London’s Crossrail, which will finally open this December under the cringe-worthy name “the Elizabeth line”, has been on the table a long time. The £15bn project wasn’t officially approved until 2008 – but a similar scheme received parliamentary consideration in the 1990s, was first seriously discussed in 1974, and has its origins in schemes proposed as far back as the 1940s.
That’s not to say all these schemes were early drafts of the Lizzie line in any meaningful way. In January, the excellent Ian Visits blog ran an article summarising more than a century of plans for new east-west rail tunnels under London, under the headline “The Crossrails that weren’t built”. But while the various projects it cites were clearly part of the process that led, ultimately, to the line due to open next December, it would be a bit much for me to claim that a line on a map in a 1968 rail study really counts as an unbuilt branch of Crossrail.
Even over the last 30 years, though – since a tunnel from Paddington to Liverpool Street was first seriously considered by ministers, and publicised under the name Crossrail – passengers at stations all across the south east have been breathlessly told that they’re going to get Crossrail, only to then be told five minutes later that oh no, actually they’re not. Here, for a giggle, are five.
Harrow, Amersham & Aylesbury
Leaflets promoting Crossrail first appeared at my local station in the early 1990s, and I’m not saying I had an empty childhood or anything but it was probably the most exciting thing to happen to me that year.
The 1991 Crossrail proposals. Click to expand. Image via Ian Visits.
The route discussed then, however, was not quite the route we’re getting now. There’s no Docklands branch, no Whitechapel, and no Heathrow.
This all looks fairly baffling now – but 27 years ago, remember, Canary Wharf was a single half empty tower, the London Overground didn’t exist, and there was no main line railway to Heathrow Airport. That said, all three of those things were planned, in at least some form, so it’s a bit bizarre that the people hoping to persuade the government to give them billions of pounds in public money didn’t take account of them.
But anyway. The biggest difference between the 1991 proposal and what we’re actually getting is to the north west. This first Crossrail plan included a second western branch, to Harrow-on-the-Hill, Amersham and Aylesbury. This would have swallowed the suburban services out of Marylebone and probably done unspeakable things to the Metropolitan line, too.
This version of Crossrail was refused parliamentary approval in 1994, however. And anyway, the idea of fast, direct trains to the West End and City proved less popular with some Buckinghamshire residents than one might imagine. In 2002 Chiltern District Council, which includes Amersham, said it would rather have the promised upgrades on the suspiciously named Chiltern Railways routes into Marylebone.
At any rate: when the new plans for Crossrail officially emerged, the north western branch was conspicuous by its absence.
Richmond, Kingston & Norbiton
In the autumn of 2003, things got serious again, when then-transport secretary Alistair Darling asked Cross London Rail Links (CLRL) Ltd., a Transport for London/Strategic Rail Authority joint venture set up to work on the new line, to consult on a new version of Crossrail
…based on a scheme serving Heathrow and Kingston in the west and Shenfield and Ebbsfleet in the east.
Hang on a second. Kingston?
The Kingston branch would have diverged from the mainline somewhere west of Paddington, and used either a new 8.5 mile tunnel via Chiswick Park, or a 2.5 mile viaduct, to take over the Richmond branch of the District line. Beyond that, it’d run through Twickenham and Kingston, before terminating at Norbiton in the deep south west of London.
No maps seem to survive of this version of Crossrail, unless they’re on the Dark Web somewhere. So to show where it would go, I did what any self-respecting nerd would do, and defaced a London rail map with highlighter pen
Click to expand. Image: Transport for London/CityMetric.
Once again, this proposal proved surprisingly unpopular with those who’d be affected by it, as Richmond residents grumbled about the possibility of losing the District line. So when a second consultation was held in autumn 2004, the Heathrow branch had been extended west to Maidenhead – but the Kingston branch had been mysteriously dropped.
Southend, Stanstead & Surrey
Around the same time this was going on, a bunch of senior railway managers were pushing their own version of Crossrail. To highlight the fact it was, to their minds, better, they called “Superlink”.
Superlink differed from most versions of Crossrail in that it was a regional railway, rather than metro scheme – that is, it aimed to serve stations right across London’s commuter belt, rather than just in the conurbation and its immediate neighbours. It would have branches extending as far as Northampton, Basingstoke, Cambridge, Ipswich and Southend. It would provide direct trains from Stansted airport into the West End.
And the central tunnel would serve Canary Wharf as well as the City and West End, effectively linking all London’s major business hubs.
Superlink. Click to expand. Image: Sagredo/Wikimedia Commons.
It was, in effect, a lot more like Thameslink, providing infrequent services to far-flung destinations, rather than the giant tube line that the Elizabeth line will be.
Superlink was never a serious proposal, but CLRL did at least consider it in 2005, before rejecting it on grounds of cost, complexity and reliability. Today its Wikipedia page contains a magnificent but rare piece of railway nerd shade:
The proponents of Superlink claimed Crossrail gives poor value for money and was unlikely to be built. They suggested that benefits of the Crossrail scheme, including relief of congestion on the public transportation network within London, had been overstated.
Superlink was rejected. Crossrail received Royal Assent in 2007 and a funding agreement in 2008.
Watford & Milton Keynes
One of the problems with Crossrail as designed is that there’s far more demand for its eastern branches than its western. The Shenfield metro service, currently operated as TfL Rail, already receives unusually high frequencies for a National Rail service, which hasn’t stopped them from becoming overcrowded. The south eastern branch to Abbey Wood, meanwhile, will be busy because of demand to travel to Canary Wharf.
The western branches are a whole lot quieter. I suspect one can credit to the tube’s north west London bias but whatever the reason, of the 24 trains per hour running through the central tunnel when Crossrail is complete, fully half of them will turn round at Paddington and head east again. It’s this imbalance that explains the short-lived enthusiasm for extra western branches like those to Amersham or Kingston.
A third such option was in contention until relatively recently. Network Rail’s July 2011 London & South East Route Utilisation Strategy recommended diverting Milton Keynes commuter services onto Crossrail via a new link at Old Oak Common. This would free up capacity at Euston, in preparation for the arrival of High Speed 2.
Versions of this extension were still on the table until about five minutes ago, and transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin suggested in August 2014 that Crossrail could take over stopping services to Tring in Hertfordshire (three stops short of Milton Keynes Central).
A route map showing the proposed Tring branch. Click to expand. Image: CityMetric.
In August 2016, though, this project was abandoned too, on grounds of poor value for money. And so, half of all Elizabeth Line trains will never make it west of Paddington. Boo.
Dartford & Ebbsfleet
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice I skipped past an unbuilt extension earlier. Back in 2003, the south eastern branch of Crossrail was due to continue beyond Abbey Wood, along the existing railway line to Erith, Dartford and finally Ebbsfleet International – a weird place in the middle of nowhere which serves as the west Kent stop on High Speed 1 or Eurostar. (They’re meant to be building a load of houses out there, too, but, y’know how it is.)
This bit of the route was never an official part of the Crossrail plan approved in 2008 – but it was “safeguarded”, meaning that you can’t build anything that would get in its way should the government change its mind. And London mayor Sadiq Khan did express his support for the extension as recently as January 2018.
Yes we did it again. Click to expand. Image: TfL, vandalism: CityMetric’s own.
I have no idea what this would do to the service pattern of the North Kent lines: there are already three different routes from Dartford and Ebbsfleet to central London, and thinking about adding a fourth, while popular with passengers, is likely to give transport planners a nosebleed.
But this, unlike the other abandoned routes described above, might actually happen. And it’s nice to end on a hopeful note, isn’t it?
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.
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