19 November 2015

Kings Cross Station: Making Commuters Very Cross

Kings Cross station in London is one of the rail network’s main termini and home to services between the English and Scottish capitals via the East Coast Main Line. In the early seventies a temporary building was erected in front of the original 1852 Grade-I listed train sheds, and around forty years later they were not really fit for purpose any more so it was announced that the station was to be redeveloped.

I am normally a bit sceptical of surveys, and the one carried out before the renovation showed an overwhelming majority of commuters didn’t want the station to be rebuilt – but I assumed what they were really saying is that they didn’t want the years of inevitable disruption. I was wrong.

One of the key parts of the redevelopment was to expose the original train sheds and open up the area in front of the station. This has been a success, but it has meant that the station concourse has been moved from the front to the side of the station, and this has had an unfortunate effect of making the station particularly awkward to use when catching a train.

If you are arriving at Kings Cross (KGX) by bus, taxi or via the Underground, in most cases you will find yourself in Kings Cross Square, in front of the imposing train sheds, close to the main platforms. Friendly signs say “No Entry”, because it’s exit-only.

Welcome to Kings Cross, but don't come in

Following the arrows around the back of the entrance to Kings Cross St Pancras (KXSP) Underground station brings you in to a new, modern and impressive-looking concourse. But perhaps the most striking feature, other that the roof which really is impressive, is the lack of visible departure boards or clocks. The access to the platforms is immediately on your right, but to view the boards, which are above your head and pointing away from you, you need to venture further in to the station, only to then retrace your steps to the platforms, which obviously means a lot of congestion.

Impressive roof, not so impressive passenger information

There are only a small number of gates from the concourse to the platforms as the side-on layout of the station means that you need to cross (figuratively, not literally) a number of tracks to reach your train. Passing through the barriers, the platform indicators, which confirm the destination and calling points, are arranged at right-angles so they are not visible. In fact they face the exit barriers, so people leaving the station can easily see, with a backward glance, where their train is off to next.

Side view of a platform indicator from the gate line

Regular travellers who know that their train will be going from platforms 0-8 tend to pass through the barriers and wait on what’s left of the old concourse, which is closer to the trains and avoids the crush of hundreds of people trying to get through the handful of entry gates when their train is called.

KXSP Underground station was redeveloped at the same time as KGX, but it seems that the respective architects were not on speaking terms as the entrances of each respective station do not line-up. As I said before, you walk out of the Underground to be confronted with the exit of KGX: No Entry!

There are two escalator links between the two stations: one is hidden behind the retail units in KGX and the other is a single escalator outside the Little Waitrose on the main concourse that is sometimes set to up, sometimes down, and sometimes just closed altogether – but unless you’re arriving in to the suburban platforms 9-11 you are not inside the station anyway, so need to use the stairs on Kings Cross Square instead. If you’re arriving, unless you happen to emerge from the Tube via the western ticket hall, the escalators are some distance away from the Tube’s other gate lines, and you’ll have walked the full-length of the station to get to them only to be carried back to more or less where you came from but ten foot higher, so most people use the stairs in Kings Cross Square and arrive at those welcoming “No Entry” signs. Incidentally, there is a summary departure board at the bottom of the KXSP stairs, but it isn't always in use.

The only departure board having a rest

I should add that there is a bridge across the main platforms which is accessible from a mezzanine level within in the main station concourse, but that’s where the main caf├ęs are so it gets very congested and there isn’t much room up there to wait – although you do get a good view of the departure boards. And, of course, the escalators to get there are hidden amongst the stationery, chocolate and clothes shops, and don’t line-up with any of the entrances to the station.

Shortly before the new station opened a map was circulated by the then incumbent inter-city train operator National Express. It described passengers “strolling to their train” across the bridge which sounded serious alarm bells: commuters don’t stroll anywhere – they just want to get to their train, get on it and go home.

I think it’s safe to say that whoever designed the station doesn’t commute by train and, whilst the new concourse does look good, the new station has been built in the wrong place. They did get some things right in the seventies after all.

18 November 2015

The Key to Inconvenience

Many of you will be familiar with London's Oyster contactless ticketing system that lets you 'pay-as-you-go', or use a season ticket on the capital's transport network, with little effort on the part of the user - just wave the card over the reader at the ticket gate, or on the bus, and off you go.

In an attempt to follow this convenience, Govia, the operator of Great Northern, Thameslink, Southern and Gatwick Express services (GTR), has introduced its own version for use on its services: The Key. It's advertised as a more convenient way of travelling, although having used the system for a few weeks the convenience seems to be more for the operator than for the passenger.

It's currently only available for point-to-point season tickets, yet you are still required to touch-in and out at each end of your journey. This is fine in concept, but there are some difficulties in doing this when the gate-line barriers are not in use.
With a paper ticket, if the gates are pinned open it doesn't matter if they are set for entry or exit as you can just walk through: no action is required. With The Key, you still need to touch in or out even if the gates are pinned open, but if there's a red 'X' showing on the gate it’s set for the opposite direction and you cannot use it.

At some stations, such as my local station in St Neots, the ticket gates are not used all that often and are mostly left open. If they are all set in the same direction then you can't record your journey's start or finish. And although you have a valid point-to-point ticket the terms and conditions threaten a penalty fare for not touching in or out.

