I ask, because TfL are very keen not to tell us yet.
Obviously it's December 2018. Everyone's happy to admit that much, from TfL on their website to the company delivering Crossrail itself.
But the precise start date is officially unknown, despite there being a target date everyone behind the scenes is working to, and it being an open secret what that date is.
There are several reasons for this secrecy. Firstly, the TFL Press Office has an announcement schedule pencilled in, and we haven't yet reached the day of the announcement. Secondly it's still perfectly possible that the launch of Crossrail will be delayed, say if the stations aren't ready, or the trains aren't fully tested. But most importantly we haven't yet been given an official launch date because THE OFFICIAL LAUNCH DATE MUST NOT BE INCORRECT. It would be mortifying for Crossrail to be seen to fail, even by a day, hence no official launch date will be given until everyone's sure it can be achieved.
The open secret launch date is Sunday 9th December 2018.
Evidence 1: 9th December 2018 is Timetable Changeover Day
Rail timetables across Europe change on two specific dates - the third Sunday in May and the second Sunday in December. Crossrail is a rail line, rather than a tube line, so it stands to reason its new timetable will kick off on Sunday 9th December. No other date was seriously in the running. BUT when it opens in December, Crossrail will be in three distinct parts. Two of these mesh closely with existing rail services, i.e. Paddington to Heathrow and Liverpool Street to Shenfield. But all the new stations and new infrastructure will be on the line from Paddington to Abbey Wood, and that's entirely separate from every other National Rail line, which means TfL can run it or not run it however they damn like. Basically, if they don't start on 9th December, no other existing services will be affected.
Evidence 2: In September 2016 a Crossrail manager said it would be 9th December 2018
During Open House in 2016, certain Crossrail stations were opened up to a handful of the public to look inside. I went to Tottenham Court Road but Ian Visits went to Bond Street, where a loose-tongued Crossrail manager confirmed the official opening date as Sunday 9th December 2018. BUT it could have changed since then, obviously. Although this shows just how long ago the target date was set.
Evidence 3: In October 2016 a consultation report said it would be 9th December 2018
It's fair to say few mortals got excited by 2016's "Crossrail Central Operating Section (CCOS) Proposed Network Statement" consultation, let alone took time out to read the accompanying documentation. But if they had, they'd have seen repeated clear indications of the start date: "We are seeking your views on our Network Statement for the Crossrail Central Operating Section valid in relation to the 2019 timetable (which commences on 9 December 2018)." Rock solid proof? BUT the day a timetable begins isn't necessarily the same day a service begins, so perhaps we can only count Sunday 9th December as the earliest possible date.
Evidence 4: A recent board paper for a TfL committee says it will be 9th December 2018
TfL's Finance committee met last week and, as usual, its minutes and board papers were uploaded to the TfL website. Bosses sometimes hold back certain papers because they contain sensitive information. But Item 10 - Crossrail Central Operating Section - contained a specific indication that the operator MTR Corporation (Crossrail) Limited had been granted a concession "to run passenger services on the CCOS from 9 December 2018." That's another pretty definitive statement.
Evidence 5: Westminster council say it will be 9th December 2018
This is another spot by Ian Visits, and another bullseye. Westminster council's cabinet are meeting today to discuss the transformation of Oxford Street, pushing ahead with plans which don't involve pedestrianisation. Within the accompanying statement, published online, they refer to safety measures which "may be required in advance of the opening of the Crossrail stations at Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street, currently scheduled for 9 December 2018." That's a very definitive statement, and all the more convincing because TfL's Press Office haven't had their censoring fingers anywhere near it.
Evidence 6: Changes to bus services serving Custom House station are scheduled for 8th December 2018
Yes, I know that's Saturday 8th rather than Sunday 9th, but changes to bus routes are always rolled out on Saturdays, so this is as close as you can get. According to the website londonbusroutes.net, half a dozen changes are confirmed for 8th December, including the splitting of the 104 (into a 104 and a 304) and the rerouting of the 241, 300, 330 and 474. All of these changes were proposed last July as part of a Crossrail-related consultation. And if they're happening that weekend, then in these cash-strapped times this must be the weekend Crossrail begins.
But then there's the evidence for the prosecution.
Counter-evidence 1: TfL's "One year to go" press release appeared on 19th December 2017
You may remember this press release, it included a tube map with an extra purple line on it (and TfL's Press Office knows everyone goes nuts about a tube map). Nowhere in the press release was a specific date given, only "December 2018", but the headline was clear enough, beginning "One year to go". A lot of the media assumed this meant Crossrail would begin on 19th December 2018, which was precisely one year ahead, but it'd be astonishingly unusual for a new high profile railway line to be launching on a Wednesday.
Counter evidence 2: TfL's "11 months to go" press release appeared on 22nd January 2018
We've stuck up our first purple roundels, they said, along with a strapline saying "with 11 months to go until the opening of the new railway". If taken seriously, this would suggest three days before Christmas. Surely not?
Counter evidence 3: TfL's "10 months to go" press release appeared on 21st February 2018
We want six exclusive brand partners, they said, along with a strapline saying "to align with the historic launch in 10 months' time". Considering the dates of these last three pieces of evidence suggests that TfL's Press Office has been waiting until roughly the 20th of the month before daring to announce that Crossrail will be open in x months time. This might hint at a slightly later opening date in December, nearer the 20th than the 9th, allowing some wriggle room if things were marginally delayed. But then in April they did this...
Counter evidence 4: TfL's "8 months to go" tweet appeared on 13th April 2018
A tweet about test trains running under Victoria Dock merited an #8monthstogo hashtag, and this was published as early as the 13th of the month. Perhaps an earlier start for Crossrail was now planned. There again, I note TfL didn't risk a #7monthstogo or #6monthstogo tweet, or press release, so perhaps they're becoming a lot more cautious as the great day approaches.
Hearsay 1: Crossrail's running behind schedule.
An electricity substation exploded last year when they switched it on, putting the testing of trains months behind schedule. A software problem means the new Crossrail rolling stock still hasn't made it to Heathrow. Board papers referring to Crossrail milestones are routinely excluded from the TfL website. The construction of Bond Street, Paddington, Liverpool Street and Woolwich stations is running worryingly late, so much so that planned public Open Days have been cancelled. You won't find the TfL Press Office confirming any of these rumours, indeed some may be pure speculation rather than hard facts. But enough whispering is going on to suggest that all is not 100% well behind the scenes.
It is perfectly possible, even likely, that when Crossrail launches in December not everything will be ready. At best, some of the interior station decor may not be complete. Perhaps not every lift or escalator will be operational on Day One, or some of the cladding will be missing. More seriously, certain stations could launch with only one of their two exits open, because one out of two is initially good enough. In a worst case scenario, Crossrail could begin with one or two stations closed, and trains passing straight through while construction work completes.
In conclusion, an increasingly silent uncertainty is the main reason why TfL won't yet commit to announcing a launch date for Crossrail. But if it isn't Sunday 9th December 2018, FIVE MONTHS FROM TODAY, something will have gone disastrously embarrassingly wrong.