Crossrail: The Overlooked Surface Sections

It is easy to forget sometimes that for an “Underground” railway, Crossrail will spend a considerable amount of time on the surface. We have covered the North-Eastern arm of Crossrail on various occasions. The most recent of these was to look at the Crossrail launch plan. The western section out to Reading has its own issues and, of course, there was the official decision to extend Crossrail to Reading. What often gets overlooked, however, is the three short surface sections on the branch to Abbey Wood. This article attempts to do something to rectify this by looking at the two surface stations that are being built on this branch.

Not just a new underground railway

The perception of Crossrail is generally of a new underground railway across London connecting existing lines outside the central area to form a cross London railway. This is largely true and accurate but two of the surface sections on the Abbey Wood branch provide a contrast to this with one completely new station and one completely rebuilt station (including new additional platforms). As a result, there is considerable Crossrail station construction activity here and, of course, because it is on the surface, it can actually be easily seen.

Abbey Wood Branch Map

The Abbey Wood Branch showing tunnelled and open sections

Custom House

The first station that we will look at is Custom House. This is the only completely new surface station on Crossrail. There is an adjacent DLR station of the same name, but the two stations will be treated as two entirely separate entities with an Out of Station Interchange (OSI).

custom house station architects impression - entrance barriers_127365

Entrance to station showing ticket gates and Excel on the right

It is very logical to have Custom House station on the surface. Firstly, the land was available as the North Woolwich end of the North London Line had closed a few years earlier – the area now being served by new nearby DLR services. Secondly, there is the rather obvious fact that even the most frequent of London’s commuters are not Morlocks yet – people usually begin their journeys at surface level so where possible it makes sense to have the station there. Thirdly, Crossrail utilises the existing but disused Connaught Tunnel under the Royal Docks and it is easier to link into this on the surface than attempt a sub-surface connection. Fourthly, and no doubt crucially, it is generally hundreds of millions of pounds cheaper to build on the surface than to do so underground.

Not a cheapskate station

A visit to the vicinity of the Custom House Crossrail station site makes one very aware that building it is far from a minor task. It will be much more substantial than the former station it will replace. Crossrail’s general ethos of doing more than the minimum is evident here and the station is clearly intend to cater for considerable future potential growth.

viewed from DLR platform

Custom House under construction as viewed from the DLR eastbound platform

Custom House Portal

Immediately to the west of Custom House station is the eastern portal for the Abbey Wood branch to enter the central underground section of Crossrail. The tunnel entrance will probably be visible from the platform. Before work could begin on the portal, the DLR track needed to be slewed over to make space. With this going on at one end and the refurbishment of the Connaught tunnel at the other end, worksite space was at a premium and it clearly didn’t make sense to start building the station unnecessarily early. Construction of the portal appears to be complete although, not surprisingly, there is not yet any track there. It was at these portals that Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM) Jessica and Ellie completed their second short drive.

Tunnel Portal

Tunnel portal just to the west of Custom House station

What is not known is whether there will be any crossovers located on the ramp leading up from the portal. Although there are no indications at present that there will be, a full crossover here could potentially be very useful in the event of a problem in the Connaught tunnel or the Crossrail tunnel under the Thames as it would enable trains to terminate at Custom House. Potential issues with putting a crossover on a ramp so close to the tunnel portal may, however, have limited options here.

Ramp to tunnel portal

Ramp immediately to the west of Custom House station leading to tunnel entrance and exit

The provision of a crossover somewhere in the vicinity of Custom House could be considered important as currently there will be only two crossovers located between Paddington and the eastern portals. One will be in central London at Fisher Street in Holborn and the other at Whitechapel.

Whitechapel Crossover

The next crossover to the east would appear to be at Whitechapel.

Custom House station

A visit to the site makes you fully appreciate the size of this station. Given that this will probably not be anywhere near the busiest station on Crossrail – indeed probably the quietest of the new stations – it makes one aware of the sheer scale of Crossrail stations in general. At around 250m long the platforms contrast dramatically with the adjacent DLR platforms (themselves 90m in length). The station building will also be on two levels. This is partly determined by the restricted width of the site but also at least in part because the island platform clearly cannot have direct street access. It thus makes sense for the station to host many of its facilities above the platforms, given that passengers are going to have to arrive that way anyway.

Forcing passengers to go up above street level to access the station is not entirely a disadvantage. On the north size there is the busy Victoria Dock Road so it makes sense to have the one of the station entrances on the north side of this road and have passengers cross the road at the same level. On the south side beyond the DLR station is the entrance to the Excel Conference Centre which is also at high level.

