The Elizabeth line is imminent. We know this because a) they're really plugging that purple moquette in the London Transport Museum gift shop right now, and b) we were invited for a ride.
Interspersed with photos from our tour are some of our thoughts and findings on what's been billed by its creators as "the most spectacular railway in the world".
It's zippy - The journey we took from Paddington to Canary Wharf lasted just 16 minutes. On the tube right now, it'll take you 30 minutes at least. Overnight, the Elizabeth line will make some parts of London far swifter to get to. It's going to feel a bit magical.
It's a smooth ride too - The central section we rode through — passing through Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street, and Whitechapel — is notably smoother than your average tube ride (very little clanking, grating and rattling). The Crossrail team had the luxury of building track in the central section from scratch, using floating slab track to minimise noise. So you'll be able to stream that podcast on your headphones without too much background noise. (Yes stream — the Elizabeth line is fitted with WiFi.)
The view from the driver's cab is quite something - It's a press privilege to be able to get a driver's eye view from the cab (and yes the Elizabeth line will indeed have drivers). But the view's quite something — a bit like the DLR as it enters/departs Bank. And it gives you a real sense of how the lines undulates too (at some points it goes deeper to avoid the foundations of skyscrapers). We suggested to Crossrail CEO Mark Wild that he fit TV screens in the carriages, broadcasting a live driver's-eye view stream, and he definitely took the idea on board. So we'll just assume that's a yes, Mark.
It's not a tube line - Mark Wild mentioned more than once on our trip that the Elizabeth line isn't a tube line. And he's technically right, for one thing because it links up with mainline stations. "It's actually a new mode of transport like the RTR in Paris or the S-Bahn in Munich," Wild said. Then again, because the central section was dug using tunnel boring machines, it's arguably more of a tube line than half of London's 'tube' lines which were dug using the cut-and-cover method. And we reckon a lot of people are going to end up calling the Elizabeth line a tube line regardless. The pedants are going to have a ruddy field day.
The stations are the same... but different - There are nine brand new Elizabeth line stations in all (Paddington, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street, Whitechapel, Canary Wharf, Custom House and Woolwich). We only got to explore two of them — Paddington and Canary Wharf. There's a definite Elizabeth line 'feel' to them, characterised by cavernous spaces (apparently you could comfortably fit The Shard inside Paddington's Elizabeth line station) generously-sized platforms, platform edge doors, above-door display boards, and, of course, those Pantone 266c roundels. But each station also has its own idiosyncrasies. The escalators at Canary Wharf, for instance, are tinted with yellow glass (a nod to canary yellow, no doubt). And there's a towering brick wall at Paddington, built from the same Imperial bricks that Isambard Kingdom Brunel used for his original Paddington station.
The past rubs shoulders with the present - We were also shown the pedestrian tunnel that links Paddington's Elizabeth line station with its Bakerloo line. It'll be a form of time travel for passengers — switching between brand new train stock, and the Bakerloo line's stock, dating back to 1972.
It'll take as long as it takes - It's the question on everyone's lips, of course, and the closest you'll get to an answer for "When will the Elizabeth line open?" is "The first half of 2022". Mass operational trials (where they get thousands of volunteers to help out with various exercises) are now completed. But commissioner for TfL Andy Byford, told us "Opening is one thing, opening reliably is another. We want this opening to be absolutely flawless." Even when everything is done, dusted and signed off, they'll spend a few weeks literally running trains up and down the track. Our money is on a May launch.
Even then there'll be come loose ends to tidy up - Straggling Bond Street station won't be in action when the Elizabeth line opens in the spring. And it won't be till autumn that the Elizabeth line journey will all be linked up, meaning, for example, that passengers from Shenfield can travel all the way to Paddington without changing at Liverpool Street, and passengers from Heathrow or Reading can travel all the way to Abbey Wood without changing at Paddington. It's these longer-haul journeys that will really bring in the sorely-needed cash for TfL.
Oh, and you won't care that it's years late - You just won't, trust us.