In January 1863, people descended into underground London at Farringdon Station and waited for the world’s first underground train to appear. The Metropolitan Railway locomotive, pulled by a steam engine, its carriages lit by gas lamps, then ferried people through newly dug tunnels to Paddington, stopping at six points along the way. It was an immediate success, carrying some 38,000 excited Victorians on the first day alone – people delighted to now be able to dodge chaotic traffic, pooping horses and crowds jostling and jostling above them.
This week I made the same journey on the just-opened Elizabeth Line, a new high-speed commuter service that crosses under the city from east to west and connects rail networks on both sides of the capital. It’s a development that has made London’s commercial and entertainment heart within reach for hundreds of thousands of people (and has put places that seemed a bit off the map firmly on it). It’s a boost that the capital needs.
By my calculations it only took seven minutes to cross under the city on my journey – a key station on the line, Bond Street, is not yet open so we didn’t stop there, which saved us time on the trip. The stations are large. To cope with the extra-long trains, the platforms stretch far out and they’re deep – no fear of being knocked off the tracks by a suitcase-wielding tourist. It’s wonderful (although Mr. Brûlé might not be thrilled with the purple branding).
The project was far from homogeneous: overruns, excessive spending, a pandemic that called into question its objective. Critics said the money should have been spent in the regions, there’s none of the glamor of 1930s resorts, that Uber, electric scooters and bikes are the future of modern mobility . But in Britain, anything resembling a giant leap forward in engineering, especially one that extends rail networks to deliver high-speed trains or expands airline capacity, will always be muddied by politics. and spoonfuls of indignation. For today we have the Elizabeth line – well, part of it, as it will take another year to be fully operational. And judging by the buzz it generated, it will be a hit.
My trip was Thursday, two days after it opened. The Instagrammers were gone by then and already it was busy with people commuting to work, casually reading presentations, listening to music. As it did for the men and women who rode that first underground in 1863, the Elizabeth Line will allow Londoners to see their city in a new light – not only how they traverse it and mentally map it, but also what it is capable of accomplishing, the quality of life it can offer, the innovation it can nurture.
And there is another important train journey this week: the Eurostar to Paris. The Monocle Quality of Life Conference begins with the Opening Reception on Thursday, then there is a full day of debate (plus a night of dinner and dancing) on Friday. It has an incredible list of speakers and guests who come from all corners of the globe. I get to host panels on the power of photography, Olympic legacy and also city building, and this week I caught up with speakers and I’m really excited about what’s to come . If you want to be there, you need to email Hannah Grundy today – [email protected] – or head to monocle.com/conference. We added a few last places. This will be another time when you can remap your world and see things in a new light.
And I plan to be on that dance floor. Monday night I had knee surgery. After being pushed for months, being told I was probably starting to age, I went to see a specialist two weeks ago. The next day he sent me for an MRI, which revealed a torn meniscus. The next day, I was given a date for my operation. And so far so good – I can wear some sort of compression bandage that looks like a saggy stocking and have a shaved kneecap and a few stitches to garner at least some sympathy. As a parting gift, they gave me a movie of my operation on a USB key. “Quite fun to watch with a glass of chardonnay,” the nurse said. Well, at least that’s tonight’s entertainment sorted.