Railways Around The World That Inspired Crossrail

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 23 months ago
Railways Around The World That Inspired Crossrail
The enviable RER in France. Photo: Shutterstock

At the 2018 policy forum on Crossrail, the project's director of operations, Howard Smith, described the service's function thusly:

[Crossrail will] connect up the big trains that run into mainline termini and bring them through the centre avoiding the need to do something that, you know, if you landed from Mars we always say you would think was very strange, which is to get out of a big train at somewhere like Liverpool Street, go down a set of escalators and get on a small train to carry on.

He then pointed something else out about Crossrail. "You might say the French in Paris, the Germans have done [this] several decades ago".

Confirmation then that other railways around the world were used as inspiration for the planning and design of Crossrail. Take a look at some of Crossrail's international forefathers:

The Paris RER

We wish London had double decker trains. Photo: Shutterstock

The oldest parts of Paris' RER — short for the Réseau Express Régional — date back to the 1960s. It was built as a very specific counterpoint to Paris' Metro. The stops on the Metro are extremely close together (roughly every 600 metres) slowing trains down, and the service fails to reach many of Paris' suburbs. These are not problems London struggles with so much — here, tube stations are generally spaced further apart, and the tube does serve some suburbs: here's looking at you, Amersham.

However, one of the key functions of the RER is to run trains through the city and out the other side. This is one of Crossrail's main benefits too, and it's an idea lifted straight from Paris. Crossrail still has a long way to go if it wants to catch up with the RER network though. The Elizabeth line is coming (slowly...) and Crossrail 2 is in the pipeline, but the RER has a whopping five lines.

The German S-Bahn

Various German cities have an S-Bahn system, the other system that head honchos at Crossrail regularly namecheck as an influence. Berlin and Munich are the ones that Crossrail planners probably paid the most attention to.

S Bahn in Berlin. Photo: Shutterstock

Berlin's S-Bahn dates back to 1924, and it feels like a hybrid between what Crossrail will be and what London's Overground already is. That might be because it forms an orbital ring, similar to the Overground's (Clapham Junction to Highbury and Islington), but is rather more rapid, and again likes to pop in the city at one end and out the other. It also comes with higher frequencies than suburban rail services.

However, the better comparison for Crossrail lies in Germany's south. Munich's S-Bahn was built for the specific purpose of the 1972 Olympics, with one goal in mind; connecting the city's suburban rail services in the east and west just like Crossrail hopes to do. However, it is far further reaching than Crossrail, with a whopping eight lines (although these all share a central core section, something Crossrail wouldn't do with Crossrail 2).

Note that not all S-Bahn systems are quite like Crossrail. Hamburg's system, while impressive, mostly operates within the city's boundaries.

Stockholm and Oslo

Stockholm's Arlanda Airport's express train platforms. Photo: Shutterstock

There are big questions around the Heathrow Express once Crossrail launches. Will anyone still use it when the sleek new purple trains heading to the exact same place — Paddington — are up and running? We posed this question to Heathrow's Head of Surface Access, Chris Joyce at the Crossrail policy forum. He responded:

If you look across the world, actually there are so many airports around the world where a stopping service and a metro-type service, and a premium express service sit side by side.

He produced two Scandinavian examples: Stockholm and Oslo. Both cities have a stopping service — a Crossrail equivalent — along with an express option, which is more expensive for passengers. That doesn't necessarily mean these competitive services have been completely successful — there is persistent criticism of Stockholm's express service because of its cost.

The Tokyo Subway

Tokyo subway, the gold standard of the world's metro systems? Photo: Shutterstock

Japan is usually regarded as the gold standard when it comes to all things trains, so it's not surprising that the Crossrail team studied what makes Tokyo such an efficient commuting city. Although name-checked by the team a little less than the RER and S-Bahn, it still crops up in the odd Crossrail document.

The Tokyo subway is very effective at running through the city — although this is a little more complex here as Tokyo doesn't have a clustered Zone 1 equivalent to London. Instead the city operates in a few central districts dotted around, but the subway still goes beyond these.

This is a metro system, rather than a rail service like Crossrail. However, Crossrail is trying to bridge that gap, by upping its frequency, so it isn't such a stretch to compare the two.

The Madrid Cercanías

Madrid Cercanías, similar to Crossrail on many levels, but with too infrequent trains. Photo: Shutterstock

In many ways Madrid's commuter rail service is mightily impressive. It has 10 lines, is all connected by a core orbital ring, and has lots of services that go through the city from one side to another. There's just one thing that lets it down, which team at Crossrail have been keen to avoid: variable train frequency.

Crossrail's core hopes to operate at double the frequency of Madrid's in peak times. Things get even more infrequent on the weekend, where parts of the C-8 line only see a train once every two hours — compare that with Crossrail's two trains to Reading an hour, off-peak, and it seems the Crossrail team has learnt from Madrid's mistakes.

London's Thameslink

The new Class 700 train. Image: Siemens

London itself has a railway system that might have been able to provide some guidance for Crossrail. Okay, so regular commuters might argue, convincingly at that, that Thameslink is an instruction manual for how not to run a train company. But it has, quite belatedly, managed to get suburban trains running across London, at impressive frequencies through the core. Things aren't finished yet, which is laughable considering the project was once called Thameslink 2000, but you can ride the same train from Cambridge all the way to Brighton, a trip that sounds infinitely more exciting than Shenfield to Reading.

Do you know of any other services, which have a reasonable claim to inspiring Crossrail? Tell us all about them in the comments below.

Last Updated 27 April 2022