diamond geezer

 Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Underground now has 85 step-free stations. Ickenham was number 84 back in June, with the relatively straight-forward addition of two liftshafts on its lightly-used platforms. Whitechapel on the other hand, which yesterday became number 85, required a complete rebuild and has taken 5½ years. If all you remember is the squashed ticket hall and the narrow overbridge with the ancient lightbox, it's almost unrecognisable.

The first tweak came in 2011 when two of the four Underground platforms were closed to create a giant island platform, but things got serious in January 2016 when the station entrance facing Whitechapel Road was closed. A temporary entrance opened off Court Street while a period of major reengineering took place, which we were reassured would be finished by "late 2018". Instead it took until mid-2021 and the revamped entrance only reopened first thing yesterday morning. Everyone's delighted... except the traders on Court Street whose 2000 days of phenomenal footfall has been brutally extinguished overnight.

The new entrance swiftly opens out into a passageway wide enough to cope with a football crowd. TfL could have crammed in a coffee shop or two but there are enough of those outside so instead the emphasis is on space. The stash of free newspapers is over to the right, as is the entrance to the first of six lifts, or take the extra-broad staircase up to ticket hall level. Above your head is the start of a ribbed wooden swoosh that crosses the entire station - up and over - following the alignment of the Overground underneath. And yes, blimey, isn't it capacious up here compared to the cramped passageways we suffered before?

The aesthetic is fairly minimalist (and as yet advertising-free) so as not to distract you from heading whichever way you might need to be going next. You might easily miss the five Next Train panels over to one side, of which only the Underground rectangle was operational yesterday morning. The station has just one (wide) gateline dividing the ticket hall in two, beyond which it's decision time - left for Underground or straight on for Overground. Most people seem to be turning left. They face a 29-step staircase down to the District and Hammersmith & City lines, or alternatively one of a pair of lifts, because if you were expecting a multi-million pound upgrade to bring the luxury of escalators best think again.

Now that the central hoardings have been taken down there's a lot of width down here. Most of it's unnecessary, although when a busy train arrives it'll allow passengers to swarm towards the foot of the staircase from all directions. Alternatively they might head off towards the Overground, an interchange which retains some familiarity, indeed if you were changing trains down here you might never realise the amazing transformation that'd been wrought above. As yet the two Overground platforms still have plenty more finishing off work to do (which should be complete next year).

The real 'wow' is the metal and glass passageway linking the ticket hall direct to the Overground, which has been dropped in just above the tracks. This means more steps, or yet another lift, descending to a walkway with that ribbed wooden swoosh landing overhead. Only at the far end are there steps down to the Overground, or yet more lifts... and try not to make the mistake of walking into the dead end lift lobby rather than the staircase. Even though you entered the station beyond one end of the Overground platforms, you can't get down there until you've walked all the way to the other.

A bonus for local residents is a new entrance round the back of the station for anyone arriving via Durward Street. It's quite narrow and takes you all the way to the middle of the station before allowing you in through the gateline, but the good news is that anyone can use it as a shortcut through to Whitechapel Road without having to swipe anything. My favourite New Whitechapel fact is that the site of Jack the Ripper's first murder is located immediately outside the Durward Street entrance, somewhere in the fresh trio of parking spaces alongside, which I know because I've been keeping a close eye on this spot as the transformation has progressed.

It is an inordinately impressive transformation, and the welcome introduction of step-free access is of course merely a byproduct of the real reason it's happened which is Crossrail. Those platforms lurk as yet unused several metres below, linked by some seriously long escalators that reach the surface not in the middle of the station but at the far end. At present they're blocked off and you'd only spot them through the railings if you walked slightly too far from the ticket hall towards the Overground. The reason the low-slung walkway is so wide is that it'll be the chief thoroughfare for everyone transferring between Crossrail and the Underground or Crossrail and the street. Alight at the wrong end of a purple train and it's going to be a bloody long walk (or three lifts and a lot of wheeling) before you can escape the station. At least you should enjoy the architecture along the way. [25 photos, yes 25]

Current state of Crossrail station entrances
Paddington: extensive terrace recently opened alongside platform 1, but doesn't provide access to the tube, so closed
Bond Street: hahahahaha (still not even close)
Tottenham Court Road (W): very ready but doesn't provide access to the tube, so closed
Tottenham Court Road (E): upgraded entrance open since 2015
Farringdon: top escalators now providing access to National Rail platforms
Barbican: very ready but doesn't provide useful access to the tube, so closed
Moorgate: new massive gateline open (and very quiet, so over-staffed)
Liverpool Street: escalator portal outside the mainline station ready, but no point opening it yet
Whitechapel: new joint entrance opened 23rd August 2021
Canary Wharf: still not ready (and doesn't provide useful access to the tube or DLR), so closed
Custom House: very ready but doesn't provide access to the DLR, so closed
Woolwich: the only new Crossrail-only station, so closed
Abbey Wood: upgraded entrance open since 2017

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