The state of the Elizabeth Line

The state of the Elizabeth Line

The Elizabeth line is just so tardy! Its trains are late, cancelled or stuck in tunnels for what seems like an infinity. Efforts have been tried by this blog to keep a tab on the numerous comments on social media (and in the mainstream news) on the huge problems that are the delays and cancellations which beset this brand new railway. Its just impossible because there’s so many delays, so many cancellations, so many days when the entire Paddington-Abbey Wood line is shut down for some emergency reason (such as closing down the line for almost an entire day for emergency works at Farringdon – and that wasn’t the only emergency engineering needed either) and it becomes a gigantic task to even try to keep track of the sheer number of complaints and anger so many have expressed in terms of the Elizabeth line becoming one of the UK’s most unreliable railways.

One easier aspect has been that of keeping tabs on the line’s state of cleanliness and in terms of that two articles so far have been posted with more in the pipeline. However a conversation arose between RMTransit and Gareth Dennis (October 24-25th) and a number of interesting comments followed. It was deemed prudent that many of these comments should merit an extra Elizabeth line post!

In my previous posts I’d often wondered whether proper testing had been done to the GRPC especially when one can see there are so many problems with it. Take the Moorgate link for example! The graffiti that couldn’t be got rid of etc? As the above posts (indeed the one by Mike Ashworth) demonstrates there perhaps was not sufficient real world testing for all one knows. In the scheme of grand designs for Crossrail (the Elizabeth line) its evident a number of things were overlooked in terms of design.

As Merlin says, the Jubilee line stations ‘work with the patina of soot and daily use rather than against….’ Also love the assertion ‘It’s almost as if they’ve never owned a cream carpet?!’

Evidently the white/slightly cream coloured walls of the Elizabeth line are so very different from the Jubilee line or even the more recent Battersea Power and Nine Elms stations. The last two opened before the Elizabeth line did and these haven’t even acquired the level of dirt/smut the Elizabeth line has. That in itself is an eye opener because if one goes to either of those stations, their cleanliness is far superior compared to the Elizabeth line’s core stations. How does that happen? Well its the materials for a start but also the ease at which the stations can be cleaned. At times I have thought about doing a comparison between those two stations and the Elizabeth line’s – but no – the best thing is to simply visit the various stations and see the situation for oneself.

As one commuter (their tweet is shown in this page) indicated, things seemed to suddenly become more dirty but the rot was there long before. Issues with the Elizabeth line’s stations have in fact existed almost from the time the stations were built, which is going back a few years now. One good example is the Moorgate tunnels – these had been dirty for a good amount of time before the Elizabeth line opened – which is why they’re so shockingly dirty now! It seems its possible dust from the Northern line above permeates these tunnels and that’s why the interconnecting link is so filthy. Comparison of photos showing the brand new interconnecting corridor and how it looks now speaks volumes in terms of how dirty the Elizabeth line’s ‘clean’ looks have become. Indeed if one compares just completed pictures of various parts of the line’s stations with those on the opening day too, it can be seen the prolonged delay from 2018 to 2022 also gave time for things to become grubby to a certain extent – and when the Elizabeth line finally opened a phase transition soon occurred and things were very suddenly looking so dirty. In that time period also, there’s been numerous opportunities for the London Underground mice to find their way to these pastures anew and discover all the nooks and crannies that could be used. Whether the mice could have been prevented is another thing altogether.

One of the biggies in the RMTransit/Gareth Dennis conversation are the ‘blast shadows.’ They’re not even new! These were there long before anyone recognised the significance of these… and their existence can be traced back to at least 2018….

Farringdon during the line’s opening stages in the morning of 24th May 2022. Substantial blast shadows can already be seen behind the seats! Twitter/X. (The posts are also at the Internet Archive so if deleted well there’s that!)

I captured most of Crossrail’s Twitter archive from 2014 to 2022 – and this from 10th June 2019 shows one image with blast shadows above the seat. Its the top right hand image and that is reproduced below.

