if you're a driver - you ride an empty train up and down the line getting better at driving, and then you drive up and down the line again. That's easy if you're a signalman - you flash the lights on and off so that none of the still-practising drivers crash into each other. And that's easy if you're a building contractor - you wander around the almost-open stations tweaking the last bolts and screws before the public arrive. But what about the station staff, the ones employed to assist as-yet non-existent passengers? Until public train services finally get the go-ahead, it seems they're standing around bored with bugger all to do.
At Shoreditch High Street, two customer-facing staff linger around the main entrance in case anybody wanders by. This isn't as likely as it sounds. The entrance to the station isn't on Shoreditch High Street, counter-intuitively, nor even on a road that intersects it. Instead the ticket hall faces out onto Wheler Street[photo] - a minor lane which has been boarded up for the last few years while construction continued all around. You'd not stumble across the entrance by mistake after a night out in trendy Shoreditch, not unless someone ever gets round to erecting several extra signs. But here the staff wait, happy to pass on information to would-be travellers as and when required. Behind them a row of ticket barriers stands idle, wide enough for some unimaginable rush hour, while an electronic departures board announces a string of uncatchable services [photo]. And beyond those a shallow staircase leads up to empty platforms (plus there's a lift, obviously, because there has to be).
Shoreditch High Street is a super-ugly station, at least from the outside. It resembles a long sinuous concrete tube, but with an even longer concrete tube threaded inside. All the corners are squared off rather than rounded, and no attempt has been made to create anything of deliberate beauty. Instead this is a building designed to kickstart an economic whirlwind which will one day swallow it whole. The surrounding remainder of the BishopsgateGoodsYard is scheduled for major redevelopment, probably a cluster of Shoreditch skyscrapers if certain councillors get their way. The plan is that all these buildings can be erected around the new station, safely tucked away inside its concrete cocoon, allowing rail services to continue if/when the towers go up. That extra-long inner concrete tube is to protect the ends of the platforms, thereby blocking out daylight for waiting passengers from Day One. Whenever that is.
For Dalston-bound services, trains cross Shoreditch High Street over a bowstring bridge [photo] then gently rise on a curve round to the north. Here the railway links up with a pre-existing viaduct, formerly used by trains out of Broad Street, and follows this all the way to the end of the line. It's this elevated trackbed which has greatly reduced the cost of construction, removing the need for compulsory purchases or major demolitions along the way. Only a couple of sections of severed Victorian viaduct remain untracked, one still weed-strewn, the other with four artist-filled tube carriages perched on top.
After crossing Old Street the East London Line swings across to the east of the Kingsland Road, which it then follows at a safe distance for a mile and a half. The first halt is Hoxton - a station which now joins St John's Wood in sharing none of its letters with 'mackerel'. This is the only station whose gates remained closed yesterday, while workmen continued to fiddle with paving slabs in the backstreet outside. Again the passing footfall here will be minimal, unless the Geffrye Museum opens up its rear gate and allows visitors to exit via their period gardens [photo]. A bit of extra engineering has been required to lift the railway over the Regent's Canal [photo], and then the next stop is Haggerston. This station's much easier to spot from the main road than was Hoxton, and really very obvious for anyone walking their dog in the neighbouring park. Again the two staff based here have absolutely nothing to do, save stand around in the street and make friends with the local community. [photo]
And finally, back at ground level, into Dalston Junction. There are two shiny grey entrances, one facing back into a not-yet-open bus interchange [photo], the other facing out on Dalston Lane [photo]. A modern housing development has gone up alongside, its stacked windows somewhat reminiscent of a game of Celebrity Squares. The ELL is a big deal here, bringing residential rejuvenation to one corner of the run-down town centre.
Several staff are based at Dalston Junction, so it seems, most of whom currently spend their time lurking in the shadows at the top of the ramp. This gives the impression that the station is already up and running - a view confirmed by a map on the front hoarding which clearly states "line now open". But if you ask anybody here (or indeed anywhere else up the line) when the new service will finally open, they all give their best deadpan smile and offer the official answer of "May 23rd". It's true enough that trains to far-distant Croydon and Crystal Palace are still five weeks off. But the ghost trains to New Cross must surely open their doors to local passengers well before then, if only to give bored station staff something meaningful to do. Until then, East London's long wait continues.