diamond geezer

 Monday, November 07, 2022

Yesterday, after decades of planning and 13 years of construction, Crossrail got properly cross. New tunnels at Paddington and Stratford opened to passenger service after months of additional testing, and what had been three railways finally became one. About time too.

I caught the first train through the Pudding Mill tunnel and the second train through the Royal Oak tunnel, but only because it wasn't possible to catch the first through both. Crossrail's Sunday morning timetable is highly irregular, and being the morning after a cancelled rail strike didn't help either... but wahey, actual through running!

The first Shenfield → Paddington train (7.11am - 8.05am)

I boarded before the train reached Stratford and already there were no free seats. That's partly because it was the first post-strike train, so carrying everyone from outer London who'd been trying to get into town, but also because People Who Like Trains were very much in evidence. Some had been responsible for building the railway and were beaming in suits, purple ties and little roundel pin badges where a poppy might have been. Others had got up very early to be able to say they were here, and in some cases so they could share footage of the journey with an audience elsewhere.

n.b. Trains from Shenfield don't yet go any further than Paddington, that's scheduled for next May. But all the other connections have now been made so technically the line's complete.

At Stratford half the passengers piled off. The regular crew are used to alighting at Stratford to make their way into town faster via the Central or Jubilee lines, so they carried on doing that. It's hard to say how many were ignorant of this morning's change, but judging by the number of headphoned ears and screenfixed eyes I'd say quite a few. A member of staff on the platform announced "This is the first Elizabeth line train to Paddington" and then the doors closed with a beep. Class 345 trains have been running on this line for the last five years, but we were about to become the first passenger service to go to Liverpool Street the long way round.

n.b. Even though the new route to Liverpool Street is one station longer, it's still timetabled as an eight minute journey.

They knocked down Pudding Mill Lane DLR station in 2014 so that the mouth of a purple portal could be built in its place. I've watched its construction over the years, a concrete slot emerging from the earth at a jaunty angle, and now it was finally time to plunge inside. We descended first beneath the ground, then beneath the river Lea and then beneath the A12 dual carriageway. Suddenly we were in my manor, indeed ridiculously close to where I live, but with no nearby station all this investment has passed me by. A couple of gentlemen in Greater Anglia jackets pointed their cameras across the carriage to film the tunnel wall as it sped past, although this is not a video you'd ever want to watch.

n.b. Stratford to Whitechapel is an extremely useful new connection. It's five minutes platform to platform if you're counting, which obviously I was.

Whitechapel has been set up by TfL as The Interchange Station. Passengers could change anywhere between here and Paddington, but best alight here where the platforms are less busy, especially down the end where the escalators aren't. Expect an announcement from the driver to that effect and also a separate nudge on the display screens... anything to stop people clogging up the platforms at Paddington and causing a mission-critical seizure. Excitable folk continued to walk up and down the train, including one in full purple fleece and joggers with an Elizabeth line bag round his neck. I can't see his look catching on.

n.b. Even though you now arrive at Liverpool Street after a similar time, you also arrive underground at least four minutes from the surface, so for some the new path will actually be slower.

I alighted at one of the intermediate stations to await my next train west. Checking the electronic screens above the doors it was exciting to see destinations and scrolling stations that had never been on the display before. Eastbound destinations now alternated between Abbey Wood and Shenfield, and westbound destinations would alternate between Heathrow and Reading/Maidenhead later in the morning once the timetable settled down. And oh how quiet the platforms were, even on a portentous launch morning, because the West End is mostly tumbleweed first thing on a Sunday.

n.b. Bond Street is being set up as the Change Here If You Have Accessibility Needs But Haven't Yet Booked Ahead For Ramped Assistance station.

The first Abbey Wood → Heathrow T4 train (7.44am - 8.52am)

This train had a broader mix of passengers including several with suitcases. As I noticed later in the day, the newly-connected Elizabeth line has become a conduit for the dispersal of heavy luggage across the capital, speeding up homecomings as travellers dispense with all that tedious interchangy stuff. That said I still watched a member of BA cabin crew stand up at Paddington, pat down his hair and exit the train in search of a connecting service that no longer runs from upstairs. He'll learn, indeed I suspect he learned very fast.

n.b. This wasn't the first Heathrow train, only the first to Terminal 4. The first through service to Terminal 5 had passed through towards quarter of an hour earlier.

It was time for my first trip through the other tunnel. But first a wait, or as the driver announced it "a short dwell time on this platform". It turned out to be a five minute wait because stitching together the underground and overground timetables isn't simple. This won't normally be the case - most of the time the gap between services is only four minutes so staff will be focused on shifting trains as swiftly as possible. But Crossrail trains do generally spend a lot of their time sitting in platforms, indeed crossing London would be noticeably zippier if only they'd squeeze out the slack.

n.b. Trains entering Paddington from outside are sometimes scheduled to wait up to seven minutes in the new timetable, and that's really going to annoy the unlucky passengers. But I didn't experience this on Sunday.

It only takes a minute to emerge from the tunnel at Paddington. It's not as exciting a view as at Stratford where you get to see an Olympic Stadium and some allotments, here it's a line of townhouses and the Westway's concrete viaduct. Through the rainy murk I also spotted an empty Shenfield train lined up to enter the portal, and further on at Old Oak Common at least 20 empty purple trains that aren't required on Sunday mornings. And when I finally alighted onto the rain-lashed platform at my chosen station, not a single other passenger followed, because even a £19bn railway sometimes has no takers.

n.b. You may still have been in bed at this point, and it's perfectly possible you were having the better time.

And then I rode the line back again, and indeed again to properly try out the new service. Along the way I unexpectedly spotted several people making videos, an official with a purple 'Value Creation' lanyard, that journalist who doesn't write his own headlines, the mastermind who keeps this blog's comments up and running, several lovely people I haven't seen for ages and an awful lot of small children dragging their parents out for an explore. It proved a memorable trip.

Opening tunnels isn't as visually exciting as opening stations, but arguably it's even more important. What happened yesterday was a seismic shift in how London fits together, at least for those who live or work along the capital's east/west axis. The joined-up benefits of Crossrail are now fully upon us, near enough, after a day some thought might never come.

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