Elizabeth line: The Filthy Five

Elizabeth line: The Filthy Five

There’s Brexit, energy prices, food banks, corrupt Govt, ailing NHS, rail strikes galore etc! All these give additional considerable impact to the important work that’s… well… if you haven’t guessed, The Filthy Five! That’s Five brand new stations whose vertiginous sided, curved, dappled walls could somehow imbibe themselves as The White Cliffs of Over… Yet these stations no longer are the shine they once were and that after just nine months of service. In other words it seems Britain’s largest rail project to date is set to become a disgrace and that because of its filthy stations. Let’s find out more…

In the early days of the Crossrail project when they held those special open days (for a 2018 opening if you remember) many people oo’ed and ah’ed at the bright shiny new curved walls. Even when Crossrail, sorry, the Elizabeth Line opened on 24 May 2022, many simply went bats at the sight of his fantastic architecture. It was so futuristic and the stations brand new architecture was the subject of discussion and a magnet for photographers looking for new angles.

Elizabeth Line’s core section – a clean look that’s spacious, futuristic and the ultimate in rail design. But how long for? Source: Standard.

Even Crossrail and its contractors were ever so proud at their futuristic creativity. TBH it was good. But this good has somehow outshone itself for this clean futuristic look has the potential to make the stations quite dingy and down at heel. That’s because of the new material called GFRC which is a mix of concrete and fibreglass. The GFRC (Glass Fibre Reinforced Concrete) panels which are a result indeed have a sparking white finish – and its said GFRC can be used in any applications without needing repainting regardless of the colour employed.

‘These provide a robust finish to cover the rough surface of the sprayed concrete tunnel engineering. The panels perform well with daily wear and tear… Another function of the cladding is to distribute reflected light from luminaires and provide acoustic attenuation through perforated GFRC acoustic panels.’ (Crossrail.)

One of the recommendations however is that a special coating is used to keep these panels in pristine condition. That wasnt an absolute must however it is in fact advised by those companies who deal in this new type of material that is called GFRC. Specialist coatings make the material more enduring and easier to clean.

Farringdon – evidently before the Elizabeth line had opened. Source: Construction Management.

Farringdon panorama February 2023 – compare with the earlier image! It can be seen how dingy the station has become in just eight months. (Picture by author.)

Evidently one of the advantages of the new material was its ease to keep clean. But that’s probably a bit of an overstatement especially when it comes to the Elizabeth line… especially its ‘filthy five stations’! These are all of those that have the full works sparking white paneled appearance – Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street and Whitechapel.

Paddington, Canary Wharf and Woolwich don’t count because their design is completely different and thus they do not use the standardised paneling seen at those five core stations just mentioned. Some of the other stations on the Great Western Railway section which have been rebuilt as part of the Elizabeth line too use these new panels in certain areas however these don’t seem to pose such a problem as the five stations discussed.

If anything this wonderful new material has within a few short months taken on a most filthy and unwelcoming appearance. Sure, most stations retain a good ambience, but look closely (and that too in places that wouldn’t normally require a second look) and one would find the Elizabeth line has a cleanliness problem.

Problems noted as far back as June 2022 – barely after the Elizabeth line had opened!

Take the following tweet where MyWoolwich noticed a certain problem with the Elizabeth line’s stations! I noticed that three months ago and at the time I had thought ‘wow this is is shocking – in a year’s time these stations are going to look so dirty.’ But one doesn’t need to wait a year even! There’s already parts of the new stations that are so dirty that its almost a disgust. But it’s not just that. Its how the new stations have been built and indeed the platforms themselves, that are proving to be a great attraction for oodles of smut.

The lower panels (at floor level) are easily removable whilst the upper ones (perforated) are not removable (not without some effort.) What that means is the upper panels are bolted into the framework behind whilst the floor level ones are easily slotted in. This sort of explains why those higher up panels have holes in them. Its not just a clever acoustics thing but also a means of making these panels lighter.

Tottenham Court Road looked particularly bad in early February 2023 – it seems worse than that in MyWoolwich’s picture! (Picture by author.)

