Jorrin ten Have goes beyond design and engineering feats and looks at the Elizabeth line through a global, social and economic lens.
London’s infrastructure is being catapulted into the 21st century by the opening of the Elizabeth Line. This addition to the London Underground network is not just a new tube line but a new railway line, passing below the centre of London, with the capacity to reshape the map – economically and socially – of the city and its surroundings.
For many, if not all Londoners and visitors at some point, the Elizabeth line means we will experience faster travel times and be able to enjoy more direct journeys east to west across London including to Heathrow airport, once the line is fully connected. With this vastly improved connectivity comes the opportunity for regeneration. House prices along the line have reportedly over the last 10 years risen four times faster than the average London home. Business and investment has already begun and is predicted to grow year on year, enabling pockets of local economies to flourish and urban development to contribute to a better way of living.
But there is also another kind of regeneration that the Elizabeth line represents. After years of political wrangling, delays, budget overruns and then a pandemic, we are opening an unprecedented, world-class railway line. In the ‘super-tube’, as our American friends are calling it, everything is larger – the vast passenger tunnels and platforms are twice the length of typical London underground stations and, in a nod to the celebrated Charles Holden stations of the 1930s, the spaces are uncluttered, mannered and seamless, belying the line’s context within a highly populated, congested city.
Safety and accessibility underpinned the line-wide strategy led by a team including Grimshaw, Atkins, Maynard and Equation. Passenger experience was at the heart of the design of all spaces and components, as well as maintenance and upgrades. Almost every element in the Elizabeth line has a 120+ year design life, with adaptability built into the thinking. Getting this right was only possible through extensive testing and prototyping, an approach embedded in manufacturing but in its early days for our construction industry. And it was thorough, designs for platform edge screens, wall cladding, and signage were drawn up, prototyped, inspected, and tested for client-side assurance and then repeated by contractors and suppliers to ensure deliverability. Maintenance routines were also trialled, all before a single panel of cladding was installed.
The result is a transformed transport experience for London – accessible, safe, generous, intuitive, and seemingly effortless. And, with the first trains now running, there is a palpable sense of pride and confidence in London and the infrastructure that keeps it running. But this is not contained, London’s travel has been catapulted into the 21st century with the city now finding itself at the forefront, an exemplar, of international public infrastructure. And as a recent visitor, who was involved in the delivery of a major new European metro line, commented: ‘We delivered a fantastic project, but it wasn’t quite as beautiful as this.'