WALK CROSSRAIL For my next over-ambitious feature, I thought I'd walk Crossrail. Not the tunnels themselves because they're deep underground and off limits, pending fit-out, but the path of the route on the surface. This blog loves nothing more than following an invisible line across London, and Crossrail tracks a more invisible route than most. Equally there several clues on the surface to spot along the way, most of which are shafts and building sites rather than proper stations, there still being three years to go before project completion. So hell, why not walk it?
I haven't followed the whole of Crossrail because it's ridiculously long, and has several branches. Instead I've decided to walk the first section to open, from Abbey Wood to Paddington, which you should be able to ride by New Year 2019. And I haven't walked the very first bit from Abbey Wood, sorry. I probably should have done, but instead I started on the north side of the Thames because I thought the full 16 miles was a bit far. As it is I walked 12, all the way from North Woolwich to Paddington, which proved quite enough. I followed the approximate line of the tunnel throughout, near enough, and the westbound tunnel rather than the eastbound where the two diverge. I used the excellent Open Street Map to help track the way, but there's also a proper geographical map on the Crossrail website, and I've drawn a (very approximate) Google map here.
WALK CROSSRAIL 0) Abbey Wood to North Woolwich (4 miles) [concise version]
From its southeastern terminus at Abbey Wood, Crossrail follows the existing North Kent lines as far as a tunnel portal behind Marmadon Road, then burrows into unstable soil following the line of Plumstead Road. Woolwich station lies at the heart of a new property development, and looks it, before the line ducks directly beneath the Thames.
WALK CROSSRAIL 1) North Woolwich to Custom House (2 miles)
It's both deliberate and ironic that Crossrail arrives in Newham beneath a doubly abandoned station. The most recent North Woolwich station closed ten years ago as part of a deliberate plan to rebrand Silverlink as the Overground, with the stretch immediately beyond Stratford destined for a DLR extension. That opened five years ago, but the far end was always earmarked for Crossrail, so the first few miles of my walk will be tracking the old line reborn. The older North Woolwich station building was once an offbeat railwaymuseum but is now little more than a heritage shell, its downstairs windows shuttered and upper panes smashed. Cars departing the Woolwich Ferry stream by in waves, and pedestrians walking to the Foot Tunnel sometimes stop and wonder how this attractive survivor isn't flats.
The first of many Crossrail building sites lurks behind, where the platforms used to be, beyond which the tracks are boarded up to create a linear construction corral. The original railway's been here long enough that main roads run immediately to either side, for about a kilometre, one lined with houses and the other with more commercial uses. It's not a particularly attractive spot - no building in North Woolwich under the age of 100 is - and the streets are frequented by less well-off folk who'll see no benefits when Crossrail drives straight past their community. Indeed the new works seem to be going out of their way to be unwelcoming, the blue wooden hoardings switching to higher and more permanent concrete at the precise point where the tunnel will emerge from the ground.
The footbridge that used to cross the tracks midway has been demolished, although there is one brief gap in the wall near Holt Road which might signal a future connection. One thing that hasn't gone away is the sweet smell of hot sugar, courtesy of Tate & Lyle's main refinery looming down over the neighbourhood beyond the tracks. You might also be able to smell aviation fuel, what with City Airport only a few planeswidths away, but Crossrail only stops for Heathrow so here the DLR will suffice. Several short terraced streets lead off the main drag, each with a palpable sense of community, and a rare window into the area's dockside past.
At the end of the long straight, where Silvertownstation used to be, an old footbridge provides a splendid vantage point back along the railway towards the refinery. It's evident from up here that Crossrail is now in the track-laying phase, with one and a half sets of rails installed and hundreds of sleepers still to be inserted. Looking in the oppositedirection the flats are more modern and the tracks are marginally more complete, curving north to enter Crossrail's sole non 21st century burrow - the ConnaughtTunnel. This re-engineered Victorian bore dips below the DLR and then City Airport's private plane apron, where signs beside the public footpath warn of low flying aeroplanes and jet blast. Fear not, I'd say you're more likely to be mugged under the Connaught Bridge than burnt to a crisp.
Bridge, dock and railway all coincide, thankfully at different heights. Focus on the great view across the water towards Docklands, because the northwest bank is a fairly horrible place, essentially a collection of bland hotels and private roadways where the pedestrian is very much not at home. Tread carefully past the roundabout to reach the other end of the Connaught Tunnel, peering over the portal to see the original brick arches that keep the walls of the cutting apart. Whether you'll still be able to get this close when trains are running I doubt, but fingers crossed health and safety doesn't decree some ugly hermetic sealing to hide the last remnants of the 19th century away.
The next excellent view is back from the footbridge at Prince Regent DLR, the old North London line curving down while the light rail viaduct swooshes up and over. We've now reached one end of the ExCel exhibition complex, where Gulf investment butts up against Newham's poorer estates, and only the railway keeps them apart. That's half building site at present, initially simply replacement tracks, then the looming form of a long prefabricated skeleton with glass canopy. And this is an actual Crossrail station, Custom House, the only surface station on the new line's central section. Finally we've reached somewhere you'll be able to board a train, and it's only taken us six paragraphs to get here.
The station's superstructure is already complete, if inaccessible, and is crossed by an austere temporary walkway. Residents on the northern side will eventually have a swish double staircase to ascend, at present only accessible to local cats, rising from a new piazza beside a Chinese restaurant. The adjacent shopping parade is of trifling economic significance, a string of takeaways interwoven with an off licence and nail bar, and targeted precisely on the needs of local community. Quite what those who stay over at the Ibis round the corner make of it I'm not sure, though I doubt they linger long. But when the multi-billion pound transport gateway opens two doors down, and regeneration pressure bursts through uncontained, I'd be surprised if the Golden Sands is still serving egg fried rice long after.