Those at floor level are slot in types. They’re solid surfaces because the means of fixing these doesn’t require them to be as light as the upper ones, but that’s also important because its meant to be easier to clean these lower panels. Not only that one wonders if specialist coatings have been applied to the panels to assist with cleaning and to aid with instant removal of graffiti.

But do they even clean them?? That’s a good question! There is some cleaning but perhaps not enough. It seems cleaning is undertaken where its really necessary, otherwise its largely a case of let these panels be. After all there must be several miles of these panels and to clean them in their entirety would take an awful lot of work. There are places where these brand new panels haven’t even seen any sort of cleaning – and they are extremely filthy!

The seat backs at Whitechapel aren’t quite as bad and that is in part because of the glazed artwork behind! (Picture by author.)

One other aspect in terms of Elizabeth line smut has been the escalators. Certainly a few have posted on social media the line’s filthy escalators look. These uplights are in fact cleaned, it seems its every other day or something like two times a week depending on the location – however the big problem is the fact they are located within the escalator housing makes this appear so much worse. The huge spaces above generate a lot of dust fall thus these uplighters (and indeed the escalator surroundings) are going to look extremely dirty. Its likely why the uplighters made for the tube in the 1920s and 1930s were actually placed on posts rather than on the escalator housing – and that because it was a much easier task to keep the escalators looking clean! And any dirt stayed out of sight!

Among those who have no doubt observed the very dirty escalator uplighters…


When the above person says ‘it seems quite a design fail as all it does is emphasise tons of dust….’ they’re right on the spot. The Elizabeth line’s escalators are almost an embarrassment. Its not just the bits in between the escalators with these uplighters but there’s also many other parts of the escalators that haven’t seen the clean side of a duster probably since the line first opened! At some stations the escalator housings are so wide they get dirty in places its hard for the cleaners to get to and yet those using the escalators can easily see the dirt and smut that’s stuck in these hard to reach locations.

In fact the dirty escalator uplighters and the escalator environment in general has fascinated me practically since the line first opened and I have tried to film the amazing patterns that some make, or even the botched cleaning attempts that have been made in hard to reach places – these alas leave an unsightly pattern. That perhaps is the distraction in fact when getting oneself to notice the state of cleanliness on the Elizabeth Line. Having been there and done that it in terms of the escalators, it then seems quite difficult to notice other aspects of the filth that is present at the stations and its probably because these are not quite in ones’ face as the escalator ones.

In fact it was the question of several panels that were missing at some stations (such as Bond Street and Farringdon) during January that caused me to take a closer look at the panels and then, as if by magic, the smut ingrained into the stations’ panels presented itself quite clearly. So I started doing photo surveys and revisiting stations on a daily basis to see what had changed, or whether there were any changes in fact such as whether any cleaning had been done. That as well as searching for other design fails that evidently cause filth to accumulate and I was quite surprised at what I found! Clearly its a case of having to train ones’ attention to look further and deeper – and its then that issues with the line’s design become all too clear.

Of course one wonders why they’ve built these stations in this style if they get dirty ever so easily…. in terms of ‘design fail’ it is exactly that. Certainly it would seem quite bizarre if one were to build them in the style of Green, Holden or Measures. Indeed the Elizabeth line has had to have its own mark much like the Jubilee Line, the Heathrow extensions, and the new Battersea Power Station line, however to style the new stations in such a pure colour almost begs the question why. Maybe it was meant to be a ‘space odyssey’ of sorts – where cleanliness and brightness is extremely important and the environment is suited to accommodate that – but it seems the problem here is no-one realised just how much dirt would be generated in a earthly bound application.

First, as in MyWoolwich’s tweet, its clear the use of the stations by passengers makes for some very unkempt appearances. The very design of the curved tunnel wall and the fact its white (and not even an easily cleaned material contrary to what is made out) means when passengers are waiting for the trains they are leaning or resting against the walls and dirt, which consist of stuff of what is mainly human detritus, soon accumulates – its the dirt acclimated in clothes, oils and creams in peoples’ hair, and so on.

I noticed this at the very end of 2022 whilst trying to work out the method behind the placement of the panels, the roundels the advert and the seating. So that was the first thing I noticed, but back then I was rather more interested in the design modus of how these elements were placed. However the removal of the panels (which some others also commented on) was the trigger which caused me to think about how the design affects the dirt issue. What was more endearing was Bond Street, which had opened practically six months later than the rest of the line, was just as dirty as the other stations, if not worse.

