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‘We apologise for the delay’—Crossrail line finally arrives

The London-spanning Elizabeth line will open on 26 May—three and a half years after the initial opening date. Sarah Bates argues the chaos of capitalism ruins the potential benefits
Issue 2805
Constructing Crossrail

Building the line that will transport commuters to central London from Reading and Shenfield, Essex. (Matt Brown)

Crossrail’s expected arrival next week comes after years of chaos, delays and an eye watering price tag. It’s made the project—officially called the Elizabeth line—more laughing stock than rolling stock.

A huge undertaking, it’s going to expand London’s underground rail network by ten percent—the biggest single upgrade for more than 100 years. Eventually trains should run every few minutes across the 188 miles from Reading to Shenfield in Essex.

Crossrail is the kind of mass ­passenger, low carbon transport ­necessary in a society serious about tackling the climate crisis. Yet capitalist priorities have dictated the way it’s been implemented at every stage. It has been shaped by bloated private contracts, the chaos of unplanned cities and infrastructure—and the need for profits.

The motivation behind Crossrail is to ship workers into the city from ­outlying areas and commuter towns. This is a plaster for the unplanned ­disorder that large cities experience. It’s a replacement for a rational housing policy as people are forced from the inner city due to high rent and house prices.

And Crossrail adds fuel to the fire as landlords and property developers hike up rents and house prices along the route, hoping to cash in on people who can afford to live close to a station.

One local estate agent said, “We’ve had people coming in, most people have been mentioning the Elizabeth line. It has been mentioned quite a lot throughout the past six months or so—but the interest has come from a majority of families or people looking to start a family.”

Crossrail was originally conceived as a commuter service, yet in the midst of Covid millions of commuters are likely to never return to the office.

In February of this year, passenger numbers on London buses and the Underground were about 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Declining passenger numbers is one of the reasons why plans for a ­north-south Crossrail 2 and a Bakerloo extension have been put on hold.

Also, it probably won’t even make much difference to those travelling from Shenfield. Using Crossrail, passengers will take 46 minutes to get from there to Liverpool Street station. Existing Greater Anglia Trains take only 23 minutes to the same destination now.

Another major consideration is the environmental cost. Just building the initial structure, which is predominately made of concrete, belched out some 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

Yet the company said in 2018 Crossrail is likely to balance out carbon emissions by around 9 to 13 years after opening. And it said, “Once the railway is operational, there will be annual savings in the order of 70,000 to 225,000 tonnes of CO2, largely due to the displacement of car journeys and replacement of diesel trains on the existing network.”

Crossrail is an example of how even the best, most climate-friendly initiatives can be contorted and spat out by the chaotic system of private profit.

Workers fought for their rights during construction

It’s taken 55,000 workers to build Crossrail, and when there’s that much exploitation, there’s going to be resistance. At one point, the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, Crossrail construction has thrown up battles between workers and bosses since the start.

There have been fights over bonuses, pay and safety concerns. But the repression of trade union activity on the sites has been the longest running contention.

During the period of Crossrail’s construction, industry giants were found to have been systematically colluding to blacklist trade union activists over many years. But action by workers, including those campaigning to save blacklisted rep Frank Morris, won important victories. He was able to return to the site after workers built pressure by occupying sites, and organising protests.

In 2016, 60 workers at the site in Tottenham Court Road, central London, occupied the canteen and stopped work. They were furious that Laing O’Rourke wouldn’t negotiate with their unions and wouldn’t recognise their steward.

Workers struck to stop bosses forcing Terry Wilson, their steward, off the project. “They want to transfer me completely off Crossrail”, said Terry. “It’s an attempt to chop the head off the snake and hope everyone else crumbles. But this is an attack on everyone and an attack on the union.”

The best use of £19 billion?

Nobody knows—or they are not saying—how much the Elizabeth line cost. A 2020 bailout with public money took the official total to a tidy £18.6 billion, yet Crossrail bosses want another £174 million.

The £18.6 billion could have been spent on social housing, health or education—or on a rational and sustainable transport system.

Still not quite finished yet

Delays were common on Crossrail. It was originally scheduled to open in December 2018, yet the route will remain unfinished until at least 2023. On the grand opening day passengers will have to change twice to travel the full line.

New boss Mark Wild has blasted the original opening date as “fantasy”. Yet he also missed his own deadline of March 2021.

The gravy train departed earlier

It’s not a mystery where some money is travelling—straight into the bosses’ pockets. Mark Wild, Crossrail chief executive officer, was paid a total of £447,853 in the 2020-21 financial year.

More than 450 Crossrail and TfL fat cats grabbed more than £100,000 in the same period. And 90 bosses trousered some £6.2 million in “golden goodbyes”—an average of £70,000 each.

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