A grand departure goes uncelebrated

The opening of the first phase of the Jubilee Line extension was strangely muted. It deserved much better
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The Independent Online
THE JUBILEE Line extension has been a long saga of overshot deadlines and overspent budgets. When it was given the go-ahead in 1989 it was expected to cost pounds 1bn, but has ended up costing more than three times that, and is opening roughly a year late. So one might have thought a certain amount of hoopla would attend the official opening of the first phase - four stations from Stratford to North Greenwich (Millennium Dome).

The occasion called, surely, for a flypast by the Red Arrows, or at least a guffaw from Frank Bruno. In the end it was low key. At 6.30am on Friday, when much of London was still asleep, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, walked on to the concourse, posed for photographs with local schoolchildren, and caught the smooth new train to North Greenwich.

It didn't feel very momentous, but there was no disguising the tingle of excitement shared by the Jubilee Line's staff. For the past four weeks they have been running the service as if for real, only more so. "We just want to get going," said one. "I came here from Paddington in February, and it's like Christmas - I can't wait to open my presents."

The chic twisted-steel clock outside the station read quarter to three; the new signs urged us not to leave any unattended baggage; and there wasn't a train in sight. "It's a bit like a pub without beer," smiled an engineer. "But it's like they say: you can always rely on London Transport to take you for a ride."

Opening the line was going to make life simpler for the personnel. "We've thrown everything at them," said the line manager, Howard Collins. "About five years worth of incidents - derailments, the lot. And they've really worked hard. Actually, we had a bit of trouble getting away today. There was a bulldog on the track. But I sent my duty managers to take care of it, and we were off."

There was no champagne, no brass band, no I-name-this-ship spectacular. Mr Prescott fussed around with the schoolchildren as if he was auditioning to be a nanny, encouraging them to wave their tickets and shout "Jubilee Line!" at the cameras.

Fragments of a serious speech echoed around the stylish architecture of Stratford's spanking new station as he talked into microphones. "Turning point", "landmark", "milestone", "historic", "world-class railway for a world class city".

The schoolchildren tucked into bacon rolls or croissants and looked for autographs. And that was that. In a way it was a shame. The line deserved a more rousing send-off, since it is both a lavish engineering achievement - it will certainly alleviate the commuter nightmare that is Canary Wharf, and spark profound change in desolate Bermondsey - and a sprightly design success.

In the ramshackle surroundings of Stratford, West Ham, Canning Town and North Greenwich, the glittering stations look almost out of place, like caviar on chips. Big steel and glass constructions curved like breaking waves or opened up like the innards of a ship; they channel natural light on to the platforms and feel grand, airy and anything but suburban.

Coming up the escalators at North Greenwich, in the middle of a building site 100 yards from the Millennium Dome, you could fancy yourself in Switzerland, what with the Tory-blue mosaic tiles, cool steel, acres of glass and wide polished mezzanine floors. But it takes a lot to impress the English.

"God I hate steel," muttered a window cleaner, mopping down a pillar. "One smear and it's ruined." Others were more sarcastic. "Give it a few years," said one passer-by, "and it'll look like a municipal swimming pool."

There was some confusion, back at Stratford, about the exact timing of the launch. At 10am people were still turning up hoping to see John Prescott, who was long gone. The television news had said the line would open at 10am, and a recorded message told callers to come at 10.30am. So the railway enthusiasts who lined up for the first service grew bolshy when they were told that they couldn't travel till midday. "Jesus Christ," said one. "This is a pounds 3bn project. You'd think someone would know what was going on. It's the most disorganised cock-up I've ever seen."

The Jubilee Line managers were busy throwing an impromptu thank-you party for staff down at North Greenwich, where their general manager John Self could congratulate everyone on getting this far. But they weren't fazed, and let the early passengers on anyway. The service was running every six minutes, as per real. It didn't hurt to let a few members of the public ride in the empty carriages.

"I suppose it's true that there's a bit of a Dunkirk spirit," said Hugh Sumner of the Jubilee Line. "There's been quite a lot of knocking by teenage scribblers. But it's really been a fantastic project, and the people involved are proud of it. And these stations, the whole atmosphere - it'll have quite a transforming effect on this area. It really does open up East London in a way it's never been opened up before."

This is true. It will soon (in late summer) be possible to get from Stratford to Waterloo in 20 minutes, instead of the hour it now takes by bus.

So a degree of local enthusiasm is certainly in order. But Stratford station gave few clues that anything new was going on - there were no banners or signs. As midday approached, a patient knot of people pressed forward, anxious to be first on the officially open line.

The rhetorical accompaniment, when it came, was less than Shakespearean.

"Customer Information! Customer Information!" said the loudspeaker. "The first public train on the Jubilee Line extension is ready to depart." There was an authentic, unironic round of applause, and about 50 people marched to platform 13. Some took photographs of each other. Others flinched at the sickly purple, yellow and aquamarine decor. An ageing trainspotter, after waiting six hours for this moment, cut it fine and got his leg caught in the door.

Not everyone was excited. On the inaugural journey from North Greenwich back to Stratford, a passenger walked on at West Ham and said: "Is this the North London line?"

It felt as though it had been running for years, as if we had already grown weary of it. The staff would have been jubilant. After all the flak, they are eager for a business-as-usual feeling. And the new line has been designed and built to last, not merely to make a splash.

As John Self said, cutting the ribbon: "Let the thing happen. It'll be going in 150 years." Which is not long to wait by London standards.