Crossrail: transforming transit in London

Good evening all. I recently visited London once again, this time on a rather special occasion. I went to witness the opening of the central core section of Crossrail on May 24. But what did that sentence just mean? What is Crossrail and why is it not called that officially? What is its central core? Let’s take a look.

London’s newest railway

The term “Crossrail” first came about in the 1970s, for a proposal of a new east to west railway running through central London. After several proposals, construction eventually began in 2009, and after countless delays spanning many years, we got what Transport for London (TfL) calls the Elizabeth line.

The eastern section

The Eastern Counties railway was opened in 1839, linking a temporary terminus at Devonshire street in East London to Romford. The line extended in both directions, serving many towns in Essex and Anglia, and the current terminus at Liverpool Street opened in 1874, eventually becoming known as the Great Eastern Main Line. Commuter trains operated between Liverpool Street and Shenfield, 33 km to the east. In 2015, TfL took over operations of several commuter services from Greater Anglia, the franchise operator on both the Great Eastern and also the West Anglia main lines, the service to Shenfield being one of them. While services on the West Anglia Main Line were integrated to the London Overground, the line to Shenfield got branded as TfL Rail. This was the proto-Crossrail, as this service was destined to become the eastern section of today’s Elizabeth line.

The western section

The Great Western Main Line was opened in 1841, running between the terminus at London Paddington to the city of Bristol. The line was engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was a proper railwayman. The track gauge was at 7 feet (2140 mm), much wider than the railways today at 1435 mm, and the alignment was so level and straight it was nicknamed “Brunel’s billiard table”. This allowed better stability and as a result of this the line was superb for high speed trains, even after it was converted to standard gauge. Because of high speed limits of 125 mph (201 km/h), the line was fitted with Automatic Train Protection (ATP) starting from 1990. However, for most of its lifetime, the line was unelectrified, and therefore services were operated by diesel multiple units. In 1998, the branch from Hayes & Harlington station to Heathrow Airport opened, and as a result, 25 kV 50 Hz overhead line was provided from Heathrow to Paddington.

Crossrail services today are all operated by Class 345 electric multiple units. The 345 designation was reserved specifically for the Crossrail train decades before any work had started. The trains themselves are a part of Bombardier’s Aventra family, the successor to the venerable Electrostar family, have a top speed of 90 mph (145 km/h), and support AWS+TPWS, ETCS and CBTC signalling. Communications-based train control (CBTC) is a term used to describe many proprietary implementations of signalling used for metro lines, and this was implemented in the central section of Crossrail using the Siemens TrainGuard product. European Train Control System (ETCS) could have been used to provide the same effect, but because work on Crossrail had begun before the ETCS specification was finalised, they were granted an exemption from the rule that requires all new lines to use it. Instead, as the Great Western Line was also undergoing a resignalling programme at the time, ETCS was to be used on the western section. AWS+TPWS was installed for operations on other existing lines.

All my time in the UK rail scene has led up to the opening of this railway. From the procurement process of the trains that saved Bombardier’s manufacturing plant in Derby, to the first announced opening date of December 8 2018 and all the delays that followed when it became clear that this date would not be met, I have been following the progress of this railway. The last transport project in London that I can think of that had such scale and complexity would be the construction of the initial Jubilee line, which opened in 1979. And so, when the opening date was finally announced, I immediately bought plane tickets to go see it on its first day. In the early morning of May 23rd I left Tallinn Airport for Warsaw, where I would connect to my flight to London Heathrow Airport. The day after that was the big day, and even though I got to Paddington 30 minutes before the first train was due to leave, a crowd had already gathered.