Thursday, January 03, 2008

The New St Pancras

So, after all the hype, I've now managed to visit the rebuilt St. Pancras Station no fewer than four times. And I think it's not great. Why?

Well, the structure itself is spectacular - but then we knew that already, ever since 1867. The civil engineering of it is pretty damn impressive too; huge tunnels and bridges, the top of the station undercroft turned into a vast raft to support the new station, a ride at 186mph through the guts of Dagenham, down past the Queen Elizabeth bridge and off into Kent that's even smoother than on the French side.

But the architecture? Ah. I suspect a lot of influential people were deceived by the romance of the great project, and their affection for the original building; because it is nowhere near as good as it should be. On the good side, the device of putting the Eurostar check-in function, the ticket offices, and the security checkpoints under the platforms works, and it creates clear and step-free walking routes all the way along two levels of the building. You can pass very quickly from the Tube into the Eurostar, or from the car parks into the station.

Unfortunately, getting out of the station into the Tube is a lot worse; and generally, transferring is worse than it should be. The problem is that the approach that embodies all the architecture critics' favourite things is the one real people will never take; through the grand main entrance. Nobody really walks along the Euston Road, and the cabs pull up elsewhere, and anyway the entrance is currently blocked by plywood hoardings. (It's not finished, of course.) That one will, indeed, bring you straight into the grand trainshed face to face with the trains, without a shop in sight.

However, the whole point of St. Pancras/Kings Cross is that two main lines, the Eurostar, two regional (Thameslink and WAGN) networks, two suburban networks (Midland and Great Northern Electrics) and six tube lines go into it. If you are catching a train here you have probably arrived on a train; if you are arriving here by train you are probably going to catch another to finish your journey. This way - the way the gigantic majority of its users will come - you are in fact dumped directly into a shopping centre.

Worse, the main flow between St. Pancras and the tube crosses the area where people wait to meet arrivals from the Continent, which is in any case hopelessly under-sized. A concrete staircase abutment opposite the exit guarantees precisely half a corridor width here. There is a closed, locked gateway at least twice its width leading into the spacious area where the Eurostar check-in is located; this is a blunder.

So far I can find precisely two public toilets; one of which (at the tube end, on the main walkway, opposite the arrivals) is missing any sign of which is the gents, so staff have plastered bits of paper to it. The queue suggests that the ladies' is underscaled, as is traditional; the gents is probably too small as well. Signage is terrible throughout; the signs are poorly designed and there are hardly any, and some of them lie. At the taxi rank, there is a sign reading TAXIS with an arrow pointing to the Tube station; someone has plastered a ragged paper sign to a nearby pillar pointing in a direction 90 degrees from it. A small favela of portable signs is already growing.

Leaving the station with all the other people on your train, you find yourself in the Tube; unfortunately there are stairs immediately before the ticket hall and the lift queues extend across the underscaled space in which the crowd makes a 90 degree left turn. Then there is a tiny ticket hall, where the ticket queues fill the available space so the gangway through it is obstructed. There is no visual grammar to this space at all - at least the Underground's signage is better. As far as all public spaces and shared infrastructure go, it seems the architects worked from London & Continental's traffic forecast...the one drawn up for the tax lawyers, not the one drawn up to get money out of the Government. In a sense, the whole thing matches this; it feels like a film set for a station, not a station, a private sector enterprise pretending to be a public space.

For God's sake, let's all hope they don't opt for the stupid version of Crossrail, running south of Oxford Street - this would mean the Northern Line would be permanently dysfunctional, having to disperse all St Pancras passengers to the planned Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station. For all other issues on this, I refer you to these guys.

Oh yes, and the "longest champagne bar in Europe" is a chiz; it's not actually one continuous bar.

11 comments:

Phil said...

This way - the way the gigantic majority of its users will come - you are in fact dumped directly into a shopping centre.

Are you seriously suggesting this is - from the designers' p.o.v. - a bug and not a feature?

john b said...

"this would mean the Northern Line would be permanently dysfunctional, having to disperse all St Pancras passengers to the planned Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station"

eh? KXSP passengers for Crossrail would get the Thameslink or the SSL to Farringdon. The Northern Line doesn't even run from KXSP to TCR.

Interesting review though, largely in line with my thoughts. I'm hoping that - now the station is under Network Rail management rather than LCR - they'll redo all the (appalling) signs once it's fully open; NR are generally good at signing major termini.

