Mind the Gap: Crossrail


Stephen Hitchins looks at Crossrail, a project that has been debated on and off for 150 years and now is within sight of being realised. But will the greatest transport scheme for London since the Underground be worth the wait?


FX

Words by Stephen Hitchins

All Images: Crossrail Ltd

This is not just another railway line; it is certainly not just another underground line. For starters, the trains are higher, wider and longer.

They will carry around twice as many passengers as a Tube train. The tunnels are bigger, the platforms are longer; the west end of Farringdon station will be by Farringdon Road, the east end on the far side of Smithfield Market. It's big!

And it means that the head of architecture at Crossrail, Julian Robinson, just may be a Charles Holden for the 21st century. We shall soon see. The designer of many of the stations for the Underground in the Twenties and Thirties, Holden also worked as site architect on the reincarnation of St Pancras as an international terminus with added Victorian glory, and as assistant to chief architect Roland Paoletti on the extension to the Jubilee Line (JLE). But Crossrail is not Paoletti with knobs on.

Bond Street station is getting significant Tube upgrades and a Crossrail station, plus commercial development
Bond Street station is getting significant Tube upgrades and a Crossrail station, plus commercial development

There is not the budget; that has been brought down and capped at £14.8bn, and there are not the swashbuckling designs. That, despite Grimshaw being responsible for all the repeating elements across the scheme, and a swathe of names with responsibility for individual stations, from BDP at Whitechapel to John McAslan at Bond Street, from Wilkinson Eyre at Liverpool Street to Weston Williamson at Paddington. Any coherence to the final design will be down to Robinson's team. It will hardly be as a result of the project's never-ending gestation.

First considered at the time of 19th-century railway mania, when lines opened in an atmosphere of carnival excitement, new routes crossing London were frequently proposed.

Bond Street station is getting significant Tube upgrades and a Crossrail station, plus commercial development
Bond Street station is getting significant Tube upgrades and a Crossrail station, plus commercial development

Once the main lines into the city had been built (the eight principal ones were established between 1835 and 1840, with the termini opening between 1836 and 1840) there were just two main outlets for dreamers and speculators: a system linking up the termini, and lines converging on a central station. Most fanciful was The Crystal Way, inspired as its name implies by the Great Exhibition, to be triple tier with glass-encased shop-lined arcades 8m above street level and railway platforms 4m below street level, stretching from Cheapside to Oxford Circus and Piccadilly -- once some 400 buildings had been demolished. Joseph Paxton's proposed railway, the Great Victorian Way, would also have made use of glass in a 10-mile long, 22m wide, glass girdle around central London.

Abbey Wood, getting a new station designed by Fereday Pollard in the Crossrail scheme
Abbey Wood, getting a new station designed by Fereday Pollard in the Crossrail scheme

Fascination with the new means of transport attracted an array of cranks, robber barons and risk-takers in equal measure; a gold rush was on, the rivalry was intense, and no scheme was too preposterous. Yet railway projects fell fast. In 1863, 55 London railway projects were deposited in the Private Bill office of the Commons. Many of the schemes disappeared into thin air. The London Grand Junction Railway issued a prospectus for lines crossing the city that included viaducts and tunnels for a 'subrailway'.

The Times announced that the first stone would be laid on 22 February 1837, but no line materialised. There was more than one Grand Central Terminus company, and for every Metropolitan Super-Way proposed, there was a City Junction Railway, a Regent's Canal & Railway Company, a Thames Viaduct Railway that would have marched on stilts down the centre of the river, and a London Connecting Railway & Railway Transit Line company that were all registered.

The capital outlay defeated them all. The merits of a line crossing from west to east were debated on and off for 150 years, the whole project at times appearing to be simply a dream or an exercise in governmental vacillation, something of a standing joke in the political world as it came and went over and over again from the bureaucrats' in-trays, while financing it defeated everyone until clever Gordon Brown came along.

West Ealing station is getting a major overhaul
West Ealing station is getting a major overhaul

Finally practical development replaced theoretical ideas. Mentioned in the Abercrombie Plan that brought us in the early Seventies the Green Belt and New Towns, the idea resurfaced with the London Rail Study, and was called Crossrail. It would be comparable to the German S-Bahn systems and the Parisian RER.

