At London Reconnections we often look at railway schemes and station enhancements but, perhaps inevitably, tend to view these solely from a railway perspective. So let us take a look at the area around King’s Cross, which as seen a remarkable change over the past few years and will continue to see further great change in the years to come. Before doing so, however, we should have a look around at the past, present and future of the area from a transport context.
Rich in transport history
King’s Cross is a particularly interesting area to study from a transport perspective. It has a rich history which includes canals, the site of the original King’s Cross underground station opened in 1863 with the opening of the Metropolitan Railway, former railway tunnels, the prestigious and grandiose stations of King’s Cross and St Pancras, railway hotels, goods traffic, parcels traffic, the route of London’s first bus service, buses in general and trolleybuses. It is a long list, to which more will undoubtedly be added.
We have seen what the area around the station looked like in the fifties from a transport perspective and anyone who has seen the Ealing Comedy film The Ladykillers will have a good idea how the streets around the station looked at that time.
The sixties decline and unloved feel
In the latter part of the 20th century King’s Cross was a rundown area. Certainly not the sort of place where a traveller would leave the station just to sample its ambiance. Next door St Pancras was in line for demolition and it took John Betjeman’s campaigning to save St Pancras from going the way of the Euston Arch. This may seem incredible today but it has to be borne in mind that not only was Victorian gothic architecture decidedly unfashionable at the time but also that the station itself was grimy and dirty, for the movement to clean up the soot-impregnated buildings of London after the passing of the early Clean Air Acts had not yet gathered pace. Taking this in mind, it is more understandable that people did not consider it a building of rich architectural beauty. After the disappearance of steam the enclosed station was also served by an early generation of none-too-pleasant diesel engines, which did very little to improve things.
St Pancras station saved but a lot of railway land is sold off
St Pancras station was saved but almost inevitably the adjacent goods yard was not. Whilst nostalgia may make us think otherwise though, we should not be too sad to see the goods yard go. The location was inappropriate, the reason for its existence was disappearing with the abandoning of wagonload freight and it is often the case, as it turns out here, that the availability of former railway land contributes to an urban revival.
The seventies sees further railway decline at King’s Cross
By the 1970s the King’s Cross area did not have a good reputation. Indeed for some the place was synonymous with prostitutes would be seen touting for business in the area. During this period it lost its service from the Great Northern to Moorgate via the widened lines. When that disappeared the rather quirky York Road Platform closed as did most of the suburban platforms.
Whilst, in the overall scheme of things, the use of the Great Northern & City Line to Moorgate to provide a direct electrified route to the city for North London commuters was a good thing, this reduced the importance of King’s Cross and the number of platforms went down from 19 to 10 (although this has subsequently risen to 12). A consequence of this was that many of the suburban platforms were no longer required, which meant that there was further land available for redevelopment.
With the rise of outer suburban traffic after electrification a new platform 11 on the western side of the station was provided by utilising the limited spare space which existed there and converting platform 10 into a double-faced platform. The disappearance of the York Road platform made it possible, eventually, when combined with a new location for taxis, for the former cab road to be replaced by a new platform 0 on the eastern side of the station.
The creation of platform 0 and the disappearance of the cab road mean that the last of the features linked to platform 1 being the original arrivals platform (in the two platform station) have now gone. The current platform 8 was the original departures platform and that is why shops, toilets and the first class waiting room are still located there but not on any other platform.
In the early 1980s the initial Thameslink scheme was inaugurated. This involved inner and outer suburban electric trains as far as Bedford being re-routed through the re-opened Snow Hill tunnel south of Farringdon. As these trains no longer terminated at St Pancras station a new station was created nearby with an entrance on the Pentonville Road. This was eventually called King’s Cross Thameslink. Whilst the new service was undoubtedly an overall improvement to London’s transport system it meant that there were now three main line stations in close proximity to each other. Furthermore the interchange between them was not pleasant and could hardly be considered convenient.
King’s Cross Fire – the low point
In the late 1980s there was the King’s Cross fire which did nothing to help convey King’s Cross in a positive light. The reason’s behind the scale of the tragedy are complex, but the trigger event was believed to be a smoker carelessly discarding a match whilst lighting a cigarette on the up escalator. This should not have happened because smoking was already banned throughout the Underground, but little was done to enforce it, particularly as passengers transitioned from train to ticket hall. The ramifications were felt worldwide from the Tyne and Wear ferry to the Tokyo metro as smoking bans were both introduced and enforced. For many years, however, it would mean that “King’s Cross” would be known worldwide, but not in a positive way.
What really changed the reputation of the area and initiated a revival was the decision to terminate what was then known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at St Pancras. This started off a whole sequence of transport related improvements ranging from a vastly expanded and improved underground station with multiple new entrances to a greatly improved St Pancras to make it fit for purpose as a welcoming international station.
The revived St Pancras station incorporated new low-level Thameslink platforms to replace the rather unwelcoming King’s Cross Thameslink station on the Pentonville Road. The King’s Cross Thameslink station building was taken over by London Underground for continued use as an alternative Underground entrance to King’s Cross St Pancras tube station but is closed at weekends. It utilises the passages that were originally mainly used for interchange between Thameslink and the deep tube platforms in order to provide access to the rest of the station complex.
