The promises were broken but it’s hard to stay mad about the Elizabeth line now that it’s finally open. It really is magnificent

A quick selfie at Abbey Wood

‘We got away with it!’ was the headline in the Metro two days after Crossrail opened, reporting on the comment by Martin Reynolds, who was Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary, that had come to light 24 hours earlier in relation to one of the many Downing Street lockdown parties.

Reynolds’ remark could have been made by the bigwigs responsible for delivering Crossrail as the line opened last week to great fanfare and self-congratulatory back-slapping – and no hint of contrition about the monumental delays to the project completion and budget overruns. Never mind, like Boris we can move on quickly and yesterday’s news can become a distant memory and obliterated from history – if you can control the narrative well. That’s what I thought as, with my usual mid-life crisis cynicism, I made a proper ‘old school’ travel test on the Elizabeth line on Day 4 of its short life, primed to pick holes. Well actually, in fact, the experience was excellent and if you haven’t made a trip, you really must do so, whilst it is glistening, fresh and on the front foot and, dare I say it, before bad habits creep in.

The wide, expansive subways leading to the platform at Tottenham Court Road, and indeed all of the central stations on the Elizabeth line, create a sense of occasion never felt before on a London Underground service. The platform announcer, a young, exuberant voice – it could have been me on the tannoy at West Hampsted Tube in my prime as a duty station manager on the Jubilee line – was getting carried away wishing everyone a lovely journey and regaling the service benefits (“27 double doors, beautiful lovely full air-conditioning”) before telling us that “sharing is caring” and asking us to let customers off the train first. On the platform was a female member of staff – immaculately attired – but displaying more tattoos than Love Island’s Calum Best (who I had the pleasure of meeting last week, a story for another day). She was having the most beaming, enthusiastic conversations with customers. So too, was her colleague – all grins, eye contact and animated engagement as he chatted about the new service to each customer he passed on the platform. This felt like one of those paradisical ‘Delight the Customer Days’ I used to organise on Midland Mainline, that heavenly scenario, where everyone loves everyone and customers and staff are joined at the hip.

It’s incredible, it really is, and when you take it in, you feel spellbound

There really was not much wrong on my journey and anyone who can look down the gangway of the train, all nine carriages – over 200-metres long – and see it twist, turn and drop at the front as it goes down a slope, and not be moved by what they see, cannot be a lover of railways. It’s incredible, it really is, and when you take it in, you feel spellbound.

However, in doing so, I couldn’t help reflecting that if Crossrail had been conceived post Covid, there’s surely no way it would have been given the green light. Will these carriages – which were fairly empty even in this novelty value inaugural week – ever see the crowds that the Central line which largely mirrors this route across London – saw in its prime? Try as I could, I just couldn’t imagine it, not even when services commence west of Paddington.

As our train travelled beyond Liverpool Street, I couldn’t help feeling that since my teenage years and now into my fifties, Docklands and its immediate vicinity, appears to have prospered disproportionately in terms of railway development by comparison with the rest of London and certainly the rest of the UK. When our train pulled into Custom House, I shook my head – this being a location that transport planners seem to be obsessed with, a location that, not withstanding it being the home of the ExCel Centre and close to City Airport, seems to have its birthdays and Christmases all at once, every year. As societal changes crept up on us just prior to the pandemic and most certainly since, I wonder whether there genuinely is the demand for the railway that this corner of London now enjoys.

Anyway, back to our journey and it was evident on station forecourts, platforms and gatelines on the route there were what looked like managers – with a different coloured hi-vis over their suits, sporting cheesy grins but appearing awkward. They were chatting among themselves, sometimes hands in pockets and when they did talk to customers they seemed initially frozen. When asked the simplest questions (‘which way to Paddington, mate’), they opened up, with huge relief and gushing over the top smiles straight from the Walt Disney customer service text book. Mischievously, I was half-tempted to ask them the cost of a point to point ticket from Abbey Wood to Dingwell, whether a Network Railcard could be used for part of the journey and if the rumour was true there would be rail replacement running between Peterborough and Newark en route. That’ll test them, so too will the first hint of service disruption on Crossrail. Bring it on, I say.

Chances are that managers and their directors will be back on their Teams calls at home after a fortnight and that’s the real challenge for Crossrail. It would be great if this Day 1 act of them being visible on the network either waiting for customers, helping them or just looking happy or posing for LinkedIn selfies, spawned a culture that normalised such behaviour, where being with customers is what it’s all about; the first instinct when they arrive at work. That for me would be a legacy that no other railway has achieved.