It was thought that it would cost around £300m. In the early Nineties Ralph Erskine and Will Alsop were involved and so too, fresh out of college, was Robinson. Mrs Thatcher put a £650m price tag on it in 1989 when it was formally announced before being shuffled off into a Government siding once more. John Major relegated it to a private member's bill and a cost of £2bn. By 1994, it stalled again.

The question was always, who would pay for it? It was forever way down a list of priorities that began with the JLE, Thameslink and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

The station at Farringdon is to be a major hub for Crossrail, Network Rail/Thameslink and Underground
The station at Farringdon is to be a major hub for Crossrail, Network Rail/Thameslink and Underground

By 2003, the costs were predicted between £10bn and £15bn; by 2007, that guesstimate had risen to £16bn. Everyone was in favour of it, yet no one would fund it. But as the number of cars coming into the centre of London has fallen so the number of passengers on the Underground has risen. As air rights over the stations have given developers the opportunity to make a great deal of money, so a business-rate supplement has delivered £4bn to the project -- as much as the Government is providing. And as the remit of a London mayor to make any impact is largely limited to transport, so an ambitious, flamboyant one saw an opportunity to make an impression. The creation of an elected mayor together with Transport for London made a surprising difference. Then, Brown really sorted out the money with a mix of loans, donations and taxes in a way that no one was happy with, but it meant Crossrail was going to happen.

The station at Farringdon is to be a major hub for Crossrail, Network Rail/Thameslink and Underground
The station at Farringdon is to be a major hub for Crossrail, Network Rail/Thameslink and Underground

By then, not building it was predicted to cost more than building it: the cost to the economy if it did not exist was seen as £1.5bn a year, as opposed to £30bn of benefits that would accrue over its lifetime if it did. Back then, there was also a small matter of creating 100,000 jobs, jobs that never materialised, together with the fact that it was essential for the Olympics, a date it missed by some distance.

The station as envisaged and cross-section of Canary Wharf
The station as envisaged and cross-section of Canary Wharf

As the city's working population increased so the economic case became unanswerable. With the actual population of London expected to reach 10 million by 2030, and together with the South East expected to rise to 25.22 million by 2022, London would not just have more people in future, it would have more people travelling further to work. Crossrail will bring in millions to within 45 minutes of the city centre.

The station as envisaged and cross-section of Canary Wharf
The station as envisaged and cross-section of Canary Wharf

Where once upon a time jobs spread out across the south-east commuter belt, now more and more are concentrated in the inner city and overspill of King's Cross and Shoreditch. In what was once overspill, places like Romford and Croydon, office blocks are being turned into housing. Crossrail will increase capacity on London's overcrowded transport network by 10 per cent. And yet, when it does finally open in 2018, it is anticipated by Sir Peter Hendy, a former boss of TfL, to be immediately full.

Paddington Station is seeing the most significant transformation since it opened in 1854
Paddington Station is seeing the most significant transformation since it opened in 1854

Operational changes and infrastructure projects notwithstanding, the city's transport needs are growing faster than TfL can cope. Two million people commute in and out of London every day. Enhancing the bus network (seven million people a day take the bus), extending the Tube lines (four million people a day), 24-hour services on five lines to service the nocturnal economy, installing automatic signalling to ensure trains run more frequently in a project covering 40 per cent of the network, running four years late and costing more than twice the original programme (Moscow runs 40 to 45 trains an hour at peak times per line compared to London's 30, and usually less), rebranding and improving old railway lines as the Overground (from 33 million passengers a year to more than 120 million in five years), and extending the Docklands Light Railway (from 66 million to some 100 million passengers in the same period), will not cut it.

Paddington Station is seeing the most significant transformation since it opened in 1854
Paddington Station is seeing the most significant transformation since it opened in 1854

The system groans. Victoria is busier than Heathrow, yet a network designed to meet Victorian needs and Victorian concepts of time will no longer manage the job.