Flatpack Construction

Much has been made by Crossrail of the design and construction of Custom House station. It has been designed to be precast off site. This is claimed to speed up the process. It is probably a measure of the sheer size of the station that despite this it still appears to be a major job to put the station together on site. There is even a purpose built crane gantry in use to assist in this – the Crossrail equivalent of the flatpack Allen hex key so you can put the parts together. One is tempted to wonder whether somewhere, in the site office, an IKEA-esque instruction sheet can be found (as well as the inevitable spare dowel).

gantry and ibis hotel

Gantry for station construction. Note also the proximity to the station of the Ibis hotel

This construction method did have one other advantage from Crossrail’s perspective – the construction of Custom House station was out to competitive tender and the tender was won by a firm in the East Midlands and largely constructed using local materials. From the organisation’s perspective, this helped them to emphasise that the construction of Crossrail was of benefit to the whole country.

No platform edge doors

One decision that may be regarded as curious is the decision not to install Platform Edge Doors at either Custom House or Abbey Wood. Both these stations are on the section of Crossrail where trains will run under full ATO and no passenger carrying manually driven trains will ever call there.

In the case of Custom House the platforms do not appear to be particularly wide and they will be expected to handle the crowds who go to various events at the Excel Arena. One could argue that over a period of a year platform interface incidents are far less lightly to happen at Custom House or Abbey Wood as they may not normally be the busiest stations on the line, but overcrowding caused by disruption is always a possibility. The only saving grace would appear to be that, because these two stations are only on one of the two branches, some service could still be run on the other (Shenfield) branch.

The lack of platform edge doors at Custom House and Abbey Wood would also appear to preclude any possibility of running fully automatic trains without a member of staff on board between Paddington and Abbey Wood. Whilst Crossrail has absolutely no plans to run the trains without a driver in the cab, despite it being technically possible to do so, this could be seen as a missed opportunity – especially when considering the ability to have additional trains in service at short notice to deal with dispersing large crowds departing from Excel.

Regeneration

Custom House Crossrail station seems to be one of the few stations where regeneration may not happen on the scale it does elsewhere. It will service the Excel centre which is already a success and is currently served by the DLR. Otherwise the area is low rise residential. Notable though is the Ibis hotel, which is not one of the chain’s budget hotels. This is very close by and one suspects that Crossrail was a major factor in the decision to locate it here. After all, Excel on its own is not going to give high bedroom occupancy rates. Given the proximity of both Excel and Central London via Crossrail one suspects this area may well become popular with the hotel chains.

Abbey Wood

Abbey Wood station is one of only two existing stations that will have newly-built Crossrail platforms. The other is Shenfield where work on construction of a new bay platform (platform 6) and other substantial work is due to begin in the near future.

Abbey Wood station today

Abbey Wood station today

It is probably fair to say that a lot of activity has been going on in the general area of Abbey Wood since the start of Crossrail construction but it was reported less, or read less, because Abbey Wood and the surrounding area is not a place most people visit in the normal course of events.

Boring

Like Custom House there is a portal nearby, although not as close. It is located abound 2km to the west of Abbey Wood station. Initially activity in the area related to the two slurry Tunnel Boring Machines. These needed an even larger supporting site than the other machines since the slurry added to assist in tunnelling has to be retrieved from the waste soil for reuse. This site was located between Plumstead and Abbey Wood national rail stations and was originally intended to be only for temporary use.

Plumstead Portal

Plumstead portal located approximately 2km to the west of Abbey Wood station

Stabling

What subsequently transpired was a realisation that there was a need for some stabling sidings at the the Abbey Wood end of the line. This was because there is an aspiration to eliminate disruption due to engineering works on the sections of Crossrail not under Network Rails control. This in turn meant that it became vital that “engineering hours” (night time when trains don’t run) was maximised.

Maintaining

A further consideration was the need for a centralised depot to support Crossrail non-train maintenance. This would have to have an enormous stock of spare and replacement parts if Crossrail was to be kept in tip top condition and the Plumstead worksite seemed the obvious place to put it.

