The jewel in the railway crown

The calibre of Britain’s railway stations has improved significantly in recent years, thanks in no small part to various upgrades and to train operators introducing enterprises such as station adopters.
It makes for the task of judging stations - all 2,500 of them - for RAIL’s National Rail Awards much harder. As judges for the 2012 awards stated: “Britain now has stations which stand comparison with most European rail networks.”
The most impressive of these stations has been recognised by NRA judges with a special award, five years after it re-opened to the public following a high-quality and inspiring restoration of its Grade 1-listed structure.
That station is St Pancras International - once a slowly decaying and fume-filled shed ignored (and nearly demolished) by British Rail, and now a Gothic cathedral, boasting a roof through which the natural light shines spectacularly on a clear day. In the summer of 2012 it served as a hugely iconic welcome to the UK for European visitors, when the Olympic rings were displayed in the south end of the train shed by its reinstated clock.
The station is served by Eurostar trains to France and Belgium, East Midlands Trains on the Midland Main Line, Southeastern’s high-speed Javelin service to Kent, First Capital Connect’s Thameslink system, and six Tube lines. Last year it was used by more than 22 million passengers, of whom more than two million used it as an interchange. And nearly one million people pass through St Pancras every week.
Plans for it to be the eventual terminus for Eurostar services on High Speed 1, replacing Nicholas Grimshaw’s interim terminus at Waterloo, had been circulating since the 1980s. St Pancras eventually closed in 2004 for a complete transformation, ending more than 130 years of travel between the high-Gothic landmark and the north.
A temporary station continued to operate while the restoration and redevelopment took place over the next three years, before the station was officially re-opened by the Queen on November 6 2007. Continental trains began serving it on November 14 2007, switching overnight from Waterloo.
The renovation revealed Sir William Henry Barlow’s roof in its true glory, while simultaneously creating a light and airy station for passengers.
The station complex is also now home to a refurbished Renaissance London Hotel and apartments (situated in the former Midland Grand Hotel, and which had been used as offices for British Rail for many years before being condemned as unsafe in the 1980s).
St Pancras International consistently receives the highest marks in the country for the quality of the station, according to independent research by Passenger Focus.
“St Pancras International has become an iconic London landmark, and an impressive first and last impression for overseas tourists,” said NRA judges.
This remarkable building was officially opened to the public on October 1 1868. As the architect who reimagined it for the 21st century (Alastair Lansley) wrote, St Pancras was “with the Eiffel Tower and the Forth Bridge one of the outstanding monuments of the period”. As the largest iron structure in the world, its single span of 73.15 metres would be unmatched for another 20 years.
St Pancras was built at a time when British engineering dominated the world, against the backdrop of empire. British bridges were being constructed on every continent, the locomotives that ran on the railway were the fastest and most powerful, and iconic railway names such as the Great Western, Great Northern and the Midland were establishing themselves in the fervour of the Victorian railway boom.
It was Midland Railway that decided to push beyond the confines of Manchester, Carlisle and Birmingham towards London, thus avoiding the fees placed upon it by the Great Northern, which charged it to use its tracks into King’s Cross. Despite nearby Euston having also been used for some time as a terminus for trains from Rugby, the Midland decided it needed something grander of its own.
Over a four-year period, Midland Railway consulting engineer William Barlow oversaw an enormous construction project that involved cutting through vast swathes of north London, bringing the railway to its magnificent terminus on Euston Road and dwarving Lewis Cubitt’s King’s Cross - not for reasons of superiority but of practicality.
It was in order to cross the Regent’s Canal at sufficient height, and it was the humble beer barrel that dictated much of the grid structure underneath the train deck. The Midland Railway’s beer traffic from Burton would arrive at the station, with individual wagons lowered down by means of a hydraulic lift. The spacing between each iron support is 29 feet and 4 inches - approximately three beer barrel lengths.
Today, the only beer barrels are at the Betjeman Arms, the pub located on the train deck level next to the Renaissance Hotel. And the space that the barrels once occupied in their hundreds is now home to a wide variety of award-winning retail and catering outlets underneath the train deck.
As a Grade 1 listed station (making it about as unique as a historic building can be), restoration was a long, careful and thoughtful process in which London and Continental Railways worked with English Heritage (EH, the Government’s advisor on the historic environment) to ensure that the work was carried out sympathetically.
“St Pancras was a watershed project for English Heritage,” says Ben Ruse, who plays a key role in promoting the station.
