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The Elizabeth Line – transport of delight. By Tom Hodgkinson

Blog | By Tom Hodgkinson | Apr 29, 2024

By Robert Thompson

At the beginning of News from Nowhere, William Morris’s novel about a utopian society of the future, the narrator takes a miserable journey from Farringdon to Hammersmith on the London Underground. He calls the tube ‘that stinking vapour- bath of discontented humanity’.

That would have been in 1890. Fast forward 134 years, put him on the Elizabeth Line and the Arts and Crafts pioneer would take a very different view.

I ended up on this marvel of modern engineering by mistake: in general, I reject the tube, preferring to cycle around London. But a tennis injury put me out of bicycling action, and for a few weeks I took the underground into Soho from my office for my evenings of merrymaking.

I took the Hammersmith and City Line – the very same line Morris complained about, and the oldest on the whole network. So far, so ordinary tube.

But then at Paddington I descended deep down to the magisterial new Elizabeth Line, the space-age train that speeds from Reading in the west to beyond Woolwich in the east, via central London. There are 73 miles of it. It’s 40 metres deep, stops at 41 stations and has transformed London.

There’s an amazing sense of space down there. The tunnel-builders have fashioned gigantic, sweeping curved walkways, like something out of Star Wars. The material used is officially called ‘curving white glass fibre- reinforced cladding linings’.

The passenger and train tunnels were created by eight enormous tunnel-boring machines. Each machine, charmingly, was named, because no machine can begin work until it is christened. There were: Victoria and Elizabeth, named after the monarchs; Mary and Sophia, named after the wives of the Brunel engineers; Ada and Phyllis, named after Ada Lovelace, Bryon’s computer scientist daughter, and Phyllis Pearsall, inventor of the London A-Z; and Jessica and Ellie, named after Olympic gold medallists.

Each pair of machines was responsible for separate jobs. When tunnelling, the machines inched forward; a huge wheel at the front carved up the London clay and transported it backwards. The machine then placed a concrete ring round the tunnel before moving forward again.

The 3,500 tunnellers needed to do the job were trained at the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy in Ilford. What a noble vocation – tunneller!

The 3.5 million tonnes of soil excavated by these kindly monsters was then transported to Wallasea in Essex where it was used to create a bird sanctuary. How lovely is that? The Guardian’s reporter visited and was very impressed: ‘I spotted yellow wagtails, oystercatchers, lapwings, black-headed gulls and reed bunting on my visit last week. Brown hares scampered through the long grass while skylarks shrilled above the flat, uninterrupted Essex landscape.’

The trains themselves are large, spacious and air-conditioned. And they seem to move incredibly quickly. It took me about four minutes to get from Paddington to Tottenham Court Road tube station. The station efficiently deposits you, with a great sense of drama, at the top end of Dean Street.

As you emerge from the futuristic travel experience, the whole of the old road opens up before you: there’s the Private Eye office on the right, Quo Vadis on the left and the French House at the end.

My whole body felt elated and I bowled down the middle of Dean Street with the casual insouciance and bonhomie of a Parisian flâneur who has just heard his novel about the 19th-century peasantry has won the Prix Goncourt. Such is the power of good architecture and design.

I liked the Elizabethan Line so much that even when my injury had healed, I made excuses to travel on it again. Such was my enthusiasm that I even briefly contemplated moving to an area served by an Elizabeth Line station, maybe West Ealing or Acton, as the line tragically misses out Shepherd’s Bush, where I live.

It’s been 100 years in the making. According to TfL, ‘An east-west tube railway linking mainline termini was first proposed in 1919, by the Underground’s Commercial Manager, Frank Pick, and again in the 1943 County of London Plan.’

Work finally began in 2011 with the tunnelling, which took four years. Then came the station-building operation, which ran from 2016 to 2021. Trains started running in May 2022.

The glorious Elizabeth Line is all part of TfL’s laudable efforts to reduce the city’s dependence on cars. How different from Silicon Valley’s ludicrous self-driving-car dream – a fantasy that will never happen and which has wasted billions of dollars. OK, the Elizabeth Line cost a reported £19 billion, but what a great investment, which improves everywhere it touches.

Far from being a stinking vapour- bath of discontented humanity, the Elizabeth Line is an air-conditioned chaise longue of cheerful humans, filled with positive thoughts.