Four years late – but just in time for the Queen’s 70th jubilee celebrations – the Elizabeth underground line has finally opened in London. Sharon Lam went for a ride.
New things are always nice. Even a brand new bin liner brings promise. If this = new object, then me = new person. I will never not believe this even though it has never been true. Slightly more impressive than a new bin liner is the Elizabeth line. After 13 years of construction, the latest addition to the London Underground transport system has finally opened, offering a brand new mode of transport and illusions of hope for hundreds of thousands of commuters.
Coming in at a cool £19 billion, the Elizabeth line consists of 10 new central stations and 70 new 210m-long trains over 118km of track, through 42km of new tunnels. Not too bad when a hot chocolate at Pret is already £3.10 ($6 NZD). Its opening on May 24 was also four years late, and because of a staggered opening schedule, the line still isn’t fully operational in ways I don’t quite understand. Some stations are not yet open and there are chunks missing, and it won’t be all joined up for commuters until 2023.
But none of this really matters because the parts of the Lizzy line that are open are nice and it’s new. And this is emphasised by the fact that the tube is not that nice and old. Had the line opened in Seoul or Tokyo, the impressiveness would not have been the same. But for the local tube taker, the trains have that exquisitely rare new train smell and the upholstered seats are saturated in colour and not mysterious dampness. In every aspect, the Elizabeth train carriage is superior to any carriage found on the underground, the DLR, that one tram in Croydon, or the overground. It has the critical stations and speed of the tube, the novelty of the DLR or Croydon tram, and the wider berth of the overground, without any of the discarded chicken bones, stuffy underground winds, or loud mechanical screeching. At least not yet.
But by far my favourite thing about the new trains is the lighting. At last, public transport lighting that doesn’t make you look like you have scurvy or jaundice, or both. Instead of antagonising fluorescents, the lighting is a toned-down, warm, diffused affair, akin to the pre-take-off lighting of a long haul flight on a decent air carrier. It makes you want to be a better person than the person you are on a stuffy too-bright Central line train. So agreeable is the lighting that I bet even Those People who pick their nose and clip their nails in a packed carriage would refrain on the Elizabeth line. Or at least, they’d hesitate.
The ever-important Elizabeth moquette – the fabric on the seats and perhaps the most defining part of public transport palette – is, of course, also brand new. In keeping with the tube’s other moquettes, it is densely and elaborately patterned to hide future stains and smears, which it inevitably will host. But for now it’s wonderfully fresh, clean, bright as the sun. It’s mainly purple, very line-y, non-offensive, and definitely better than the ubiquitous blue-with-red-circles ‘Barman’ moquette of Central, Jubilee and Northern line fame and ugliness. The superiority of the Elizabeth moquette is supported by the fact that the London Transport Museum shop sells a $320 deckchair made from Elizabeth, but not Barman.
The new stations also look very different. There are no subway tiles, no cute fonts from yesteryear. They are all cool, Dezeen-ready. Farringdon and Whitechapel are parametric in an organic, Gattaca kind of way and thankfully not in a contrived, second-year architecture student who just learnt Grasshopper kind of way. Canary Wharf is stainless-steel, high-ceiling city, with splashes of canary yellow and earnest gimmick. They may not have the charm of heritage stations like Baker Street or (non-peak hour) Tottenham Court Road, but since they’re minutes away from those very stations, they don’t need to.
The first time I went on the Elizabeth line was the second day it was open. There was a busker doing acoustic Coldplay covers at 9am, giving the station the vibe of school holiday hotspot instead of morning finance-district rush hour. Everyone was also walking differently, all vaguely unsure of their steps. This wasn’t a path that people had taken every day for weeks, months, years, to the point of mindless familiarity. It was impossible for it to be – the station was two days old and so were people’s behaviours in the space. Everyone was experiencing something for the first time all together, which almost never happens. It was a nice feeling.
On the train platform, the mass directionlessness continued. Many people normally have a go-to spot in the carriage that they are already heading towards before the doors open, but a new seat layout throws all that off. People seemed kinder and calmer, if only because everyone was too busy being mildly disoriented. I enjoyed the sensation while I could.
Yesterday, coming back from work, the novelty had already noticeably depleted. No-one was taking photos any more, and people were stomping around again with feigned purpose. A lady was complaining loudly to a purple-uniformed staff member about the design of the turnstiles (which are the same as all other non-Elizabeth turnstiles). I saw my first piece of Lizzy litter, a wet coffee cup on the ground. How quickly humans get accustomed to things. “Happiness is the moment before you need more happiness,” said Don Draper. Perhaps following up a four year delay with a carefully staggered opening is the best gift that the Elizabeth Line will give – delayed gratification on an urban scale.