Today should have been the launch date for Crossrail, with trains running for the first time along its central core route. Nah, not happening.
But just how far behind schedule is it? I've been out to visit all ten stations from Paddington to Abbey Wood to see what clues can be discerned from ground level. Obviously with the deadline shifted until late next year, there's no longer any immediate pressure to get things finished, so we shouldn't expect perfection. But from what I've seen, December 2018 was a ridiculously unmanageable deadline.[20 photos, 2 per station]
PADDINGTON: not finished
Initially all Crossrail trains will turn round at Paddington, terminating at unseen underground platforms along the western side of the mainline station. They've been dug alongside Eastbourne Terrace, where the taxis used to pull up, one side of which remains an enormous elongated building site. The two warehouse-like buildings at each end look almost ready, beneath their smart glass canopies, although by no means all of the wood panelling is yet in place and the overall effect is somewhat underdressed.
The main surface building is in the centre and much longer, as well as more open. Wires hang from the roof where the grid of spotlights isn't yet complete. A break in the hoardings reveals a big digger, copious amounts of sheeting and red tape, and numerous men in hi-vis. Occasionally these workers need to exit by crossing the road, so a colleague with a lollipop goes first to stop the traffic. At the far northern end is a busier compound complete with lorries and small cranes, and a marshallers cabin, and a crawler with caterpillar tracks nobody's using at the moment. It's going to look amazing, and open up a whole side of Paddington people aren't used to seeing, but for now it's evidently not finished.
BOND STREET: far from being finished
All the rumours have suggested that Bond Street is the station farthest behind schedule, and the view from surface level backs this up. At the western end, closest to the existing Bond Street station, an entire city block remains fenced off as what looks like a giant concrete bunker arises. Where there are windows, the frames are empty. The lofty grey tower lacks any kind of cladding. What little can be seen of the gaping ticket hall mouth looks mostly blank. There is no resemblance between the six floors of office space depicted on the hoardings and what appears behind.
One advantage of a double-ended station is that only one end needs to be ready when the line opens, but up the road at Hanover Square things look even further delayed. Counting the number of Crossrail workers off-duty around the square is a good clue to how many must still be employed inside the worksite or down below. The office building above the new entrance is currently a skeleton of white beams without walls, floors or ceilings, and while I was watching a crane lowered a fresh girder into place. Obviously not everything above ground level needs to be ready before passengers can enter below, but heavy metal dangling above your head is a no-no. Even if other construction and signalling issues had been sorted, I suspect Crossrail trains might've have skipped Bond Street for the first few months.
TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD: nearly finished
Aligned with Dean Street, a drab black box intrudes into the facade of Oxford Street. Crossrail's buildings can be seriously ugly before they're dressed, no matter how swish they are inside. We know that inside is on track because there's been an Open Day down there, unlike those at the first two stations down the line which never materialised. They even let some of us down here for Open House two years ago, and the platform edge doors were in place even back then. Imagine wandering in and gliding down the escalators with your Christmas shopping next year... you almost can.
Meanwhile the entrance at the far end of Oxford Street, amid Tottenham Court Road tube station, is ready to go. Work started here really early, creating a new ticket hall and reshaped connections beneath the surface, and passengers have been using these since December 2015. Crossrail's escalators remain boarded up beside the top of the Northern line flight, behind overhead signs that still say Crossrail rather than the correct brand name, covered by a vinyl strip. The whole shenanigans is even set up for Crossrail 2, should that ever get off the ground, because so much forward-planning has taken place. If the whole of Crossrail was as far advanced as Tottenham Court Road, we'd be riding it today.
FARRINGDON: not finished
Farringdon's had a new Thameslink entrance for years, an oversized cavern with a line of ticket gates inside and not much else. To one side is a huge screen shielding the top of the Crossrail escalators, awaiting removal on the day passengers first start to pour through. Some of us got down there at the Open Day in June, even if we had to slog our way down the fire escape rather than gliding serenely via an escalator. The main entrance from the street was a building site back then, but looks a lot clearer today, although the external building is still an ugly box awaiting whatever they need to do to make it presentable.
A few hundred metres away, facing Smithfield Market, the eastern entrance is a less ostentatious affair. It's been slotted in beneath a new office development, as yet windowless, but the swirling art traced onto the glass around the ticket concourse already looks rather smart. From here there'll be access to the westbound platform at Barbican station, but not to the eastbound, as the lack of building work on the latter confirms. I was very impressed by the state of the Crossrail platforms in the summer, although they didn't allow us down the Barbican end because works were far less complete, and I wonder if it's caught up yet.
LIVERPOOL STREET: not finished
Here's another double-ended station, this time with its western entrance attached to Moorgate station. Once again all that appears on the surface is a blank portal surrounded by a building site, in a part of town that's been looking bleakly vacant ever since these Crossrail works began. On the plus side, passengers are already slipping inside towards the Circle line platforms, tapping a temporary reader on the way through. However they're not yet seeing the entirety of the ticket hall around them, which is still being clad, and a line of slanting blue glass panels above the entrance is the sole external flourish.
The eastern entrance has been sunk beneath Liverpool Street, the street, round the back of Liverpool Street, the mainline station. A huge hole was originally hollowed out, narrowing the pavement to a squeezed minimum, but a couple of plastic windows behind the blue panelling allowed passers-by to observe operations. Looking through now, a glass-wedged portal has appeared instead poking up above the concrete. Externally it's complete but internally evidently not, because I could see orange-vested workers feeding through building supplies from a JCB. Their helmeted colleagues are often seen thronging into, and out of, the site office on the corner of Old Broad Street, confirming that there's still a lot of work being done.
