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A first look inside London's Tottenham Court Road Tube station shows there's still hope for Crossrail | Construction Buzz #214

25 Apr 2019

From gold ceilings to smart info boards, we have a first look inside Tottenham Court Road to see what’s coming down the line...

There is a secret door at Tottenham Court Road Tube station. On one side of it is the everyday reality of packed, noisy Central and Northern line trains. On the other is a magic world in which empty, silent escalators glide beneath a ceiling glinting with real gold leaf. 

Huge curved white passages head off into the distance deep beneath Soho. Immense platforms wait for trains which, for the moment, never come. Working digital displays count down the minutes to imagined services and signs point the way to exits that no passenger has ever used. Warm mood lighting glints, waiting to draw people in the right direction without them even knowing.

The scale is stunning, dwarfing the stations people know today. It’s all real. And one day we will be welcomed in when Crossrail becomes part of London life as the Elizabeth line.

Today the London Assembly has issued a furious report condemning the way delays to the project — which was supposed to open in December 2018 — weren’t spotted. It targets the head of Transport for London in particular. But for Londoners what matters most is getting services running. So when will they arrive?

To find answers I joined the man charged with turning around the fortunes of the project, Crossrail chief executive Mark Wild, at the station. We were joined by the capable and impressive site manager Lih-Ling Highe. Tottenham Court Road will be the busiest interchange on the line.

It was supposed to open late last December along with the central section. But last summer the Crossrail project fell apart. The opening was cancelled. Managers left. Costs rose. There isn’t a new date. London has been left in limbo. 

The truth is that Wild still doesn’t know for sure if he will get the line open in 2020 — though he hopes to. 

When I visited Crossrail’s Bond Street station last Christmas I was depressed by the scale of what was still left to do. This wasn’t a project being held up by a few last-minute hitches, as we had been told. Something fundamental had gone wrong. It went from being a potential city showcase to a multi-billion-pound embarrassment in a matter of weeks.

Exploring the new station at Tottenham Court Road brings some of the lost excitement back. Barring a few fixes, such as fitting missing lights in passages (the supplier went bankrupt) and plugging security cameras into the system, the station is complete. It’s telling that, as you enter, you have to slip blue plastic dust covers over your shoes to keep it clean. When I last visited you came out covered in dust.

All that keeps passengers out of it for now is a temporary fireproof hoarding, which will be torn down in the days before the new service begins. Staff in the control room say they would need only four weeks’ notice to become fully operational. The new station has platforms twice the length of current Tube ones, with air conditioning and curved, tactile concrete walls (which, it’s claimed, are graffiti-proof). The station is so big that there’s a new exit in Dean Street. Get on a train at the wrong end and you’ll emerge in a different part of London from the one you expected. 

There’s art, including that gold leaf ceiling by the Turner Prize-winning artist Richard Wright and a secret map of Soho made up of dots on a glistening black background. The station is themed in red and black as a tribute, apparently, to the West End’s night-time culture. Signs point the way to the new routes: trains that will take you to Heathrow in minutes, on to Reading in the west and Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. Drivers — 500 of them — are already employed and ready to go. New trains are stacked up in sidings waiting to run. Businesses moved across London to take advantage of the new line. People bought homes. We need it open.

crossrail

This week the Crossrail board meets, and then we should be told a broad date range during which it may open, probably between spring 2020 and 2021. Wild, under pressure to get things moving, is understandably cagey about naming a more exact date. He’s trying to straddle the gap between keeping confidence up and dealing with unknowns that might knock it off course. Until the stations are finished he can’t get new trains tested properly — and without tests he doesn’t know if they will work.

The aim is to open in 2020. I sense — though Wild won’t say so — that he hopes it could happen by this time next year. That would be 18 months late — bad but no disaster compared with big infrastructure projects around the world (Berlin’s new airport, supposed to open in 2011, could be a decade late). It would also, of course, come just before London’s next mayoral election. 

If only every station on the route was going as well as Tottenham Court Road, the showcase on the central section. Wild dismisses talk by the previous management team that services could start running just on part of the line and build up from there. He wants it all ready. “It needs to open as an end-to-end railway serving the West End, the City, Canary Wharf and south-east London,” he says — with trains turning around at Paddington at first using a slick and as yet untested automated reversing system. They will run every five minutes to start with. Only after that will services ramp up to reach Heathrow and north-east London via Stratford.

So why can’t it open now? Peer through the glass barrier at the platform edge and you can see one answer: temporary cabling and pipes still hang from the tunnel walls. They need to be replaced. There are lots of tricky jobs like that left but the big challenge boils down to two things. One is that finishing Bond Street station is miles behind schedule — the naughty child of the system that makes Wild’s team roll their eyes when you ask about it. It doesn’t have to be finished for trains to pass through it, but Wild says it needs to be 80 per cent complete to allow it to be used as an evacuation route. 

It will take about a year to get there — and additional time to run through all the complex tests needed elsewhere too, including at Tottenham Court Road. Highe pulls out her iPhone to show me a fire drill that involved pumping thick hot smoke on to the platforms to see if emergency fans worked. They passed — just. Incredibly, says Wild, no one had a plan to get all this testing right when he took over, or of managing the task of knitting digital systems on the new line into old stations. “It’s clear this was a big gap,” he says — a polite way of putting what he clearly feels.

crossrail

The other big thing that needs to be done isn’t about building stations at all. In office rooms in Wiltshire coders are trying to get software to work that will allow trains to run safely with the four different signal systems they will encounter. This month they will upload version seven. It will take at least one more version, due in June or July, to get a smooth service for testing. At the moment they can only run two trains in each direction, far apart. The system needs to allow a full service, safely, at speed, close together, stopping with millimetre precision at the automatic platform doors.

Two big, unexpected software flaws have already set back testing since Christmas. There will probably be more. Even when it all works it will need months of testing to make sure fast-running trains close to each other keep a safe distance apart. The old management team had tried to ignore this but Wild doesn’t want to open the line only to face the humiliation of it all going wrong.

By late summer they will know if they have a system that works — or if it doesn’t. Then they can start to plan for a more precise date. The nightmare would be to get a railway that’s finally finished but have no trains for it. It should be better than that. Wild is looking hopeful. Maybe there’s light at the end of the Crossrail tunnel at last.

Source: Evening Standard

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