In my previous post I praised the train system in London for the excellent way it got me to Euston even though half of it was being dug up by blokes in shiny yellow suits. That’s all very well, but it was Euston it got me to.
There are many reasons why I’ve always preferred to go up north on the East Coast line rather than West Coast whenever I’ve had the choice. Its not just the the view, or the trains, or the comfort, or the timekeeping, or my idiotic preference fro anticlockwise loops. A large part of it is that King’s Cross is so much a nicer place to catch a train than Euston is.
Euston is the nastiest of all London’s mainline stations. Forget the appearance of the architecture (cheapo mid-60s international style airport lounge faced in dirty shiny fake stone) forget the supposed desecration of what went before (I’m to young to remember it), Euston just isn’t practical. It is inconvenient to use. It puts unnecessary difficulties in the way of passengers.
The trains themselves are set back very far from the street. If you approach from the main road you have to walk across a barren Euston Square – basically a dog toilet with one gay bar in the ruins of the gatehouse of the previous incarnation of the station, then through then up some concrete steps and under a sub-Corb office buildings raised above you on pilotes, across a rough concrete platform exposed to the open air and frequented by drunks and stray dogs, into the huge main concourse (in winter as unpleasantly hot as the outside is cold and windswept) right across it to the entrances to the train shed which lead to long ramps passing down to the staggered platforms. It can easily take a 300 meter walk to get to your train.
Navigating through the succession of spaces can be a nightmare if you aren’t used to it. And not just for pedestrians. The bus station is an overcomplex figure-of-eight loop of tarmac which has buses going in different directions along the same route crossing each other’s path – you can get gridlock inside the bus ranks at Euston.
The concrete forecourt is raised up above street level and accessed by anything from three to twenty steps, unless you know to approach it from the Drummond Street side or the south-west corner, under the old Inmarsat building, or you find the one kinky dog-legged path leading up by the door to the toilets of the bar. Start anywhere else – such as the middle bus station, or the road crossing to Friend’s House or New St Pancras Church, or anywhere on the east side of the station – and you need to make your way up steps. Of course people carrying heavy luggage, or with young children, or who have mobility problems, never use a mainline railway station. Only healthy young car-drivers with small handbags get on trains.
Once inside the concourse your route to the platforms is obstructed by the entrance to the tube station – it probably seemed a good idea at the time to put it slap inside the main doors but in practice it means that only about a third of the doors are much used, and in the rush hour when there are queues to get down the escalators – or at any time of the escalators are out of order – the middle third of the concourse is blocked by a crowd trying to go underground. Things aren’t improved by the astonishingly stupid siting of the information office which can easily have queues of thirty or so people waiting for it, sticking out into the concourse at right angles to the queue for the tube, making an L-shaped block of humanity breaking the concourse into separate zones. You will probably be in the wrong one.
It is as if the building wants the public to come in from underground or by taxi or car – there is no clear pedestrian route in and out from the busses or the street to trains. As if only inferior and unimportant people came by bus or on foot. The whole structure turns its back, or more accurately its side, against the people and looks in on itself, presenting barrier after barrier to anyone trying to access the inner sanctum where there are actually trains. It is unfriendly and intimidating especially to people with mobility problems, or who have a lot of luggage. The message is that passengers don’t count, you are merely on one of the many things a modern train needs to be provisioned with. Wait your turn.
And things are worse if you do have to wait. Passengers are herded into the rectangular concourse to wait for their trains. There is nowhere to sit. The area is too large to feel safe or comfortable in, too obstructed by the entrance to the underground, by tat shops and concessions to move around easily in, too far from the ticket office or the toilets or the bars.
And they make you wait. Like at Victoria or Liverpool Street (though unlike King’s Cross and perhaps Paddington) they are in the habit of not announcing the platform your train is to leave from until about five to ten minutes before hand. Sometimes not even that. Then there is a huge long walk down the ramp and along to the trains (your seat reservation is always at the far end unless you pay extra) Anyone with the slightest mobility problem has the greatest trouble getting there in the time allowed – you have to guess the end of the station you will be directed to (it has to be a guess as you can’t see the trains, they are hidden at the bottom of the ramps), and move towards the platform in time, obscuring your view of the big board which is deliberately placed to encourage you to stand as far as possible from the trains. And there is nowhere to sit If you have difficulty standing or walking Euston is not a welcoming place.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Victoria copes with perhaps four or five times the throughput of passengers in a similar-sized space, yet feels much less demeaning. When there are crowds gathered, at rush hour or if there are serious delays, there is a buzz about Victoria station, while Euston merely feels oppressive. Kings Cross is tiny by comparison, has about the same number of passengers as Euston (maybe even more) yet fits us into what is actually a rather pleasant space – or at least an interesting one. You can sit in a bar or cafe and see your train and the announcement boards. Charing Cross is even smaller, and has a similar number of passengers to Euston, though as an almost entirely commuter station it has less luggage an and averagely more sussed passenger.
Euston numbers platforms from left to right as passengers look at them.
Short of complete demolition and rebuilding its probably too late to do anything much about the layout now. But it could be improved. Strip out the kiosks and concessions, move them all outside, open up the concourse space, put in chairs or benches. Redirect the queues for info and taxis. Put some ticket machines in the concourse. Announce platform numbers BEFORE boarding starts. Maybe there is even room for a mezzanine floor at the front, or some retail in the airspace above the trainshed (as at Victoria or Liverpool Street).
Improve the outside. Remove the existing blocky little slab rooves cantilevered out of the front and put in much larger and higher and lighter ones – curved to avoid shading the very nice Robinia trees – to keep rain and a little sun off anyone waiting there. Move more of the sales outlets outside, replace crappy concrete tables with nice round wooden ones and a lot more seating, refocus the shops on the east side to to face more out into square. Simplify and re-route the buses.
But the best thing would be to tear it all down and start again. Ideally do something imaginative. But even if there is no imagination to be found, a retro copy of a typical 1860s terminus would be better than what is there now.