It's also likely that the Northern Ticket Hall opening in a couple of years will make life a lot easier when interchanging from EMT/FCC/Southcentral to the tube...

Alex said...

Of course it's a feature from the owners' point of view; my point is that the media and the world at large was successfully hoodwinked with regard to this.

JB: You're right. My point is more that any Crossrail layout that misses the main railway stations is going to be part of the problem, not the solution, because it will actually worsen the strain on transport in central London.

Tom said...

Interesting observations. I (along with missus and what turned out to be an ill four year old) went through SPI just before Christmas, very early am and late evening on a day trip to Brussels.

Signing is indeed awful - there's no sign for the Eurostar check-in from the right-hand of the arches coming from the tube hall lift into the station - I had to go back into the tube hall and come in through another arch before I spotted one, too close and too high to be easily readable - this is with me having recently read the Modern Railways in-depth on the station, so what it's like for Joe Public I can't imagine.

The tube hall (under the ramp) I thought was rather impressive, but remember that the tube work is only half done - the northern ticket hall (2010) is the key bit along with moving Kings Cross to face west instead of south - the tight southern entrance to the arcade will presumably be a secondary rather than primary way in to the building then. SPI designers had the rather unenviable task of redesigning the station to accept entrance from nearly every direction* while constrained by having to start from an existing design which let you in from one. Forty years ago they'd have knocked the lot down and built another Euston, so I don't think it's too bad a job, considering. I thought we liked evolutionary engineering round these parts?

The only other criticisms I had are the sheer size of the E* departure lounge and the sheer tiny uselessness of the coffee shop and WHSmiths in there, which combined had a queue across the width of the lounge at 7:45am.

Commercialisation - the website for SPI has 'EAT DRINK SHOP TRAVEL' in that order, which rather gives the game away. Oddly enough, given the shopping centre feel of the place, the rush of clearing check in and security left no time for any shopping and the queue in the lounge didn't appeal much either, particularly given that two hours later I could doubtless get a better, cheaper coffee in a relaxing Brussels cafe. Possibly the shopping is more for EMT/FCC travellers, since it's more towards the northern end.

Crossrail - just get the bloody thing built, already. The best is the enemy of the good, and the Tube flows will look radically different even with the current plans. I'm not sure making one line channel more than two of the north-of-river main stations is a terribly good idea, and it needs to be a success as soon as possible so we can get a second (or, given that Thameslink 20whenever is effectively another Crossrail, a third) line built, probably NE-SW. Isn't Liverpool St. the busiest station in the country now?

* West from Euston/Midland Road, east from taxis/buses/KX/northern tube hall, south from the current tube hall and Euston Road, north from STPILL/EMT/Kent Domestic platforms. You can probably add 'vertically downwards from E* arrivals', too.

Alex said...

Forty years ago they'd have knocked the lot down and built another Euston, so I don't think it's too bad a job, considering. I thought we liked evolutionary engineering round these parts?

Ha. It's going to be very interesting to watch the building learn, in a Stewart Brand sort of fashion. (Received an e-mail from an architect saying that they should have built a much more spectacular roof for the extension; but then he reckons "Rome is broken"...architects, eh.)

Tom said...

Staff sticking up bits of useful paper to help people sounds evolutionary to me. It also really derails the station's corporate identity, which is just another of the good points of that sort of thing. Luckily signing isn't expensive and fundamental to fix.

If we're talking evolutionary engineering and stations, the original Euston probably classes as a dead end while Kings Cross (and for that matter the Barlow train shed) epitomise a useful rule of thumb - the less complicated you keep it at the start, the less complicated it is to adapt it when the world changes (try applying this to software design) and thus it stays more efficient more of the time.

The roof extension is quite unassuming from inside, I thought. Aerial photographs make it look a lot more intrusive, but who arrives at stations from above? It does its job and doesn't distract you from the glory of the main roof.

Robert said...

Sounds like the signage required should read something like this:

"London is full! Go away!"

Alex said...

You missed "Warning: many other places are worse".

Anonymous said...

It's probably me getting old but I find good, clear signage increasingly rare anywhere. My theory is that designers consider it's uncool to have a big obvious sign saying "toilets this way". Better to let the plebs piss themselves.

Tom said...

Waterloo yesterday still had signs up pointing to the International station...

Tom said...

Waterloo yesterday still had signs up pointing to the International station...

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