The Elizabeth Line showpiece station at Paddington transforms London travel with efficiency, capacity, space and light
It’s easy to take new things and progress for granted. On the new Elizabeth Line platform at Paddington Station, 30m down from street level, about two-thirds of the way along a modest set of stairs disappears further underground. It’s rather practical in appearance. Follow it down, wind along the newly plain tiled cylindrical tunnel, and you’ll eventually pop out at a typical left/right, southwards/northwards pedestrian Tube junction – this one for the Bakerloo Line. Coming from the Elizabeth Line – a cavernous, rectilinear, carefully crafted space with natural daylight filtering through the escalators and levels – it feels like stepping back in time. Bakerloo tunnels are tight here, cabling is screwed on the sloped walls and overhead, platforms are narrow and the air is clogged with dirt. Moving from one to the other is like glimpsing the future but being trapped in a never-ending past.
The experience serves as a useful reminder to what an extraordinary project Crossrail – as it was until recently called – is, despite its delays and overrunning costs, and quite how unfit London’s existing infrastructure is for modern human habitation. Much of the design and construction time on a project like this, as the Paddington Elizabeth Line station architect Weston Williamson + Partners’ CEO Rob Naybour explains, is sunk into technical aspects; structure, fire, acoustics, ventilation, environment separation. Sometimes it is tempting to think this can be overkill. But in the contrast between those two platforms, the benefit of these performance measures, are crystal clear. With light and spaciousness come feelings of security and safety. This is, after all, the first underground railway line designed for London since the 7/7 bombings.
To those who don’t know the station well, Paddington Station at the turn of this century was a complicated place to get into and navigate around. To achieve this kind of clarity in design, alongside introducing another underground line, has meant a decade and a half of planning, preparation, pre-emptive work and construction, as well as an overhaul of how the station circulates and operates via multiple back-to-back projects. Although these have been procured through engineers, Weston Williamson + Partners has consecutively been appointed as the design team on each.
The first scheme was the Paddington Integrated Project instigated in 2007, which relocated the taxi rank from the western side to the east, opened a new underground entrance to the north and created a relationship between the station and the regenerated Paddington Basin by repurposing and streamlining existing underused areas of the station, including the parcel depot. It also sought to reorder the station’s circulation along two new pedestrian spines either side of Brunel’s barrel vault station in a way that would free up the western side of the station alongside.
‘Crossrail existed as a concept then,’ says Naybour, ‘but there was no money. It’s typical of big infrastructure projects that you must not rule out any future projects by the work you do.’
Eastbourne Terrace is where you will find the new Elizabeth Line entrance. There had been many previous proposals for the site from Will Alsop, McAslan & Partners and others, but from the street, the built project is effectively a 127m long lean-to canopy that covers a new public open-air underground station. On the western side is the existing road, while on the eastern side, the canopy hovers along the terrace of 19th century station offices and buildings. From this angle, the project is more landscaping than architecture. Set to the side of the road, it creates a long paved pedestrianised public plaza that gently ramps down 3.5m from street level at the front of the station to Paddington’s concourse level, and back up again across 350m. Just beyond the canopy at either end are two symmetrical 50m long ventilation pavilions, executed, on the encouragement of English Heritage, using post modern-ish classical proportions with tapered GRC cast stone fins and cantilevered glass crowns. Together these act as giant cornerstones, delineating the project from the road and giving it a symmetrical grandeur befitting of the Brunel station.
The canopy itself is a simple open-sided structure with mirrored polished stainless-steel beams and a portal frame set up along the road that is supported by pins set in along the terrace. In the glass of the roof is ‘Cloud Atlas’, an etched artwork designed by Spencer Fitch that replicates different types of cloud, and appears or disappears depending on the activity of the real clouds above. Five openings in existing arches through the terraced buildings have been created to connect this pedestrian spine to the mainline Paddington train station. Frit-patterned glass panels front a former Second World War bomb gap left in the terrace. It all feels effortless and meant to be.
Paddington impresses even compared to the other Elizabeth Line stations
Indicated by a glazed lift shaft linked by a glass bridge, the drama begins beneath the middle of the canopy with a 90m-long underground void into the Elizabeth Line station. At either end, facing pairs of escalators descend 10.3m into a huge airy ticket hall. Here, the atmosphere and materials change from grey, steel and shiny to buff brick, bronze and earthy – creating a warm feeling that continues the brick on Eastbourne Terrace as well as evoking a cutting through London clay. Enormous props span the void, separating the new hall, and giant elliptical columns with flared capitals support the retaining wall of the street.
Another set of escalators takes you to the platform itself. It is surprisingly direct to reach a train compared with most experiences of the Underground network and it’s possible to look up and see the sky through the canopy 27m above and smell the fresh air. At this level, the station is still enormous – 240m long and able to accommodate 220m trains. It is a two-directional island platform with trains on either side travelling in opposite directions. Glass screens separate the train from the station as on the Jubilee Line, but here the top is closed too, with the space above the trains containing all the servicing – power, ventilation, security. Heat from the train air conditioning is captured under the platforms and travels to ventilation shaft pavilions at either end.
In addition to the big idea of the open-air station, there are several other particularly interesting aspects. The first is that the whole project has been designed to the imperial 10ft grid of Brunel’s station next door, this helps it slot easily alongside. The second is the attention to details. The columns are clad in bronze to head-height, the hit and miss perforated retaining wall into the void is designed to improve acoustics. The project was also commissioned with a 125-year lifespan brief. Everything is designed to be serviceable and maintainable. The columns at plaza level, for instance, carry rainwater from the canopy inside, and have conical footings to protect against vehicles that service the shops at night. Each component is demountable, accessible and replaceable. Lastly, the project was built using top-down construction so, for example, the concrete lily pad light fittings in the ticket hall were prefabricated into the structural grid ready and the void excavated underneath.
Compared to the provision for the Bakerloo it’s a quite remarkable and transformative experience of travel, but it even impresses compared to the other Elizabeth Line stations. The way you travel through them generally feels similar to the existing Underground, although they are considerably more generous. Paddington Station long needed a bold remaking and it’s a credit to Weston Williamson that it saw and created the opportunities, and carried them through.
The remaining thing that hasn’t been well communicated is what Crossrail does for travel itself. These are full-sized trains, but what matters is that they are full-scale tracks. It’s not just that any length train can run on them, but that any ordinary train can. Behind the scenes there is already talk of railway services that run from Manchester, say, through central London to Essex or beyond. The Elizabeth Line opens the mind to possibilities. Paddington’s station engenders the same optimism.
From plaza to platform 17m
Architect Weston Williamson + Partners
Structural engineer, M&E consultant, QS, principal designer and lighting consultant WSP
Project manager and main contractor Costain Skanska
Urban realm Gillespies