On reading that London’s new east-west Crossrail route will be called the Elizabeth line, in honour of the Queen, my first thought was that this was extremely ponderous. A nickname, The Lizzie line, has arisen, however, and I think this will stick. The alliteration is irresistible, and I can see the trains being called “Lizzies”, as in, “just take a Lizzie and I will meet you at Abbey Wood”.
In the case of an earlier subterranean railway, the Baker Street and Waterloo, its nickname, the Bakerloo, eventually became the official name, to the disgust of the Railway Magazine which denounced it as “a gutter title”; even though Bakerloo was the invention of the distinguished-sounding Captain GHF Nichols.
“Elizabeth” will never formally be replaced by “Lizzie”. Transport for London could not contemplate that kind of lese majesty, so the nickname will remain unofficial, just as the underground line that stands on its dignity as the Waterloo and City is known to all its regular users as the Drain.
My second thought was that we are adding to the monarchical mush of railway nomenclature. Patrick McLoughlin, transport secretary, said that the naming was “appropriate given her majesty’s long association with UK transport”. It is true she did once go on the London Underground (to open the line named after her great great grandmother, the Victoria line), and that was more than did any previous reigning monarch. Was this enough to justify naming the Jubilee line in her honour?
In the interwar period, any unroyal railway name was almost exceptional. The Flying Scotsman was one such. It was applied to both the locomotive in the news this week and to a train, and this train kept company on the east coast main line (one imagines a hairy man in a kilt at a royal garden party) with others called the Silver Jubilee, the Coronation and the Elizabethan. Meanwhile the Scotsman’s rival on the west coast main line was the Royal Scot, hauled by locos of the Royal Scot, Princess Royal or Coronation classes.
The four big privately owned railway companies in the interwar period were in desperate competition both with road transport and with each other, so they sought the appearance of legitimacy and permanence, hence the royal names. It is always worth looking behind a royal name. The Elizabeth line seems to have been the initiative of Boris Johnson, pictured almost touching his shoes with his head as he bowed to the Queen at the naming ceremony. According to TfL: “The mayor has been talking of calling Crossrail the Elizabeth line for some time. It is tied in with the Queen having become the longest-serving monarch.”
I wonder if it is also tied in with Mr Johnson’s rightwing populism and his support for Brexit. To invoke the sovereign in the name of a railway seems significant when discussion of the sovereignty we may or may not have forfeited to Europe is to the fore.
I think the best names are geographically specific. These show a connectedness to the community without need of pious press releases about how they are so connected. I like the guidance of Westminster council, beneath whose streets Crossrail will run: “New street names should have a clear historical or local link to an area”.
Such names are doubly precious given that globalisation and the satnav have undermined our sense of place. I wish Arsenal still played at Highbury, not the Emirates, and I think the London and North Western is a better name for a railway company than Virgin Trains. To embed itself in its own territory, Crossrail might have used its start and end points: Reading to Abbey Wood. The Redwood Line? The eastern terminus was originally going to be Hoo Junction, which might have opened up Bakerloo-like wordplay but, come to think of it . . . what was wrong with “Crossrail”?
The writer’s latest novel is ‘The Yellow Diamond’