WHITECHAPEL: not finished
The historic entrance to Whitechapel station was closed in January 2016 to allow construction work for Crossrail to progress, forcing passengers to divert to a temporary entrance a couple of minutes walk away up a previously obscure alleyway. It had been planned to switch back in October, because access to the District line isn't dependent on deeper burrowing beyond, but that never happened (and still hasn't happened two months later). Instead the front doors remains workers only, and the pristine pavement out front is barriered off (and bollard-enabled).
The Overground lost most of its daylight last year when a new concourse was slung above the tracks, which will eventually form the direct passenger route from the main road to the top of the Crossrail escalators. For a tantalising glimpse, climb the seemingly pointless footbridge at the far end to pass between two sets of closed doors, beyond which stretches the unseen concourse with its tapered glass walls. Meanwhile building work continues between the District line platforms, where the island's boxed-off heart remains inaccessible behind scrappy blue walls. Until that's connected up everyone's stuck with the inconvenient hubbub of the temporary entrance (and if you're the two gentlemen I disturbed outside, my apologies).
CANARY WHARF: utterly finished
For a textbook example of how to get a Crossrail station finished, turn to the private sector. It helped that Canary Wharf had a huge dock available, which simply needed draining rather than excavating, and also that management were motivated not by the need to run a railway but by the retail opportunities plonked on top. Open House visitors were allowed down to platform level without hard hats and hi-vis in September 2014, five years ahead of the first trains, and even Crossrail Place has been open since May 2015. The bankers barrelling into Big Easy for a slap-up lobster lunch are already satisfied.
Explore Crossrail Place more closely and the gateways into the lowest levels are hidden in plain sight. A sheer black wall covers the top of the main set of canary-yellow escalators. The lifts opposite are labelled 'to ticket hall', along with an apologetic notice that they are the property of Crossrail and won't be opening until the station does. A tiny fragment of level Minus Three is accessible so that punters can use the toilets, if not yet the shopping arcade through the locked doors. And although you can press the button for Minus Four, it's not lit up so the lift won't take you there yet. Canary Wharf Group must be livid that nobody else has got their act together like they have.
CUSTOM HOUSE: pretty much finished
Welcome to what must have been the central core's easiest-to-construct station. It's in the open air, for one, so no awkward digging required. It follows the alignment of the former North Woolwich branch line, so no existing properties needed knocking down. And it only has to interchange with a DLR station and an exhibition centre, so even the connecting infrastructure was simple. Indeed the new station was substantially complete by the end of 2015 - a long island platform with a raised concourse at one end and a sleek glass canopy above that. Even the purple roundels were in place, and visible, at the start of this year.
What's intriguing is the unresolved state of the adjacent DLR station. This was closed for the majority of last year for adjustments to make it Crossrail-ready, then failed to open by the end of December as planned. DLR passengers were allowed back inside in January, but only by passing through a temporary gateway into a station covered with blue hoardings, which unbelievably are still up today. Instead it's the Crossrail station where all the action is - unwrapping fixtures, tweaking signage, connecting electricals and liaising by the gateline. The pace of change at Custom House appears relaxed.
WOOLWICH: not finished
Woolwich's Crossrail station was a late bolt-on funded by a property developer, so perhaps we shouldn't expect it to be up to speed. Indeed no Open Day was held at this station in the summer, despite its relative simplicity, suggesting that the interior was nowhere near ready. Whereas blocks of flats have shot up all around, the station mouth looks stunted in comparison and stands alone. Although it's hard to see much behind the hoardings, watching a flow of orange-jacketed workers stomping up the temporary steps alongside is yet another hint that Woolwich is well behind schedule.
Half the lawn leading to the Dial Arch pub remains a corral for building materials. The M&S Food Hall just before the entrance has opened already, even though its back doors have no passing trade. As for the enormously-wide pedestrian crossing that's due to funnel everyone from Woolwich proper, this somehow isn't finished yet either, with temporary barriers edging people down the road while the tarmac is scraped off and resurfaced. It's been heavily rumoured that even if Crossrail had opened today, Woolwich might have been skipped and opened later. As it is, SE18 has a few extra months to hopefully catch up.
ABBEY WOOD: ready and waiting
And finally, the end of the unopened line. Abbey Wood is another surface level station, successfully remodelled to add two extra platforms for Crossrail and with a brand new manta-ray building facing the Manorway. It's been open since October last year, or at least the Southeastern side has. As yet the two footbridges connecting the two halves are sealed off, and a wooden partition hides most of the new stuff from view. But all the purple platform signage is in situ, wrapped and taped to protect it from the elements, and even the next train indicators are lit in anticipation of the occasional test train.
Nobody came along last night to unwrap the giant purple roundel on the glass above the station entrance, so that'll linger as an ugly off-balance scar for a few months yet. I'm surprised to see that the forecourt out front still isn't finished either, or rather the bus stops aren't, given how long there's been to put them in place. Fresh shelters are only now being installed for northbound buses, while the southbound side remains sealed off (and the pedestrian crossing closed) as local buses continue to stop elsewhere. One day it'll be complete, as will the entire Crossrail line to Paddington, and the whole thing will be magnificent. Today should have been that day, but... deadline missed.