Even when there is a correctly set gate available, if you are arriving on a busy train and amidst a throng of people, you often need to fight your way across the flow of people at the gate-line to use it.

It was pointed out to me by a member of station staff that there is a separate reader at St Neots that will allow you to either touch-in or out, but it isn't in an obvious place and isn't signed. The reader is only visible if arriving on platforms three or four from Huntingdon; it isn't visible if you're arriving on platforms one or two (trains from London), or if you're walking to any of the platforms from the booking hall.

Gates at St Neots all set to exit only

At Kings Cross, a station that is very poorly laid out for passengers intending to catch a train, most of the ticket barriers are permanently set to exit only, and as they are located where people arrive by bus, Tube or taxi you cannot walk straight to your train through the open barriers but must search for an entry gate in order to avoid the threatened penalty fare and benefit from the 'convenience' of your contactless ticket.

Fair enough, the smartcard won't wear out in the same way as a paper ticket, and if you happen to lose it the company will cancel it and issue you a new one (subject to paying a fee), but as for most people neither of these events are regular occurrences the benefits of the new system are somewhat difficult to fathom. It is also harder to know when your ticket will expire as the date doesn't appear on the ticket gate displays, so you either need to remember it or log-in to the GTR web site to check to avoid being inadvertently stranded at the ticket gate.

It's also worth noting that if you also use an Oyster card you cannot keep the two cards in the same wallet as presenting both to the reader at the barrier may result in the wrong one for your journey being read.

So whilst the concept of having your season ticket on a smartcard is great, the execution of it by Govia is poor. When the ticket gates are not in use care needs to be taken to locate a suitable point to either touch-in or out, which may not be on the route to the platforms, or if the gates are all set the same way, might not be possible at all. And if you make a mistake, the company can charge you a penalty despite having a valid (and expensive) ticket for your journey. Sounds like they've found the key to inconvenience.

I will be reverting to a traditional paper ticket at the next opportunity as it’s a lot more convenient.

10 November 2015

Lost in Tesco: 1 Carrot

So now we have the shopping tax, where if you want to carry your purchases home, no matter how expensive or fragile they are, you are obliged to give the retailer an extra five pence per bag.

I understand the rationale behind it: some people are extraordinarily profligate with their use of bags, and wastefulness is not something that should be encouraged.

However, whilst the concept works in places like supermarkets where most people arrive by car, buy multiple items that require bags but can easily bring multiple empty bags with them, it doesn't work so well elsewhere.

Where do you carry an empty bag? In your pocket? With your phone, wallet and house keys? Well yes, if there's room (is that an environmentally-friendly reusable bag in your pocket or shall we do a very old joke?), but personally I don't have room in my pockets for multiple bags on the off chance that I might decide to buy something - and certainly not thick plastic or fabric reusable ones.

For people bemoaning the death of the high street, introducing an extra charge is not going to encourage people to make impulse purchases. On several occasions after Marks & Spencer started charging for carrier bags I almost shopped there a few times, even getting to the till, before remembering that I'd have to pay extra if I wanted to take my shopping home (much like Ryanair's extra charges if you want to actually travel on one of its planes despite holding a ticket) so left without buying anything. I stopped shopping there and either went elsewhere, or waited until I was going somewhere in the car and could use my reusable bags.

Online shopping is going to benefit hugely from this as packaging for delivery by post is exempt, although it's worth noting that the supermarkets are cashing in on the extra charge by insisting on using (and charging for) bags for your online home-delivery shopping. I guess the attraction of being able to charge an extra five pence per bag is too much for them to resist, and they'll go down the one-item-per-bag route to maximise their income from it as you have no control over how many bags they charge you for.

And yes, I know the proceeds of the shopping tax are supposed to go to good causes, whatever they might be, but retailers are allowed to deduct reasonable expenses from the income received.

The other absurdity is when purchasing high-value items. Remember it's not just your weekly grocery shop that's affected. Your new £620 mobile phone is now £620.05. Yes, it's a mere drop in the ocean in terms of the overall price, but it seems unbelievably churlish to add that five pence.

Or clothes shopping: that expensive new suit or dress, jeans, T-shirts or items of 'intimate apparel' as our US friends coyly refer to them as, will all cost an extra five pence if you want a bag to carry them home in. Online shopping (with a mandatory 14-day returns period and often free delivery) is your friend as wrappings for postage are exempt from the charge.

Now don't get me wrong: I abhor wastefulness and, whilst I don't consider myself to be particularly 'green', think that reducing,  reusing and recycling where possible is eminently sensible. My recycling bin is usually full each fortnight whereas my non-recycling bin must feel somewhat deprived. My lights are mostly LED, and get turned off when I'm not in the room, and for local journeys I tend to walk instead of using the car.

Something which has gone mostly unreported is that where retailers used to offer a carrot to encourage you to bring your own bag, for example Tesco offered 'green' Clubcard points, these have been withdrawn and now we are being 'encouraged' with a stick. The beatings will continue until morale improves.

The question is, will a 5p per bag charge stop the thoughtless from fly tipping rubbish in the countryside? Probably not. Will 5p per bag change the world? Certainly not. Does the 5p per bag make it look like the government is 'doing something' about something? Unfortunately, yes.