Certainly there’s quite a few other stations which are part of the London Transport empire that have seats set into the tunnel walls and thus these rely on the walls to form the seat backs. The difference between these and the Elizabeth line ones is the others which are invariably on the tube system almost always have tiled tunnel walls thus there’s no chance of dirt or other smut accumulating. The Jubilee line extension takes a different approach in design, as does the Battersea Power station extension and the new Bank station, thus once again there isn’t a problem even anywhere near that on the Elizabeth line.

If one really wants to see the brand new stations at their worse, their filthiest, I can only suggest that one takes a look at the connecting passageways between the Elizabeth line and the Northern line. Its here one will see what’s currently the very worst the Elizabeth line’s sparkling white clean appearance can offer. Its a dreary look, its a sort of grey/black, mottled, patterned appearance – and the sense one gets is that it has never been cleaned. Its not very nice in fact. And this is a good example of how the other of the Elizabeth line’s five stations could look in the future.

The lengthy Moorgate-Liverpool Street connection – undoubtedly the worse in terms of filthy appearances the Elizabeth line currently offers. (Picture by author.)

If the Moorgate-Liverpool Street connecting link is as bad as this then differently built or coloured tiled walls should have been used instead. Actually it seems the link acquired some of its dirty appearance whilst waiting to be put into service – which was something like four years! Much of this could have come from the Northern line thus it could be brake dust which for example has got ingrained into these new panels.

Dirt is to be found everywhere in the Moorgate-Liverpool Street connecting link corridors. (Picture by author.)

If one compares the Moorgate link with the Bakerloo line link at Paddington, the latter is exceedingly clean and very new looking even though its too white in colour. That is because it uses different materials that are easy to keep clean. The very first bit is ‘classic’ Elizabeth line GFRC but then it switches to this other style for most of its length – and the difference between the two couldn’t be more obvious.

The unpainted trains debate…

In respects this topic is a bit like going back to the unpainted trains’ debate of the 1960s and 1970s. Unpainted tube trains (actually aluminum bodied trains) were all the rage – the first examples were introduced in the 1950s and they saved money because they didn’t have to be given any sort of official livery – apart from ‘London Transport’ whilst on the earliest examples used on the District Line, red ‘whiskers’ on the train fronts – plus red banding along the sides were used. It wasn’t just that – these were the future too!

The next line to get unpainted stock was the Piccadilly then the Metropolitan and so on. All so far so good. The only problem was they were soon a magnet for graffiti. No matter how hard, the mark of the graffiti that was left behind could not be removed. One could say the use of unpainted trains on both the tube (and the New York Subway) was what kicked the graffiti craze off. By the 1980s graffiti on tube trains was very bad, and that prompted a rethink. Yes you guessed it! Tube trains began to be painted once again!

With the Elizabeth line’s five new central core stations (Bond Street to Whitechapel) its evident initial appearances was the design had the innings of being absolutely fantastic as well as providing oodles of light, ambience, plus it harked to the future, like ‘2001’ (eg the space station orbiting Earth and the ‘hotel room’ at the end of the film.) However the design proves to be a problem. Graffiti can’t be removed effectively because apparently no special coatings have been used on these panels. There’s one example of graffiti at Bond Street which has been extant since the new station opened – and even though attempts have been made to remove it the work stubbornly remains.

If one kicks the paneling or bashes it with a suitcase (trolley on wheels perhaps) or strikes it with some sort of implement (yes this has happened) there’s going to be marks that can’t easily be removed. In some ways it does ironically seem it would be better for the whole lot to get dirty because marks, scuffing, graffiti, would not be so obvious then. But at what point do things get so bad that complete cleaning and even any application of a specialist paint coating becomes a necessity?

In the next part a look is taken at several aspects of the Crossrail/Elizabeth line station design that harbours dirt and other smut. People will be very surprised because there are things that aren’t even generally noticed but they do indicate a problem with the designs.

Continued in part two: Wonky seats and patchy walls.