The first meaningful milestone on the road to Crossrail took place yesterday morning as the very first train ran in operational service. They've been running up and down the line for a few months now to give drivers experience, but yesterday was the first time they've opened their doors to allowing fare-paying passengers inside.
Train 1 had been scheduled to run four weeks ago, then three weeks ago, and was finally bumped into late June due to operational issues. Its precise timing was a secret, with invitations sent out to company employees, media types and the occasional VIP, in the hope that no People Who Like Trains would appear at Liverpool Street and get in the way. What happened instead, which was rather nice, is that a completely random selection of everyday passengers turned up expecting to board the usual service, and got treated to Crossrail's inaugural run instead.
The general impression of the accidental passengers boarding the train seemed to be "ooh, that's nice." They liked the clean bright interiors, they expressed audible appreciation for the aircon, and they appeared to like the stripy purple moquette. I chatted with Pat and Maureen who were off to Romford, and they were genuinely impressed by the upholstery, the extra legroom, and the fact that nobody had yet rested their feet on the clean seats. "My husband really likes trains," said Pat, "so he'll be amazed when I tell him what I've been on today." Meanwhile Maureen was surprised the trains didn't go any faster, so I had to remind her there are just as many stations to stop at as there were before.
A heck of a lot of the passengers on the first train were staff who had been involved in project management, design or construction. Many had purple lanyards dangling round their necks, and rather smarter office attire than would normally be seen midmorning hereabouts, although one less starchy employee did look out of the window with glee at Forest Gate and exclaim "my local station!" Occasionally a familiar face from the BBC2 Crossrail documentary series wandered past, or sat down in an adjacent seat and gave an interview to a journalist. Even Transport Commissioner Mike Brown strode by, looking rightly proud. The ratio of suits and media to ordinary passengers was somewhat lower on the return journey.
These new trains are officially designated Class 345, and are a lot roomier than the 315s which run in service on the Shenfield line at present. Eventually they'll have nine carriages (and be the length of two football pitches) but for the time being they have seven, which ought to be enough to cope with an East London rush hour. A conscious decision was made to incorporate three sets of doors per carriage rather than two, to improve circulation, and the doors open slightly outwards after you've pressed the illuminated button to gain entry.
When transport officials say "more spacious" what they mean of course is "fewer seats". The front and rear carriages, for example, have longitudinal seats in austere banks of ten, plus a lot of standing room inbetween. One other carriage with wheelchair spaces is similarly arranged.
All the other carriages have three longitudinal seats either side of each door, then two banks of paired seats inbetween. Three of the seats at either end of the carriage tip up, providing additional wheelchair or pushchair space as necessary. Only four seats per carriage allow you to sit beside the window facing forwards.
Each new carriage contains around 50 seats, whereas the stock being replaced had about 80, which might sound like bad news for longer-distance travellers. However this imbalance is mitigated by Crossrail trains being much longer than the old class 315s, so they actually contain more seats altogether, so all is good.
The other very obvious improvement is a step-change in on-board passenger information. The display in the centre of the carriage isn't just a dot matrix of orange lights, it's a screen on which any text or graphics can appear, allowing a greater amount of information to be seen. This means interchange stations can be displayed along with the correct colours for the various lines stopping there... and, most revolutionary, a graphic showing the next three stops can be shown. A little ant-like black train noses in from the left, and anything over and beyond the next three stations is shown by a dotted line.
One oddity - the 'National Rail' box is left-aligned whereas all the other interchange lines are centred (that's not a complaint, just an observation). A more head-scratching quirk is that the Northern line appears on the list of lines serving Liverpool Street, when clearly it doesn't. This is explained by jumping ahead 18 months to when Crossrail proper begins, because the far end of the low level platforms will connect through to Moorgate, and the Northern line does stop there. Before December 2018, however, not so.
And if you wanted reassurance that nothing ever changes, yes, this announcement is still occasionally necessary.
They're long, they're spacious and they're cool, so you'd have to be a curmudgeonly Londoner not to admire the new Class 345s. Just don't expect to find yourself on one soon, as there'll only be a couple of journeys a day to start with, then more as the new trains gradually replace the old over the summer. If your platform indicator ever flashes up the news that "the next train is formed of 7 carriages", that's a telltale sign. But eventually we'll all be riding them... to the West End, to Heathrow, to Bexley, even to Reading, as what's fresh and innovative today becomes the new normal.
It's been a very long time coming, but take your seats for Crossrail, because it'll soon be curtain up.