In this pic from Crossrail’s now vanished timeline, blast shadows can indeed be seen above the seats at Farringdon during 2019!

Farringdon had a number of open days during 2018 so evidently those as well as workers sitting on the seats generated the early stages of what would become these quite strong blast shadows! The point of showing these older pictures is to demonstrate that coatings had evidently not been employed. If they had these blast shadows shouldn’t even have been possible because those walls would have been easy to wipe down. Invariably the central core stations despite not being open for around four years – the line’s opening was delayed from 2018 to 2022 yet those stations that were approaching completion were in fact manned constantly even after handover to TfL upon completion. That is because they had to have staff present in case of emergencies while train testing was underway. And guess what? Staff regularly used these benches as a lookout post where they could sit down and keep an eye on proceedings at the same time!

Now you know how the Elizabeth line acquired what eventually became recognised as a strange phenomenon! Those very ‘forces’ have been at work since at least 2018!

TfL staff keep watch at Tottenham Court Road station in the days before the Elizabeth line opened. Youtube. ‘Gotta rest against the wall, gotta rest right against the walls. There’s no way we’re being shadowed….’

As for coatings mentioned in the above tweet(x) its good someone brought it up – because up until now, barely anyone has pursued that aspect of the Elizabeth line. Lee is quite justified in suggesting coatings should have been used – because evidently these haven’t been used! Indeed it was indeed recommended that coatings be used in the new stations but evidently in due course that path wasn’t utilised. Evidently at some point it was deemed a simple wash and brush would be of great sufficiency. There’s a whole hiatus of difference between testing, what the manufacturers have recommended and what was ultimately decided in terms of cleaning.

Its as if no comprehensive plan was devised to deal with the miles of brilliant white tunnel walls, most of which is well above the capabilities of cleaning staff because for a start, most of it is too far out of reach. Even the escalator areas, in places these are so wide, that the areas of cleaning is limited. For example at Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road one can see how the cleaners have tried to reach over and clean difficult areas – but they can’t do and therefore thick layers of dirt lie of out of their reach. It requires specialist cleaning and most likely when the stations are closed.

Those blast shadows are fast becoming very noticeable ATM! Maybe its the winter clothing that people are now wearing which produces darker pigments on the walls…. even the leading transport news reporters are commenting on those shadows now!

This is Bond Street with some of the worst examples. Tottenham Court Road is perhaps the worst of all for its the busiest Elizabeth line station!

The Elizabeth line’s new material that is fast becoming its grime and glory…

One of the bigger puzzles in regards to the Elizabeth line’s GFRC (or GRC) panels (the former is Glass Fibre Reinforced Concrete and the latter is Glass Reinforced Concrete – but both mean essentially the same thing. After all the glass fibre is exactly that – its a special type of fibre that is derived from glass based materials. Wikipedia says ‘Fibreglass or Fiberglass is a type of fibre-reinforced plastic made from glass fibre. For this reason, Fibreglass is also known as glass-reinforced plastic or glass fibre-reinforced plastic.’ The panels are made from what is a mix of concrete and glass fibres, and the fibre, in its pure state, is ultra white. Its how the GFRC panels attain their shiny brilliance look. (My family owned a fibreglass factory for quite a few years hence I do know have some knowledge of the processes.)

The problem is almost invariably any glass fibre products have a particular weakness. If not treated they can stain and discolour. There’s tiny, miniscule channels (or veins) that exist and while these are not usually a problem because the finished product is extremely strong and durable, it does of course mean a coating of some sort is absolutely essential. It does not matter what, if its a car body part, a coach body part, or some specially shaped seating or wall feature, even flat roofs for example where there’s a lot of water present, proper coating is necessary and this is for two main reasons 1) raw finished fibreglass products don’t look nice 2) its to stop the product getting stained and looking awful and 3) such as roofs or other similar uses it has to be suitably done in order to give it strong resistance against water and it can be most suitable for that purpose. Yes one can sand down the finished product super smooth but even then, coating is still almost without a doubt necessary. If the product is used in places where its not going to be seen and its dry then that’s fine unless there’s water or other liquids present because these can ultimately destroy the fabric. In some cases the bonding resin used to make the panels can be used as extra coverage to withstand ingress – however if there’s any sort of flexing in the material then over time it can fray and absorb liquids.

