In six years time, if all goes to plan, the first Crossrail trains will glide into Canary Wharf to collect passengers. The shopping centre associated with the new station should be with us by Easter 2015, so you'll be able to drop by and buy sushi relatively soon. But to get any lower, four floors down where the platforms are, that's a much longer wait. Unless you were lucky in the London Open House raffle, that is, in which case you might have slipped in yesterday.
Sheesh, the London Open House pre-booking system has been a disaster this year. They promised an online launch several times, then retreated when the system wholly and utterly failed. They shifted the deadline and promised the system would work better, only it didn't, and only a random handful of desperate web-refreshers managed to book anything. They apologised and shifted to an email-only lottery, which probably worked better, although I applied for lots and won absolutely nothing. A complete mess all told, and even more so in the execution. According to the cribsheet at Crossrail security our tour had 20 pre-booked attendees, except the majority of these turned out to be illusionary, accidentally generated during the website booking meltdown a month ago. Only six of us gained entrance with official documentation, and all the remaining places were filled by speculative queuers who'd ignored the "pre-book only" message and turned up anyway. Well done to them for trying, but a kick in the teeth to anyone who failed to book a place and stayed away. The snowballing success of London Open House (which is great) has created total reservation instability (which is not), and the team desperately needs to sort out something better by next year.
The Jubilee line station at Canary Wharf was created by draining one of the existing docks and digging a deep hole. The Crossrail station's being built in much the same way, this time in the North Quay. Construction work began in 2009, and since then a vast concrete structure has arisen. The top two storeys are visible above the waterline, a good 250m long, and destined to be full of retail and restaurants. I find it hard to believe that Canary Wharf needs yet more shopping space, but I guess demand for lunchtime browsing and after-work entertainment is insatiable. Rather worthier is the linear park that's due to appear on the rooftop, a rare strip of greenspace hereabouts, and part of wider plans to knit Poplar more closely into its wealthier neighbour.
Entrance to Crossrail's construction zone can be found directly underneath West India Quay DLR station. Nobody gets too far inside without protection, which for those of us on the tour meant hi-vis, helmet, goggles and gloves. "Feel free to take take photos," said the manager in charge, although that's easier said than done when your fingers are encased in safetywear. We crossed the water via a ramped bridge and entered the heart of the site. One day there'll be stairs and disabled-friendly lifts, but for now access to the lower areas is only by hoist. I had visions of this being some flaky maritime contraption, but instead it was more like a miners' cage, perfectly safe for lowering up to 2000kg of human cargo into the abyss. "Don't worry about the jolt when it starts up," our guide reassured us, "that's perfectly normal."
The doors opened at what will one day be ticket hall level. It's a massive ticket hall, broad and very long, comparable to that of the Jubilee line station a few hundred metres away. Expect a direct link to enable swift interchange, via a passageway also linking this shopping mall to the lower mall at Canary Wharf. Developers are expecting 36000 passengers an hour to pass through this station during the morning peak, that's ten a second, so the ticket gates (or whatever swish technology we have by then) needs to be able to cope. It's all a bit nondescript down here at the moment, a lengthy concrete cuboid plus scaffolding lit by bright lights, but expect a much more architectural sheen when you finally arrive here.
Steps twist down to the bottom of the station - very temporary metal stairs descending into the void, down and down. The final landing is labelled "Level -6" and is approximately where the platforms will be. We had one more flight to go because there are no platforms as yet, only the box in which they'll eventually appear once tracks have been laid. We stood in the path of oncoming trains, a few years too early, and gawped around. It is a very longstation, as I think I've already mentioned, but it needs to be long to cope with ten-carriage trains (and the possibility of later extension). Getting on at the right end of the train is going to be important come 2018 - board at the front and you'll alight at Moorgate, board at the rear and you'll alight at Liverpool Street. There'll also be floor-to-ceiling electronic platform doors dividing waiting passengers from arriving trains, much more substantial than on the Jubilee line, with all the fire safety benefits such sealing-off brings.
The main reason there are no tracks yet is that so far there are no tunnels. Four giant metal hoops stand ready to be pierced, two at each end of the station, their interior supported by thick piles until breakthrough comes. Crossrail's tunnel boring machines are due to arrive here next April, after burrowing a mile from the Limmo peninsula at the mouth of the Lea. Then in July they'll be off again, this time towards Stepney and Whitechapel, bringing dreams of high-speed commuting that little bit closer. We were allowed right up to, even into, the incoming eastbound portal, to see the concrete octagon within the metal circle at close hand. Various people posed for pictures ("this is me wearing serious safety gear stood in front of an important wall"), then took photos of their partners for good measure.
You could tell that the project manager leading our tour party was proud of his team's achievements so far, and rightly so. Design and building have been undertaken by Canary Wharf Contractors Limited, not TfL or any of the usual national construction companies, and so far they're delivering ahead of schedule. I'm sure he'd have stayed talking for much longer given half a chance, except there was another tour party arriving behind so we had to end our subterranean odyssey forthwith. Another ride in the hoist awaited, this time from 25 metres below water level back to the surface. And that's the last I expect to see of this amazing station until I come back by train in six years time, this chamber transformed. You'll all be saying "wow, it's a step-change in the London transport experience", but we Open House visitors will also remember it as a hole.
And no, my camera didn't function well in the artificial gloom. I grabbed a few blurryshots, but if you want something better then IanVisits and M@ from Londonist were taken down to platform level a few months back, and not a huge amount has changed down there since.