Crossrail: Elizabeth line hailed as ‘fit for a Queen’ as it opens

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Samba dancers, passengers taking selfies, the mayor climbing on station signs, and purple all around. It was a day of celebration and wonder as the Elizabeth line, “fit for a Queen”, finally opened its doors to more than 100,000 passengers.

The first Elizabeth line trains to carry passengers through the new tunnels under London departed on time just after 6.31am on Tuesday – a giant leap in speed, space and comfort from the underground service the capital has known until now.

By 10am, 130,000 journeys had been made on the new line, Transport for London said. The first were made by hundreds of people, from around the country and beyond, who had braved the rain to queue outside Paddington and Abbey Wood in the early hours.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (right) and Andy Byford, Commissioner at Transport for London (TfL) disembark the first Elizabeth line train to carry passengers at Farringdon Station.
Andy Byford, commissioner at Transport for London, and the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, disembark the first Elizabeth line train to carry passengers at Farringdon station. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Cheers greeted the opening of the gates at Paddington at 6.18am as Khan and the TfL commissioner, Andy Byford, at the head of the queue, stepped back to allow the first customers to dash past and into the pristine new station.

Khan said he was “so excited – like that little boy on Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa”. The line originally known as Crossrail – was finally ready for service a week before the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations. Last week, the monarch visited Paddington, opening the line officially three and half years after she was first invited. “We now know that it’s fit for a Queen – and for Londoners,” Khan added.

London landmarks from the Eye to Tower Bridge were lit in purple to mark the occasion, as queues started forming overnight. Vernon Kerswell, 34, a train designer from Wimbledon, had been at the front of the queue since midnight outside Paddington. “It’s been a long night but really exciting,” he said.

Hundreds more had joined in the early hours. Among several families who had taken their children out for a historic trip was Nic Stevenson from Christchurch, with his seven-year-old son Eddy. “We’re cold, wet but happy,” he said.

Down on the platform, most said it was worth the wait. Cheers greeted the PA who was “delighted to announce the first eastbound train to Abbey Wood”. A minute later, he retracted – “this one is not stopping here” – but today, no one minded.

More cheers greeted the opening of the pristine platform doors. And even with the crowds, everyone who wanted got a seat.

“It’s just amazing,” said Agnes Sarkadi-Smith, from Arundel, who had stayed in London overnight with her son Sawyer, 11, arriving to queue at 4am, and had baked Elizabeth line cupcakes to hand out for the occasion. “We didn’t quite make enough for everyone,” she added. They were going to visit every station on the line today, Sawyer said.

Just seven minutes of train ride later, the VIPs exited at Farringdon – “we’re already here!”, someone shouted in astonishment.

In less than 20 more minutes, the train reached Abbey Wood, which just yesterday would have felt a long and arduous cross-city slog from Paddington. Whoops greeted arrivals at the station, amid the kind of excited chatter normally distinctly frowned upon on the underground.

Not all had turned up for the occasion – an Italian passenger, who had worn a full purple jacket in what appeared to be a coincidence, was trying to just travel and quietly read a book by the Dalai Lama in translation. When asked what she thought of the new service she replied that she didn’t understand.

A bigger crowd – arguably of more hardcore rail enthusiasts – had queued down the street outside Abbey Road for what was technically, by just over a minute, the very first Elizabeth line train to depart for the new central section. (Purists may have wanted to take the 6.30am from Paddington to Heathrow to be the very first Elizabeth line passengers – albeit only on the rebranded TfL Rail services already running.)

With train managers funnelling the crowds straight to the platform entrance, it took five trains for the early Abbey Wood queue to clear. Only later in the morning peak did the station announcer let passengers know that “all entrances to the new, fantastic, Elizabeth line are now open”.

Passengers on board an Elizabeth Line train to Abbey Wood
Passengers on board an Elizabeth Line train to Abbey Wood. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Among them was Grace, who declined to give her full name or age but said she was “a sixtysomething proud resident of Abbey Wood”. She was still taking a Southeastern train to Waterloo East for her commute to central London, but couldn’t resist coming over to take a closer look. “I feel so proud of the new line, especially when I realised it originated from here,” she said.

When she moved to the area 20 years ago, she said: “The feeling I got from people here was that morale was low. Now, it’s changed. This outside was just a little dirt road – there’s been a lot of new development.”

Outside the new Woolwich station later, samba dancers in feather headdresses performed – and even got the travelling public joining in. Inside, Khan, Byford and the transport minister, Lady Vere – whose government colleagues have been at loggerheads with Khan but originally stumped up 30% of the Crossrail funding – met up with the executives riding from the Abbey Wood opening.

They included Mark Wild, the TfL director who stepped in and wrested the work back on course after the debacle of 2018. The mayor engulfed Wild in a hug.

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Hours on from Paddington, with services running like clockwork, and only a brief early false fire alert stopping one train at Tottenham Court Road, Khan was still posing atop the purple Elizabeth line roundels, ecstatic.

His peers abroad would envy it, he said: “No other city, as we embark on recovery, has this piece of national infrastructure to help get people back from home to the office, to entice and incentivise them, and to get tourists back.”

Walk these platforms and step on to the new air-conditioned trains, he added, and “I challenge anyone not to come off with a smile, a spring in their step and whistling to be in this great city.”

Rail enthusiasts wearing royal masks take a selfie in front of an Elizabeth line sign.
Rail enthusiasts wearing royal masks take a selfie in front of an Elizabeth line sign. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Construction of the £19bn line (£20bn including trains) started in 2009, after decades of planning. The central section was originally due to open in 2018, before the overoptimistic schedule fell apart as engineers tried to produce an extraordinary complex railway and 10 new stations in central London.

Until autumn, the Elizabeth line will run as three separate railways, with passengers on the former TfL Rail services in the west or east having to change at Paddington or Liverpool Street stations to continue on the newly opened central section.

Transport for London bosses expect many more commuters to flood on to the line after September, when trains will run directly from Shenfield, Reading and Heathrow into stops across central London. Next May, services will run the breadth of the Elizabeth line, with up to 24 trains an hour at peak times.

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