This is fibreglass matting (but not the stuff that’s used on the Elizabeth line’s panels though!) Twitter/X.

On the Elizabeth line its not exactly ‘fibreglass’ (eg the fibre matting that is used with industrial strength resin to build moulded parts, to repair car bodywork, to make awkward shapes in locations that would be awkward to reach) but rather its fibreglass bits or particles. Not glass strands but glass based pieces. In many ways it works differently to classic fibreglass products. The addition of concrete adds strength while the glass fibre means the whole material is much lighter than a panel made purely from concrete would be. There is of course much less chance of staining or discolouration because there isn’t the ‘veins’ present for liquids (inks, paints, oil, water, whatever) to percolate into. Indeed its claimed GFRC can’t be permeated, but if one looks at it close enough it has channels, ridges, depressions and there’s evidently many ways in which some unwanted liquid could establish itself permanently on the surface of the material – especially if its not treated with a suitable coating that gives it extra durability and protection.

GFRC has existed long before Crossrail and its use has proved to be excellent even in outdoor locations. It doesn’t get affected by rain or extreme weather but that is because it has been properly coated. In short GFRC is a stupendous material because its light, strong, rigid, durable and almost impossible to stain. There are buildings around the world built with GFRC and which have been in use for a good number of years – and they still retain a white, unblemished, appearance. That is because specialist coatings were used right from the start.

In this particular case its however a question of the GFRC that’s used on the Elizabeth line. The material can be employed in practically any shape or form and it has been used to amazing effect on the Elizabeth line. Many awards have been won in terms of the Elizabeth line’s GFRC because it is innovative in terms of how it has differed from the other successful forms of GFRC. Even so, the design type specifically used for the Elizabeth line can still discolour or stain. If its washed regularly and with proper industry specified mild detergents, the panels would easily retain their bright ambient appearance – otherwise specialist coatings are without a doubt a recommended method of protection.

The above tweet (x) denotes its a lack of cleaning. There’s far more to it than this however.

Alas what it seems is on the Elizabeth line its that not sufficient cleaning takes place. There is ‘regular cleaning’ yes there’s no doubt about that – and there’s dedicated staff whose job it is to work through the various Elizabeth line core stations quite a few times a day in order to remove rubbish, to remove liquids that might have been spilt on the platforms, and also to spot clean the panels where needed and so on. I’ve observed them at work and have in fact carried out simple rudimentary surveys at denoted locations within the central core stations to see how often things are cleaned, with visits almost daily. I have made photographic records too and those efforts revealed various issues including the extent of cleaning and various locations within those stations (yes in busy areas) where cleaning almost never occurs.

The problem is that regular cleaning is needed and its evidently far more than what is currently done. Yes its a ‘lack of cleaning’ but its also the surface properties of the material and that is because there’s no prior protection – and that makes the whole exercise of keeping the stations clean quite futile. The stations areas are simply far too big in order to cover every inch of panelling – several miles of it in fact!

One would think the panelling offers a simplicity in terms of cleanliness, but it doesn’t. Nevertheless GFRC experts agree specialist coatings REDUCE the need for cleaning! Yes reduce! Ironically what it means is in that respect a lack of cleaning can be applied. The problem with the Elizabeth line is the lack of coatings cannot more than make up for the lack of cleaning.

Its not just the panelling but also other areas of the stations that also need cleaning such as the stainless steel panelling, the artistic glass walls and the escalators with their glass uplights, and its a major job in fact to keep the Elizabeth line’s vaunted, pristine, futuristic appearance intact. Several of the escalator shafts are really large and there’s all sorts of other material besides GFRC – such as stainless steel. The fact much of it is out of easy reach means the cleaning staff simply haven’t any due means of tackling every problematic corner of the stations.

