LONDON — The oldest underground rapid-transit system in the world — the beloved, smelly, iconic, clanking, overstuffed Tube — is about to undergo its biggest expansion in decades with the opening of the super-speedy and library-hushed Elizabeth line, which promises to transform this city for commuters and visitors alike.
The new line is more than the Tube. Its trains will do double duty — as a fully automated underground subway in the center of London and as an aboveground railway, reaching out to Essex towns in the east and to Heathrow airport and the city of Reading in the west.
When fully operational, the 73-mile east-west corridor will bring the far-flung suburbs closer to downtown, putting an additional 1.5 million people within 45 minutes’ travel.
Transport for London Commissioner Andy Byford, a former top administrator of the New York City Transit Authority, called the new railway “a wonder of the world” and predicted riders “will be blown away.”
He added: “We’ve sweated blood to bring this to completion.”
The opening coincides nicely with the Platinum Jubilee of its namesake, Queen Elizabeth II, who is marking 70 years on the throne. But authorities are upfront that the Elizabeth line is four years overdue and $5 billion over its budget, and that the seemingly endless underground tunneling and aboveground construction drove people in its path to distraction.
All told, the “Lizzie line” has cost $23 billion.
The line, also called the Crossrail project, was, at its peak, the largest infrastructure project in Europe. It has survived three London mayors and four prime ministers — and thousands of biting headlines by British tabloids over repeated delays.
Burrowing through the heart of London, one of the oldest megacities on Earth, the tunnelers in their 13 years of digging uncovered prehistoric bison, Roman streets, victims of the plague, Tudor mansions and a lot of Victorian sewer pipes.
There’s a memorial at Liverpool Street station marking the site where archaeologists uncovered remains of 3,300 victims of the city’s successive plagues, buried in the New Churchyard at Bethlem, or Bedlam, between 1569 and 1738.
Archaeologists worked for six months to remove the skeletons, which were interred at a new cemetery on the Thames River estuary.
Nearby, there’s a bird sanctuary, created by the 3 million tons of London clay dug by the tunnel excavators and hauled downriver by barge.
Byford — who was hired in 2020 to get the limping Elizabeth line project over the finish line — said it wasn’t the digging that slowed everything down. The issue was that they were dealing with the “most challenging integration of complex rail systems ever.”
The new line requires three switching regimes to keep the trains on time and prevent them from crashing. There were “16 million parts,” and all had to talk to one another, said Byford, whose grandfather drove a London bus. Byford suggested that for global megaprojects to come, it’s not the concrete that’s hard to manage, it’s the computer coding.
The old Tube, the classic Tube, is not going anywhere. The original lines and their workhorse people-movers remain.
The London Underground system — and especially the map drawn by Harry Beck in 1933 — shapes many people’s conception of the geography of the city. But soon Beck’s “masterpiece of compressed design” will be republished, with the Elizabeth line at its heart.
As workers wiped away the last motes of construction dust in the new Paddington station for the Elizabeth line, Byford took a group of international reporters through the system for a tour.
The oldest parts of the London Underground are like a Victorian time capsule. A warren of narrow passageways connect stations lined in blood-red tiles, with dodgy corners and moldy brickwork. The train carriages smell faintly of urine and yesterday’s pork pies.
The carriages of the Elizabeth line, though, have a new-car smell.
There are 10 new, airy, arty underground stations, taller than cathedrals, bedecked not in stained glass, but glass-fiber reinforced concrete — in a porridge-color designed to calm the urban jitters of underground passage-making, the designers say.
Purple accents nod to the queen’s horse-racing colors.
Architecture critic Edwin Heathcote, writing in the Financial Times, called the new line “grand but austere” and “calm but a bit beige.”
The Elizabeth line is about power, not flash. Outside of the city center, the trains will reach 90 miles per hour.
But the ride is so quiet, when the trains run, it will be people you hear, not machines.
There are banks of tempered glass at platform edges, so it is impossible to fall onto the tracks. The glass also cocoons the tunnels, to keep the carriages neither too hot nor too cold.
When the project was first debated in Parliament in the 1990s, the challenges of climate change were hardly noted.
Similarly, pre-covid, lawmakers didn’t much care about an airborne infectious disease that could bring the planet’s global economy to a standstill.
So it is good to know the Elizabeth line will be flushed with fresh, filtered air — and that the railway line will add 10 percent of capacity to the system, taking more cars off the roads.
Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, cheered the Elizabeth line as “a huge success for the U.K. economy” and a “transformative new railway.”
But politicos are watching to see how much Johnson as prime minister embraces the project’s opening, as his Conservative Party government has pledged to “level up” spending in Britain, giving more to the starved provinces and less to fat London.
The oft-criticized Transport for London agency, overseen by Mayor Sadiq Khan, is struggling to be self-sustaining, someday. But Khan, of the Labour Party, has celebrated the railway as the “new pride” of the city, signaling that post-Brexit, post-pandemic Britain is back in business.
Mark Wild, the chief executive of Crossrail, was similarly enthusiastic when showing off the gleaming stations to reporters this week. “It looks like the Tube, it feels like the Tube,” he said. “But I promise you, it is something much more than the Tube.”