Most magnificent of those Victorian schemes was a triple-decker Grand Central Station at Farringdon to house the crossroads of north-south and east-west main lines. In 2018, Farringdon will at last come close to wearing that mantle, as Crossrail will meet both the Underground and Network Rail/Thameslink there, connect directly with three of London's airports and be the major connection for journeys between Heathrow and Gatwick. With 140 trains an hour running through it, the Victorian dream will come close to realisation.

And very dull it looks too for such an important place. You would have thought that somewhere in the 15 offices and among those 1450 staff that Aedas boasts, someone might have given the scheme a bit more oomph.

Liverpool Street Station is being redeveloped to increase capacity, improve accessibility and upgrade interchanges with Tube and rail
Liverpool Street Station is being redeveloped to increase capacity, improve accessibility and upgrade interchanges with Tube and rail

Maybe their minds were elsewhere? In the complex world of design practices, Aedas was formed in 2002 with the merger of LPT and AHR, then demerged, separated in the language of celebrity divorce as a 'conscious uncoupling' in July 2014 (the scale of work at AHR being on a 'different trajectory', that is, smaller), only for Aedas to take over RHWL six months later.

The project at Farringdon disappeared from the Aedas project list, and sits within the new AHR, where it does at least warrant inclusion on the website, while everyone still credits Aedas.

But, perhaps that is just the point. We are in a world of design competence rather than adventurous architectural spirit and signature.This is not the world of the lavish spend, the assured world of the JLE, and the Muscovite monumentality of David Nelson's cascading elevators at Canary Wharf for Foster, of Hopkins' Wellsian note of ominous descent through the intermingling of escalators and trusses at Westminster, the cut-glass wall of MacCormac at Southwark, the football-field concourse at North Greenwich, of decent space standards and better finishes than those to which we had generally become all too accustomed.

Liverpool Street Station is being redeveloped to increase capacity, improve accessibility and upgrade interchanges with Tube and rail
Liverpool Street Station is being redeveloped to increase capacity, improve accessibility and upgrade interchanges with Tube and rail

Crossrail is a brave new world to match the Yorkshire puritanism of past London transport supremo Frank Pick. The swagger may have gone out of it - but it will work. Before the JLE Richard MacCormac summed matters up when he said 'the engineers design the system, then the architects dress it up... a matter of deciding which tiles to put on the platform walls'. The significance of Paoletti's contribution is that such things changed. Commissioning architects brief architects, with Robinson's seven strong team overseeing the whole thing.

There is not the stylistic variation of the JLE, and no real design uniformity, but in employing Grimshaw to handle the common components, some unity will be achieved within a set of design parameters. For example, the integration of spaces and elements at Paddington will be far more interesting than Farringdon's. The station is undergoing the most significant transformation since it opened in 1854 with major Tube upgrades as part of the deal. Four Underground lines connect here with Crossrail and serve a major railway terminus. By building on Brunel's vision of grand design with new public spaces, glazed canopies, large-scale public art, the Grade I listed building will be dramatically enhanced at the same time as following the original grid. A new Hammersmith & City line station, new entrances, new ticket offices, a new taxi facility, more seating, cycle parking and provision for future commercial development, are all part of one large integrated project.

Liverpool Street station is undergoing major redevelopment to increase capacity, improve accessibility and upgrade interchanges with four Underground lines, direct connections to Southend and Stansted airports, and main and suburban train lines, all as part of building Crossrail. And Heathrow will be just 35 minutes away from the City. No more trundling across town to Paddington to connect with the Heathrow Express. The cost of travel in London is eye-wateringly high when compared to New York and Paris, but for the financial community and other service industries on which the economy and the capital in particular rely so heavily, it will be a mere bagatelle. On the other hand, for commuters...

At Whitechapel the Crossrail platforms will be set north of the existing Underground but the lines will share a concourse, ticket hall, gateline and operations centre that will mean a step-free interchange across all the services. Bond Street, along with a significant Tube upgrade and new Crossrail station, has been designed to cater for 250,000 passengers a day. In addition there is a 28,000 sq m commercial development in Hanover Square and the possibility of private development over the Davies Street exit.

Whereas, below ground the design palette will be consistent, a visual uniformity that acknowledges the existing Underground aesthetic in a style that builds on the rigidity of Holden and Pick; the visual language will be less restricted as passengers approach the surface.

