Crossrail: Behind the scenes of Europe's largest construction project

Most people in Maidenhead will associate Crossrail with being kept up at night – everyone is familiar with the repetitive loud noise, but what actually causes it and how much longer will it last?

I was invited on to the railway to watch the Network Rail engineers at work as they electrify the track – and yes, that did involve rocking the high-vis look.

In preparation for Crossrail’s arrival in 2019, Network Rail has been upgrading the infrastructure so the route can be electrified.

This involves installing supporting masts, overhead lines and modifying some of the bridges and platforms.

On Sunday, chief photographer Matthew Phillips and I met the Network Rail team at its base in Silco Drive, before heading out on the track.

Before we were taken out on the railway, we were given florescent PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to wear, a blue hat (which means we were not trained to be on the railway) and extensive safety briefings.

The reduced Sunday service meant work could go ahead on two of the platforms, but the others were still live, which meant we had trains fly past us every 10 minutes or so.

As we stepped out on the track and walked towards Maidenhead Station it hit me how bizarre it felt to walk along an empty track, something I’ve never done, and probably never will ever again.

We walked past dozens of people on the platform waiting for their trains, some looked up in surprise at seeing the six of us casually stroll past, but others took no notice – it’s not an unusual sight to see workers on the track during the weekend.

I’m told most of the work happens at night; this is because the team needs access to the track, which is only possible once the trains stop running. Further along the track we walk past the window of ‘Tiser Towers and Maidenhead United Football Club – great view, but sadly there was no match on.

As we approach the workers, Jonathan Harris, a project engineer, explains to me the work that has been taking place.

I’m told in order to install the supporting masts and overhead lines, the foundations have to be prepared which involves a method called ‘piling’.

Piling involves hollow metal structures being installed deep into the ground and the process is usually quite noisy. Most of the piles are vibrated into the ground using an RRV (rail road vehicle) and take between 20 to 60 minutes depending on the ground conditions.

A hammer then takes over to drive in the steel pile – which is a noise residents will be familiar with.

On Sunday we watched engineers put up the steel structures that carry the wire along the railway.

“We are out day and night making sure all of the infrastructure is in place so that local people can benefit from the new electric trains,” says Jonathan.

“We are lengthening platforms, installing a brand new signalling system and of course, building the steel structures which will carry the electric wires.”

The good news for Maidenhead is Network Rail says it has less than three per cent of the noisy work left to do.

As we walk back to the base, I’m informed once Crossrail arrives in 2019, commuters will be able to get to Bond Street in 41 minutes, and to Canary Wharf in 55 minutes.

Although the noise is a short term pain, it will no doubt bring long term gain to the thousands of people who use the station every day to get to work.


Matthew Steele, Crossrail programme director at Network Rail, said: “Electrifying the railway is complex and noisy at times but we have been making good progress.

“Residents and passengers will soon notice the wires going up through Maidenhead which will allow for the introduction of quieter, cleaner and greener trains delivering more reliable journeys starting with GWR services in 2017 and the first Crossrail trains west of London in 2018.

“I would like to thank local people in Maidenhead for their patience while we make the necessary upgrades. Once fully open in 2019, the Elizabeth Line will greatly improve the capacity of the transport network with new trains offering more frequent and more reliable services from Berkshire, Essex and the south east of London.”


-Crossrail is Europe’s largest construction project – work started in May 2009 and there are currently more than 10,000 people working across more than 40 construction sites.

-There will be 40 Crossrail stations including 10 new stations at Paddington, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street, Whitechapel, Canary Wharf, Custom House, Woolwich and Abbey Wood.

-Three quarters of the route will run above ground in outer London, Berkshire and Essex, bringing 1.5 million more people within 45 minutes of central London.

-The Elizabeth Line will increase central London's rail transport capacity by 10 per cent – the largest increase since the Second World War. 

-The trains will be lightweight and energy efficient.

-Crossrail trains will have capacity for 1,500 passengers. 

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