Like Stratford station, the improvements seemed never ending and these changes were followed up by the opening of a rather spartan and just-about-adequate terminal for the Midland Main Line which was displaced by the international station, a new equally spartan HS1 domestic terminal and a much needed refurbishment of King’s Cross station including a spacious new area for passengers arriving at the station prior to boarding their train.
The need for a link to Euston and HS2
Nearby, in the future, we will see a redevelopment of Euston, the impetus for which has been stimulated by the need for it to be a terminal for HS2. This in itself looks like being a further stimulus for a need to provide suitable facilities for passenger to transfer between Euston and either St Pancras or King’s Cross. The challenge here is that the distance is around half a kilometre and a journey on the Underground really wouldn’t make sense.
There have been proposals in the past for a convenient link between Euston and St Pancras. In 2009 Arup published a report showing what could be achieved with an Automated People Mover. There have also been suggestions to extend the DLR to Euston via Holborn and onward to St Pancras whilst we ourselves have pointed out it would be possible to extend the DLR to Farringdon using the Widened Lines between Moorgate and Farringdon. It would then be a fairly logical progression to continue via St Pancras to Euston.
One of the problems with these previous proposals to link the stations is that, even if they made sense when they were proposed, they don’t really take into account the St Pancras area today which has already been largely redeveloped. It will be interesting to see what proposals HS2 come up with.
The development of HS2 terminating at Euston has also caused a rethink of Crossrail 2 and, whereas it originally was not going to serve Euston and just serve St Pancras, the current thinking is to have a double-ended station, Euston–St Pancras, to attempt to serve all three main line termini. This will undoubtedly be a challenge – not least because at the same time the next Crossrail 2 station to the south will be on a north-south alignment in contrast to the ideal east-west alignment for Euston-St Pancras.
Meanwhile it is important to realise that the redevelopment of the surrounding area is not just the usual mix of office space and mediocre retail opportunities. In front of St Pancras station is the extremely expensive, grand and historical St Pancras Hotel which now has reverted to its original purpose after more than seventy years when it was used as railway offices before being vacated and left unused. The British Library has been built on the southern part of the site of the old Midland St Pancras Goods Yard, the German Gymnasium has been restored, land was even set aside for Camley St Natural Park run by the London Wildlife Trust.
So what of the future of the King’s Cross area? A lot of this is clearly going to be tied up with HS2 and Euston. A priority would be to establish a convenient link between the two even if that was a pleasant walking route along Phoenix Road with the challenge of how to cross Eversholt Street. An earlier plan was a people mover similar to that used at airports but with a lot building having already taken place that would appear to be less feasible. There was also once proposal to extend the DLR so it could provide a service between Euston and St Pancras. If one wants a really outlandish idea then follow this link – but take note of the date.
If HS2 does go to Euston then Camden Council will undoubtedly push for high quality rebuilding. Unfortunately Euston does not have the attractive historical structures that the King’s Cross area has so one does wonder if the historic element will be recreated in the form of the Doric Arch. A challenge for any redevelopment plan will be how to deal with the residential area between Euston and St Pancras known as Somers Town.
If the Euston area does get rebuilt in a similar manner then there will be a compact area of Euston/St Pancras/King’s Cross/Camden where walking or cycling would be practical for journeys within the area, but of course to do this one must make the routes attractive. For those unable or unwilling to walk the distances involved one would expect there to be some form of public transport but buses may not be appropriate. Whether one would have something similar to a road train found at the seaside or something more futuristic is open to speculation but with Google intending to locate an office in the area one can imagine there being pressure for the latest technology to be introduced. With the EU keen to develop advanced road transport in an urban environment and Milton Keynes (UK home of the induction charged bus) planning to introduce driverless pods in 2017 this may not be such an outrageous idea after all.
Another area of interest is the area to the north of the area that has been redeveloped which is ripe for development itself. Whilst some may dream of re-opening of York Road station on the Piccadilly Line this would achieve no purpose unless there was spare capacity on the Piccadilly Line and even then would probably disadvantage more people in longer journey times than it would benefit – as well as be incredibly expensive.
More promising is the idea of a new Overground station near the former Maiden Lane on the North London Line – not least because TfL themselves have suggested this may be a possibility one day.
In the more immediate future we can expect to see a couple of bike docking stations installed. Indeed this area is really promising cycling territory and an area that should really benefit from short term hire opportunities providing the emphasis on cycle friendliness is pursued. It is also the case that TfL have already consulted on a proposal to make the junctions on the Euston Road outside King’s Cross station more cycle-friendly.
Probably more unexpected is yet another Underground entrance. This one will be located towards the southern end of King’s Boulevard. In reality this is probably as much about providing space for retail outlets underground as anything else but it still contributes to providing a more pleasant walking route on days when the weather is inclement. One presumes from the way that this will link up to the existing underground subways that this was not planned from the outset otherwise the awkward joining the existing sloping subway would have been avoided.
That is probably enough looking around King’s Cross from the perspective of the transport infrastructure itself. Next we will look at what happens as a consequence of this provision and look at a couple of organisations that have chosen this area to resettle and bring their staff together in one place.