Tottenham Court Road, where really noticeable changes are taking place, including a new square outside, plus a £1bn upgrade to the Underground station
Tottenham Court Road, where really noticeable changes are taking place, including a new square outside, plus a £1bn upgrade to the Underground station

The really noticeable changes will come at stations like Tottenham Court Road where a new square at the junction of two major thoroughfares will come to symbolise the changes being wrought. What was once a Sixties' dog's dinner, will in a couple of years mean better pedestrian access, better cycle routes and improved vehicle circulation.

This is described as one of the biggest transport investments in the West End for decades. Alongside the upgrade of the existing Underground station, a new 260m-long station is being built four storeys below ground, at an overall cost of £1bn. There will be a new larger ticket hall, new entrances, additional escalators, better lighting, greater security and better access, long overdue for existing platforms to avoid congestion. This has involved diverting 40 utilities in and around Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, at the same time as creating around 47,000 sq m of new retail, office and residential accommodation plus a new theatre on the site of the Astoria.

There will be a major overhaul of West Ealing station by Bennetts; Gidea Park will see significant improvements and Abbey Wood will be new, designed by Fereday Pollard in 2009-10. But, sadly there will be few memorable moments outside the Zone 1 centre. Very much second-class citizens, stations will be merely cleaned and minimally upgraded.

Pick, Holden, Paoletti, Rewse-Davies and Robinson! Robinson is in line to have as much impact on the centre of London as his illustrious predecessors. It remains to be seen if he will remain in that distinguished list. Not that they all held the same positions or did the same job. Long gone are the days when the rest of the world looked to London to see the best of public transport. From its trains to its graphics and fabrics; from its buses, trams and trolley buses to its stations; it was simply the best. Was! That complete integration of art, architecture, design and engineering in the service of everyman was by any standards remarkable.

Can Robinson change at least some of that and recreate a service to be proud of? When, in the words of architecture critic and writer Jonathan Glancey, the 'degenerate lust for deregulation and privatisation' really set in across the bus network, the world's finest industrial design began to evaporate. London Transport had inspired the world. What Pevsner praised as a 'civilising agent', by the Nineties Jeremy Rewse-Davies struggled to enlist good design on behalf of a system that was in the process of being torn to shreds. Where Holden went before him, Paoletti worked the system to emulate that great man with a raft of great architects. Pick had the money to choose the best and he knew where to find it; Paoletti would accept nothing but the best, and was clever at ring-fencing the money to pay for it.

The legendary standards of design reached by London Transport in the Thirties cannot be repeated, because the system has been pulled apart as part of the fall of public transport in Britain. As Glancey saw it: 'Across the board, fully resolved design standards, Frank Pick's legacy, were squandered for a privatised potage as public virtue was quickly turned into private squalor.' Explaining his approach to design, the first RIBA Client of the Year, Paoletti once said: 'Railways are like jazz, continuous improvisation, and only as good as the band that is improvising the Tube.' And of Canary Wharf he said: 'Everybody keeps saying that it's like a cathedral. They're wrong! It actually is a cathedral.' Paoletti, the irascible but wise, persuasive, tenacious, Medici of London Transport, was right about that. These places are designed to last. Robinson says they are designed to last for 120 years.

Tottenham Court Road, where really noticeable changes are taking place, including a new square outside, plus a £1bn upgrade to the Underground station
Tottenham Court Road, where really noticeable changes are taking place, including a new square outside, plus a £1bn upgrade to the Underground station

London Transport has a rich and varied history of design that defines the metropolis. In trying to live up to those past glories the new line should be a journey through some of the best of design. It would be a shame if Crossrail sent that tradition down the tube. Will it be any better?

Of course it will! Its official line to architecture magazine Blueprint in 2010 was that 'the Crossrail design ethos is a world-class railway that offers a superior passenger experience at every stop of the journey, it will incorporate a high-level of functionality to meet the best design standards and provide value for money', which must mean something beyond PR speak.

From Reading and Heathrow to Shenfield in Essex on the lines to Southend and Colchester and south of the Thames beyond Woolwich to Abbey Wood, it should be worth it. And if it is, at long last we shall stop admiring gleaming metro systems almost anywhere else as the ones we look to for inspiration.





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