Changing

Despite the firm desire to stick to the original plan and certainly avoid anything that hints of “specification creep”, there is a third major change taking place at Abbey Wood. The plans as submitted to parliament and referenced in the Crossrail Act involved Crossrail trains terminating at platforms 2 and 3 at Abbey Wood. As platforms 1/2 and 3/4 would have been island platforms, this would have resulted in a very convenient cross-platform interchange for at least 50% of the time for passengers commencing their journey from further out in Kent and changing at Abbey Wood. Assuming Crossrail used the platforms alternately this convenient interchange would rise to 100% of the time on the inward journey if passengers were prepared to wait for the second departing train if necessary.

These plans, which involved some grade separation between Crossrail and National Rail, were then changed to have the Network Rail and Crossrail tracks side by side which avoided the need to for one line to cross the other. This, at the time, was generally viewed with disappointment as it was seen primarily as a cost saving measure that inconvenienced the passengers. It would appear though that the primary motivation was to keep Crossrail tracks free from being affected by any work that might take place on Network Rail tracks and could potentially force the adjacent Crossrail line to close.

Large amounts of work

The work at Abbey Wood does not just involve the station. The existing track from next to the Plumstead portal to Abbey Wood and beyond needs to be slewed over to provide space for new Crossrail track. In theory existing track could have been left in situ but that would have meant that Crossrail would have inherited part-used Network Rail specification track and formations which almost certainly would have been unacceptable. The linear site involved, on which there is much activity throughout its length, is probably one of the largest on Crossrail.

Slewed track

One of Unravelled’s many photos showing work going on between Plumstead and Abbey Wood

At the station itself there is the usual complex problem of keeping the existing train service running whilst rebuilding it. Crucial to this is the footbridge. At this location it is really essential to have a station footbridge at all times. The alternative route is very lengthy and not very pleasant as it involves an extremely long walk some of which is along the Harrow Manorway, which is an elevated dual carriageway. Consequently the first (and so far only) part of the new station that has actually been built is the new footbridge and subsequently the temporary station has been built around that.

Abbey Wood station footbridge

Looking west at Abbey Wood station with new footbridge

It is clear from the picture above that new platforms will be built for Southeastern services and the existing ones will be upgraded for Crossrail. They are already long enough so don’t need lengthening.

A small area of the planned “urban realm” has been built – basically some high quality paving. It says much about the area as it currently is (the most notable non-Crossrail activity is the car wash) that this good quality paving currently seems completely out of place. It does make it clear though that Abbey Wood is destined for greater things. Already Abbey Wood’s first high rise building is being constructed at a location very close to the station.

Not surprisingly Abbey Wood is due to get a new station building. The architects probably had a tough job. The railway really does divide Abbey Wood into two. There are various footbridges in the vicinity (all being rebuilt) but the main route from one side to the other for non-passengers is the aforementioned brutalist and busy Harrow Manorway. The plans do appear to comprehensively tackle this issue making access to the station from either side of the tracks as easy and as pleasant as possible.

86700_abbey wood station design - architects impression

Artist’s impression of the new station

It is not immediately obvious how interchange is going to be provided with buses. This is important because Abbey Wood is the most local station for the enormous Thamesmead housing estate and many journeys can be expected from there by bus to the station. One CGI image suggests that buses will be diverted to provide a service outside the station. Curiously it appears that on the far side of Harrow Manorway outside the station entrance there will be a new enormous canopy which serves no obvious purpose as there is no bus stop shown. By means of a contrast, there is no canopy on the opposite (station) side of the road.

Brutalist Harrow Manorway

Existing bus stop for station located on Harrow Manorway. Note high rise construction in the background

Not glam doesn’t mean not important

The eastern end of the Abbey Wood branch is certainly not the most glamorous part of Crossrail. This does not mean it isn’t important though. Unlike other sections, here there will be a significant improvement in services as opposed to a minor improvement in services with a significant improvement in potential destinations. For this reason an argument could be made that this is the most important branch of all. It will have 12tph in the peak whereas formerly it had nothing. There are only two surface stations but a lot of money, time and effort appears to have been put into ensuring that these two stations will be both an asset and a showcase for Crossrail. By being very much in public view they also give an opportunity, for those who are interested, to see the enormous amount of work involved in adapting and enhancing either an existing railway or a former railway.

You may never have been to Abbey Wood before, but you may have a reason to now.

Thanks to Unravelled who has taken many of the photos used here. As always he is comprehensively following developments and recording them. His Crossrail photos on the former North London Line (980 of them at the time of writing) can be found here with the oldest appearing first. His Abbey Wood photos (55 of them at the time of writing) can be found here.

Written by Pedantic of Purley