He points to the end of the Barlow train shed, where EH wanted a repaired gable structure and not a modern structure. EH also influenced the bright blue of the steel spans, exactly replicating the original shade - it’s officially called English Heritage Barlow Blue.
And while EH didn’t succeed in having the ‘old’ St Pancras preserved in aspic, agreement was reached to expose the undercroft where the beer was once stored. For the first time, St Pancras would be a two-storey station, with the trains all leaving on the original train deck level (as they did initially), or even one with three levels if the underground Thameslink station is included.
As architect Alastair Lansley noted in his book on the restoration, the most significant intervention made to the existing fabric of the train shed has been the opening up of four large light wells in the platform deck, allowing the platforms and the undercroft to be seen as one connected space by visually uniting the two levels. They bring daylight into the formerly dark undercroft, and provide a means through which escalators, lifts and staircases could be installed.
“English Heritage deserves recognition for its decision to agree to this major alteration to the fabric of the station,” says Lansley.
As a result, the newly created space is something quite spectacular and imaginative, and an element of which HS1 Ltd is justifiably proud.
Stroll through the main thoroughfare of the station, and the catering outlets are high quality, many serving freshly cooked or prepared food to either eat in ‘pavement cafe’-style environment or to take away.
The emphasis is on the likes of Benugo, upmarket ‘patisserie and boulangerie’ PAUL, café Peyton & Byrne and Sourced Market, while Italian restaurant chain Carluccio’s, The Gilbert Scott and Searcy’s provide for more formal high-quality dining.
Despite this focus on the higher end of the market, ‘High Street’-oriented outlets such as Caffe Nero and Pret a Manger still have a place, clustered around the newer end of the station underneath the train shed extension, and next to the Thameslink station entrance. Not that there’s anything wrong with BLT baguettes or filter coffee, but the international market at St Pancras demands something extra.
Having been involved with the rebirth of the station since 2003, Ruse is an evangelist for St Pancras, and on the type of market that St Pancras wishes to capture.
“Getting Searcy’s to open a bar here was challenging,” he says.
“The selling point, however, was Eurostar. The demographic Eurostar brings into the station makes it a very unique place. It’s an opportunity you can start to build on.”
Ruse explains how St Pancras is “something of a transitory station”. This might sound blindingly obvious for a train terminus, but the diverse mix of people changing trains here includes international visitors, domestic tourists, and commuters from the East Midlands and parts of Yorkshire, the Kent coast and the Medway towns, and Bedfordshire.
Adding to the mix, nearby King’s Cross (itself recently restored and linked to St Pancras by a subway as well as by a new pedestrian crossing) feeds in its own passenger traffic from Scotland and the north of England.
Finally, underground is a hugely expanded King’s Cross-St Pancras Underground station - London’s busiest. Each of these passenger types, and the vast numbers of them, makes for a very busy and thriving environment, a microcosm of the UK’s growing passenger railway.
Each and every one of these customers is “at the centre of everything we do”, says Ruse, who is an advocate of a different type of station.
For example, there is no all-encompassing departures board that grabs your attention the moment you walk into the station. That’s partly because there are numerous ways in which you can enter St Pancras, unlike King’s Cross over the road.
Europe-bound international passengers might arrive by taxi at the east side of the station or from the Tube at the south end, as might domestic passengers. Other incoming domestic passengers might arrive from the Thameslink station (coming up from the low-level platforms), or down from high-level Southeastern high speed or East Midlands Trains domestic platforms.
Basically, the numerous entry and exit points mean that the traditional flows of passengers in a station are not evident. There are no crowds huddled around a single point anywhere in the station, unlike other large London stations (Euston, Victoria and Waterloo spring to mind).
“The departures board is a very Victorian idea,” says Ruse. He explains that while engineers insisted on a wide - yet not over-imposing - departures and arrivals screen (there is one opposite the modern ticket hall, while another exists by the EMT domestic platforms), a large number of smaller departures monitors also exist throughout the station, such as at Foyle’s Bookshop and Le Pain Quotidien.
Add the fact that many passengers have smartphones featuring rail information apps, and many no longer need to crane their necks to squint into the distance at a wall of flashing LED destinations.
Ruse speaks of passengers, yet some 25% of St Pancras International’s visitors have no intention of catching a train!
The various retail outlets, as well as some of the other attractions and ‘shows’ that St Pancras puts on from time to time, make it a London hotspot in its own right, a reflection of the Victorian age when high society would meet in the long tea bar in the middle of the platforms where the Eurostar now arrives and departs.
The architecture, history, symbolism and ‘gateway’ nature of St Pancras helps to define the people who visit the station - and not necessarily to catch a train.
