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 cafés 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.

No comments: