Heathrow to Canary Wharf

Nick Richardson

It took sixty years for the supporters of Crossrail, the new railway being built under London, to convince Parliament it was worth the investment. Recession scuppered the project twice, in the 1970s and 1990s, and slowed it down again in 2009: it was supposed to be finished in time for the Olympics, then budget cuts forced the completion date forward to 2018. Now, at least, construction is irreversibly underway, despite general indignation over the disruption it’s caused and who stands to benefit most from it – the City. By 2018, 21 km of tunnel will have been dug, linking the Great Western line at Paddington to the Great Eastern at Whitechapel. We’ll have spent £15 billion, we’ll have seven new London train stations, and we’ll finally be able to travel from Essex or Greenwich to Berkshire or Heathrow, via Central London, without getting off the train.

On 13 March, Boris Johnson fired up the first thousand-tonne tunnel-boring machine. This beast – a toothed slug called Phyllis (after Phyllis Pearsall, who created the London A-Z), which is the length of 14 buses – is now chugging its way through the soil from Royal Oak to Farringdon. Two weeks later, Crossrail announced the completion of the outer shell of the new station at Canary Wharf: a 250-metre-long concrete coffin sunk into the dock. I went to visit it, along with a handful of other journalists, including a man from World Tunnelling magazine. Helmeted and booted, we were led down into the ‘station box’ by representatives of Crossrail and Canary Wharf Contractors, the company that built the thing. The chief engineer explained that the station’s four walls had been fastened to the dock floor by long steel piles, driven into the ground using a hydraulic rig – hydraulic, rather than the more common (and cheaper) diesel-powered hammers, so that the piles went in silently and didn’t disturb Canary Wharf’s delicate financiers. The man from World Tunnelling was impressed. But it was hard even for a non-specialist to have reservations about the project when confronted by this piece of the industrial sublime.

The Crossrail construction site at Canary Wharf.
The Crossrail construction site at Canary Wharf.

One hundred million litres of water had been pumped out of the box to make room for platforms, floors and escalator shafts, but it was still damp, and without the usual things you find in train stations – billboards, vending machines, people – it felt enormous, like the great chamber of a cave system. At either end were two huge holes stoppered with giant wagon wheels. A pair of tunnel borers will come crashing through these apertures in 2013, drilling Crossrail’s second tunnel from Limmo Peninsula in Docklands back to Farringdon. The floor above the platforms will become the ticket hall; above that is the ‘retail floor’, to be filled by Pret A Mangers and tie-on-the-fly boutiques. On its top deck, the finished station will have a garden and a restaurant with a ‘spectacular timber lattice roof’, and to one side, a large pond is intended to compensate the Thames’s fish for the imposition: a Swedish eco-lodge in the middle of Gotham.

The idea of building tunnels under the city to connect stations on its outskirts via the centre has its origins in the town planner Patrick Abercrombie’s utopian plans for postwar London. For Abercrombie, the Blitz had created an opportunity: we could pack displaced Londoners off to ‘new towns’, plant vegetables where their houses had been, and sink the railways. Blackfriars Bridge, which he thought an eyesore (it’s now Grade II listed), could be demolished and replaced with a tunnel from Loughborough Junction in Lambeth to Farringdon; Abercrombie also proposed a tunnel under the Thames between Hither Green in Lewisham and Canning Town in Docklands that would have made it possible to travel from Southend to York, via the capital, in a single train journey. But the plan was expensive, and Britain was broke, and the way we moved goods round the country was changing: Abercrombie’s tunnels would have improved routes for freight trains, but freight – certainly as the first motorways opened in the 1950s – travelled more and more by road. The tunnels stayed unburrowed and Abercrombie moved east to rebuild Hong Kong.

The name ‘Crossrail’ was coined by David Barran, a monocle-wearing, snuff-snorting industrialist, in a 1974 report drawn up at the request of the Department of the Environment. Barran, like Abercrombie, proposed two tunnels, one from London Bridge to Victoria, the other from Paddington to Liverpool Street. As the managing director of Shell, and soon to be chairman of the Midland Bank, he might be said to have had a vested interest in thinning out the riff-raff on rail links to the City, where he worked, and back to Kensington, where he lived. But Britain was in the middle of a recession and Parliament didn’t spend much time on Crossrail. As Sir George Young, the MP for Ealing (and Leader of the House from 2010 until Cameron’s recent reshuffle), put it, ‘the report is conducted in a financial vacuum.’ Young joked that, since Barran’s Crossrail tunnel passed under Buckingham Palace, the queen might agree to a Palace station to relieve congestion at her garden parties. The idea was mothballed.

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