“If this is a landmark, an icon, for London, the nation, could we invite people to St Pancras even if they had no intention of getting on a train?” says Ruse. “It’s a destination in its own right.”
The opening ceremony itself back in 2007 must surely have set the tone for what was to come, with a Eurostar and Southeastern Javelin train arriving ‘on stage’ in a performance that demonstrated how St Pancras likes to put on a show.
That showmanship continues to this day - events that St Pancras has put on for its visitors feature artists such as singer songwriter Ed Sheeran, and the BBC Symphony Chorus for a ‘crowdsourced’ production of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, making use of the spaces provided by the Grand Terrace, where a hole was cut in the station floor where the original platforms existed.
“It has worked commercially,” says Ruse, having no doubt brought custom to the station that might just as easily have visited another fashionable central London venue.
Ruse praises the commercial side of the station, led and developed by HS1 Head of Revenue Development Wendy Spinks. He adds that Mary Portas is about to visit, too, though quite what the High Street regeneration guru is doing at St Pancras (where the shops, eateries and markets are thriving) is somewhat baffling. After all, this is the most successful station in the UK in terms of income per square foot.
Sitting at the champagne bar (said to be the longest in Europe, although that might be debatable - the bar itself is relatively compact, but the seating does stretch a long way alongside the platform) you are divided from the Eurostar platforms merely by a high glass screen.
You can be sipping a fine glass of Lauren Perrier at the champagne bar, while all 18 coaches of a Eurostar glides in, electrics whirring away and just about allowing a conversation between two people as it makes its entrance.
With the undercarriage and all the workings of the train visible, this defines the fact that this is still a station. It makes the international element of the station open and transparent, more inviting and less cut off from the mode of transport itself than (say) a passenger airport terminal and a plane.
The glass screen is a conscious effort to make the trains a part of the station, heightening the excitement created by a gateway to Europe, and perhaps a trade-off for the longer distances to reach the East Midlands Trains services at the far end of the station.
Even SNCF President Guillaime Pepy has remarked on how impressed he has been with what has been achieved at St Pancras. “It sets a benchmark for new international stations of the 21st century, and opens up the prospect of high-speed connections to other parts of the UK,” remarked Pepy in the Financial Times, upon St Pancras’ re-opening in 2007.
It could be argued that the new station looks almost more ‘French’ than its Paris counterpart, still retaining its essential Gothic Victorian character yet unmistakeably continental in its feel. On the other side of the Channel, it might be said that Paris’ Gare du Nord remains a somewhat gloomy environment reminiscent of the pre-restoration St Pancras of old. In an ironic twist, Gare du Nord’s roof is supported by columns made of Scottish iron.
For Ruse, the restoration of St Pancras is not just about the inside of the station, but about “bringing back the real power of the railways as a catalyst for change beyond its immediate footprint”.
He notes how “King’s Cross Lands, some 67 acres of brownfield site of prime real estate, lay empty and desolate for the best part of 50 years”.
But the rebirth of St Pancras and nearby King’s Cross has transformed the area, attracting St Martin’s College of Art and Design from its previous home in Tottenham Court Road, and regenerating vast swathes of railway land that was once a goods yard by connecting the station with Camden Town, the Regent’s Canal and attractions such as London Zoo and Camden Market.
The campaign initiated by poet laureate, writer and railway campaigner John Betjeman, a statue of whom stands close to the entrance to the old booking hall at platform level, encapsulates the efforts to save St Pancras, although there were a great many other people involved.
With its nadir well behind it, the essential fabric of a magnificent building has been preserved and enhanced for future generations. The narrative of St Pancras now is forward-looking and optimistic, and those who have been involved in its restoration and day to day running can be justifiably proud of what has been achieved over the past ten years.
The future looks exciting, with new examples of Siemens Velaro high speed trains set to serve St Pancras in the next few years. DB Schenker is poised (pending the clearance of Channel Tunnel bureaucratic hurdles) to run high-speed services from destinations in Germany in the next few years, while Eurostar is introducing new services to locations such as Amsterdam. Other potential operators are also in the pipeline.
As RAIL leaves St Pancras into the fading light of a Friday evening in mid October, there’s a man tinkling away (not untunefully) on one of the several pianos that have been installed in the Grand Terrace for the general public’s amusement - station maintenance at St Pancras these days even includes piano tuning, something pretty much unheard of in any other mainline station.
This is a station that has set the tone for the railway, and struck a chord with passengers.

Comment as guest

Login  /  Register


No comments have been made yet.

RAIL is Britain's market leading modern railway magazine.

Download the app

Related content