How can we bottle the warm and lively announcer at Tottenham Court Road and preserve his enthusiasm once the initial gleam and gloss has dissipated, when the trains suffer teething problems, delays ensue and it’s a boring Tuesday night, or when he’s realised that his fabulous announcements haven’t earned him promotion? Will those managers on social media and their colleagues have such a spring in their step? When the reality of TfL’s perilous financial situation has an impact on those connected with the Elizabeth line, be it in pay freezes or a re-organisation, or when the scourge of a national rail strike finds its tentacles on the new purple route, or when the hoodlums are inevitably out late at night giving grief to the gateline staff at Abbey Wood. Or will the human nature realisation that the thrill of the chase, the joy of the journey in constructing and mobilising a new railway is far more fun than the daily grind ing reality of running it? The most testing times for leadership will kick in around a month or so from now, I reckon. This is where they will really earn their crust.

My train approached Abbey Wood and I was trying to nitpick as I munched on my pack of Jelly Tots, whilst looking out the window in joyous balm. The Travelcard zones were faintly marked on the route maps above the seats and faint too were the on-board announcements. There was also no 4G signal. Meanwhile, face mask signs were everywhere despite that being so 2020/1 – a reflection perhaps of the time-warp in which these trains have resided due to delays in the project. Dwell times at stations also felt long and frustrating during the central section of the route. Indeed, faced with a choice, I may in future stick with the Central line which feels like it has greater momentum and is in more of a hurry between Tottenham Court Road and Liverpool Street. Sometimes hustle and bustle has more appeal than gracefulness.

The only other hint of moans from me, apart from the gateline staff at Abbey Wood chatting among themselves and a very slightly peeled notice on the footbridge, was that, if anything, the journey was slightly too good, too clinical and it was also a bit chilly on-board. Maybe we needed some classic railway incompetence, if the only notes I could put in my pad, were scratches emerging on the carriage floor already and the female automated announcer calling ‘Woolwich’, ‘Warlitch’ (I kid you not – have a listen, it’s bonkers that anyone thought it was appropriate to sign that off).

At Custom House, my heart lifted when I saw a gaggle of trainspotters. It was like looking in the mirror at me in my glory years

At Custom House, my heart lifted when I saw a gaggle of trainspotters. It was like looking in the mirror at me in my glory years – a naffer dress-sense than I have even now and a range of humongous camera lenses straight from the eighties. I didn’t think those existed in the digital age. They furtively paced down the platform to catch the number of the train and take another photo and suddenly I was overjoyed that traditional railway images were intruding on this otherwise glistening spectacle of modernity. And, at Abbey Road, further normality prevailed as a group of BTP officers were hanging round the platform en masse, carefree. Of course, it would be cruel stereotyping on my part to suggest this is the norm, BTP officers in groups and at places where there isn’t crime about to ensue, but this would be harsh on a day when I was clutching at straws to find stuff to grumble about.

At Abbey Wood, I took a quick selfie. Everyone else is getting in on the act – have a look at social media and it’s full of folk doing it. I saw a few around me taking selfies on my trip – not transport weirdos like you and I, but normal people, young and old, male and female and of different ethnicities too! Diversity and inclusion at its finest on our railway.

Anyway, unlike LinkedIn, where everyone who has ever worked in the sector seems to be claiming next to their photos that they had a great hand in this masterclass project, I confess to not having had any contribution whatsoever. I think I once might have sent one of the trainers in my consultancy to do some courses very early on in the programme, but that doesn’t count – you won’t see a single reference to Crossrail on my CV. Crossrail, though, has been the work of some fine leaders in transport and good people – no rogues, cads or rotters but decent, likeable people and great professionals – Mark Wild, Steve Murphy, Nigel Holness, Mike Bagshaw, Andy Byford, Howard Smith, Mark Hopwood to name but a few. A word too for Mike Brown, who was Byford’s predecessor as TfL commissioner and got caught up in some negative headlines around Crossrail, but deserves plaudits for his contribution in bringing the vision towards reality.

Like all these grandiose schemes, when they’re completed and we’re all enjoying the benefits, who really gives two hoots about what happened before? No one is saying ‘it took so long and cost so much’

Let’s be honest, it’s like all these grandiose schemes, when they’re completed and we’re all enjoying the benefits, who really gives two hoots about what happened before? No one is saying ‘it took so long and cost so much’, just like when I shelled out nearly 300 smackers on my 1938 00 gauge, maroon-coloured, Northern line train for my model railway, the cost or the time it took to achieve route clearance never crosses my mind as it shuffles out of the depot and into service each day. It is what it is and who am I to pour scorn on the glory of those who history will show created a legacy for London and the UK railway? My journey back to Central London was equally impressive – not a single fault to find on this glistening new railway.

If I had my time again, I’d like to have worked on this exciting and monumental project (if you’d have had me). ‘We got away with it’, well, yes, maybe that could have been the caption under the team photos on social media, but in truth, this was a job well done. For those who earned the right to work on the creation of the Liz Line – I really do salute you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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