diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 15, 2019

It's finally here - the long-promised day that Crossrail connects east and west London! They said they'd have the full network up and running on Sunday 15th December 2019, and now here we are.

The inaugural through train from Abbey Wood departed at 0632 this morning, destination Reading. Only a handful of passengers were on board, for which we can blame the ungodly hour, but also the fact that purple trains out of Abbey Wood have become entirely commonplace over the last year. We've all ridden Crossrail under London now, enough times to take it entirely for granted, but I wanted to be aboard the first train to finally complete the entire project. Bexley to Berkshire... job done.

Abbey Wood is very quiet early on a Sunday morning, long before anybody need be up. But the sleek 9-car train is waiting when I arrive, its seven-letter destination glowing on the display screen for the very first time. I walk up the platform to select one of the rare forward-facing seats - what a treasured possession they've become since the line opened last December - and will be hogging my window view all the way to Reading. My paper ticket is in my top pocket (I have no intention of wasting an extra 40p by going contactless), and suddenly the familiar beep sounds and the doors close. The future has begun!

Several trains are lit up in the Plumstead depot, ready to transport those who come after us, as we start to descend ever-so gradually below ground. The cavernous platforms of Woolwich await us, where I don't think any other passengers are waiting but it's hard to see through the unyielding wall of glass. One subterranean Crossrail warren looks like any other subterranean Crossrail warren when viewed from a train, but you know this because it's a view you'll have seen dozens of times already.

With a swoosh we're off beneath the river, destination Newham. There isn't much to see on the other side, partly because it's still dark, but mostly because of the defensive wall they built through North Woolwich which prevents anyone seeing in or out. At Custom House a few scattered lights are lit in bedrooms at the Ibis alongside. At Canary Wharf the escalators bleed through in that jaundiced shade of yellow everyone hates - perhaps the Evening Standard's campaign will eventually be successful. One or two passengers step aboard, spreading themselves along the train, but overall this inaugural journey might as well not be happening.

It was only in May that the spur from Shenfield was connected up to Crossrail's central section at a junction beneath the city farm in Stepney. What a difference that's made, you can even get a seat on the Central line in the rush hour these days. It's also meant everybody heading east has to check the destinations on the electronic displays more carefully, but that hasn't been a problem heading west... until today. Whitechapel is deathly quiet, most likely because the District and Hammersmith & City lines are closed this morning until half past ten. Indeed there are still acres of empty seats aboard... TfL's suits (and the Mayor) aren't due to ride until the press junket tomorrow morning.

Can it really be a year since Geoff's viral video demonstrating how it was suddenly possible to walk between successive Circle line stations via Crossrail platforms? The tube map between Liverpool Street and Farringdon still looks like a plumbers' nightmare, but at least we all remember which end of the train to sit by now. From this weekend it's the Reading extension we have to get used to, a purple beast freshly crammed onto the map beneath Uxbridge. Have you seen how they've squeezed it in and bent it round? What were they thinking?

Tottenham Court Road station, even from the train, is ablaze with numerous sponsors' messages. The first eight Crossrail sponsors have had their twelve months, imprinting Mastercard, Sky, Amazon and BMW on London's collective memory. Now Vodafone, HSBC and Adidas are taking their turn, keen to jump aboard the bandwagon of a successful transport brand. Even the posters inside the train have been updated, not that I have any intention of rushing out and buying a Rolex watch any time soon. Then comes Bond Street, the perfectly-constructed station whose date of completion was never in doubt, and then the really new bit happens.

Up until today every westbound train has turfed off all its passengers at Paddington. No more! From today approximately half of these trains are going through the new tunnels via the new connection on the new through route, linking east and west for the very first time. The new link means the railway's reached its final state, which means Crossrail is 100% complete, and bang on time! One or two late night revellers look bemused, while a gaggle of traingeeks at the front of the train appear rather more excited. This isn't the first train through the tunnels - five services to Heathrow have already slipped through - but I had no interest in going there.

At seven o'clock precisely we make a perfectly punctual departure. I have to report that the new tunnels look nothing special, other than a quick glimpse of a crossover and a few trains in the darkness ready to return east. But ooh, this is much better than that annoying schlep we've had to endure these last twelve months from the lower level platforms up to the surface and across the mainline station. It's a gamechanger for cross-town traffic, and a big win for passenger convenience. Somewhere close to Royal Oak we rise up, and shuffle across, and then a familiar journey continues on the surface.

No, we are not serving Acton Main Line because trains don't stop here on Sundays, nor at West Ealing, nor at Hanwell. You must know this by now. It's dark anyway, so we could be passing anywhere, although the lights of Ealing Hospital are clearly visible from the Wharncliffe viaduct. Southall eventually arrives, and then at Hayes & Harlington a horde of passengers pour on after changing off the Heathrow train (no, I'm lying, the platforms are equally dead out here). But how marvellous that all these revamped stations are ready on time, complete with fresh entrances, new footbridges and full step-free facilities. Total completion was never in doubt.

West Drayton's next, the last Oyster-valid station, after which we exit London becoming the very first train from Bexley to Bucks. Welcome to Iver, which overnight has become Crossrail's least used station. When there are commuter towns bursting for a supersonic rail connection to the West End, it seems incredible that this minor village has been gifted one instead. Langley ought to be slightly livelier, if not at 7.24am. It feels somewhat surreal to be pulling into Slough aboard a TfL service, half an hour after leaving Bond Street, but that's the new reality. Change here for trains to Windsor, except it's still too early so they haven't started yet.

A peculiarity of the first westbound Crossrail train on a Sunday morning is that it doesn't stop at Burnham or Taplow. Rest assured all the later ones do, indeed residents of Taplow didn't used to have any Sunday services before today, so the arrival of Crossrail is a thrilling innovation. By Maidenhead the sky is brightening, revealing office towers and commuter rooftops - no TfL service has ever been this far west before. Ahead is the longest gap between any two adjacent TfL stations, a full seven miles, as we speed past acres and acres of muddy fields on the way to Twyford. Just one last graze of the River Thames will do it, as this incredible journey draws to an end.

We pull into Reading at 0752, an hour and twenty minutes after leaving Abbey Wood, which is phenomenal. Its sleek metal escalators are reminiscent of the Crossrail stations we've left behind, but way out here we're firmly in Great Western territory. A cluster of excitable teenagers are waiting with cameras raised, but otherwise our remarkable arrival goes pretty much unmarked. And that's it, the purple line to Reading is now complete, the multi-billion pound project coming in on time and on budget. What an astonishing achievement. So make sure you climb aboard soon, now that Crossrail's done, and let's get started on Crossrail 2...

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