LUL found upon testing the GFRC panelling shadow marked badly. Twitter/X.

The tweet shown earlier from Mike Ashworth is important (he was on the London Underground team for years as its Design & Heritage manager – and I can assure you he really knows his stuff for he has a wealth of valuable experience in terms of design types and the suitability of materials.) He demonstrates there simply was not sufficient real world testing when it came to analysing the GFRC that was to be used on the Elizabeth line. As Mike describes, the GFRC was shown to scuff ever so easily and marks just could not be removed. In the comments that follows one person described the Elizabeth line’s GFRC panelling debacle as ‘management incompetence.’

Take for example the following message which illustrates what could easily have been a result of that ‘management incompetence.’ (I wrote about this at length here.)

The Elizabeth line’s Blast shadows

Its the same with those seats – the ‘blast shadows’ as Gareth Dennis puts it. I had never thought of it like that before but have noticed others have used that term too so that is what I understand it must be. In retrospect its very much like the after shadow when an atomic blast occurs, or some science fiction movie where people or monsters are exterminated and this leaves a blast shadow on the floors or the walls. Those blast shadows are of course nigh on impossible to get rid of.

When these GFRC panels were first installed and the benches then fixed up against these walls, these ‘blast shadows’ began to show. That’s going right back a number of years but indeed in the early days of installation its evident that workers regularly used these benches and the early, slight outlines, of those blast shadows began to appear. Evidently this does inform anyone that the GFRC panelling had not been treated with specialist coatings.

Those ‘blast shadows’ constitute the sweat from the construction workers and people who visited the stations during those abortive open days in 2018. Its oils from countless passengers’ hair and pigments/stains from clothes. Examples of these blast shadowed benches can be seen in this video filmed before the Elizabeth line opened. You Tube.

Yes it would be possible to clean a lot of the stuff off but to do that means, well, a lot of work considering the state they are in. In some instances the panels may even have to be taken down in order to afford a proper cleaning. These panels took a lot of effort to put up – and they should have been dealt with in the ways the GFRC industry advocates, which is again that cleaning with cloths and mild detergents can be used regularly if the GFRC isn’t given any coating treatment. As for graffiti well that’s a whole different thing altogether…

Alas in terms of that there isn’t the specialist coatings not only that there simply isn’t the effort needed to keep the whole lot clean enough! What it means is the Elizabeth line’s celebrated GFRC panelling can’t be cleaned because they haven’t got coatings and the state of the panels have no doubt gone too far to even procure any lightly applied cleaning jobs! And when things do get bad – for example at Bond Street – TfL finds it necessary to use specialist coverings in order to hide the worst stuff!

The Elizabeth line’s smelly stations

Another aspect that ought to be discussed is the exceedingly strong smell of damp at some stations (namely Farringdon, Whitechapel and Liverpool Street – with the latter often the worst offender because sometimes the smell is so bloody strong at times it instantly floods into trains waiting at the station and its sickening. As for Farringdon I’m not sure if its because the smell is being pushed along the line from Liverpool Street…) or whether its due to water ingress that has permeated each of these stations – the GFRC gets affected, it cracks, more water ingress, more GFRC gets spoilt, and the damp takes hold and the stench grows to almost intolerable levels. Whitechapel definitely had leaks towards its southern end at one time but currently it seems okay.

The surprising aspect (if its a surprise at all) is the issue of damp was also apparent on the line’s opening day 24 May 2022!

The tweet /x shown below, yes it seems there’s a permanent leak (or leaks) and its not just at that location. Its been known at Whitechapel too so maybe there’s many sources that contribute to the quite empowering stench which results.

The most *delightful* aspect of this awful smell is when one comes down the escalators at Liverpool Street and it gets worse and worse – and then one gets on a train and the stench has pervaded the carriage too! Yes its that strong! Some days its quite mild however. Farringdon gets it on occasion so its likely that blows in from Liverpool Street.

Updated 31st October 2023.