Does Kings Cross need a second tube station?

York Way. Image: Ewan Munro/Wikipedia Commons.

King’s Cross Central is one of the larger re-development projects currently underway in in central London. A decade in, the area now plays host to the Guardian’s London offices, the Central St. Martin’s art school and an obnoxiously large branch of Waitrose. Only last month, indeed, King’s Cross Central played host to the greatest share of events for the Lumiere light festival. All very prestigious – enough, indeed, to earn the area a shiny new postcode, N1C.

What it hasn’t earned it is a new tube station. Okay, there’s King’s Cross St. Pancras itself, at the area’s southern tip, but the northern end of the development zone is as much as 1km from there. And the rebranding of Nine Elms and Battersea to house the new American Embassy, remember, merited the development of two additional stops and an entirely new branch of the Northern Line.

The partnership behind King’s Cross Central presumably thought that the existing – admittedly, rather large – station would be more than enough. But what if it’s not? King’s Cross is a very busy and congested station, especially at rush hour, when people will be traveling to and from the majority of developments in King’s Cross Central. Buses are an option too, of course – but only one bus stop serves the northern fringe of the development, the 390’s stop on York Way.

This is where abandoned stations come into the mix. Inquisitive visitors to King’s Cross Central might have noticed the Leslie Green-esque building on York Way, in the north-eastern corner of the N1C area. That’s the old York Road tube station, where Piccadilly line trains used to stop between King’s Cross St. Pancras and Caledonian Road. It opened in 1906, but closed, due to lack of use, in 1932.

A map showing the two abandoned stations.

Various entities, from councils to contractors, have proposed re-opening the station as a solution to the area’s transport needs. But it wouldn’t come cheap, and anyway, it would increase journey times on the line as a whole. The result, Transport for London thinks, would be an economic cost that outstrips the benefits of a decongested Piccadilly Line platform.

There is another option. Maiden Lane station once lay between Camden Road and Caledonian Road & Barnsbury stations on what is now the London Overground. Little modern trace exists, but re-opening the station would be far, far cheaper than re-opening York Road (an estimated £8m, rather than £40m). That makes it a far more plausible option to serve the northern end of Kings Cross.


But why should we be choosing between Maiden Lane and York Road? Why not go the full hog, and open both?

A combined Maiden Lane/York Road Piccadilly/Overground interchange would offer a number of advantages compared to the less ambitious alternatives. To the west, Camden Town station is up for redevelopment, in part to improve interchange with Camden Road. Once complete, the stations might well become a popular interchange between the Overground and the Northern Line. To the east, Highbury and Islington already is a popular interchange between NR, Overground and Victoria lines.

That would leave the Piccadilly line as the only tube line in this area without interchange with the Overground. True, Caledonian Road & Barnsbury already offers a rarely used out-of-station interchange (OSI) with Caledonian Road; but it’s an inconvenient walk through an inconvenient location, unappealing to travellers.

If TfL reopened a new York Way station, designed to provide an interchange between Picadilly and Overground, travellers looking to change to the northbound Victoria or Northern lines could take the Overground at York Way to H&I or Camden Town respectively, instead of continuing on to King’s Cross. This would reduce congestion at KGX by reducing the number of journeys using it as an interchange, by offering a new route along the North London branch of the Overground.

Such behaviour could be encouraged by placing York Way in Zone 2, compensating the inconvenience of an extra change with a reduced fare. This would vastly increase the utility of a station at York Way, allowing it to become a hub for commuters looking to avoid the congestion and costs of travel through Zone 1.

A mock-up of what York Way might look like on the Tube Map. Image: TfL/Citymetric.

Finally, the area between York Way and Caledonian Road, lying just opposite the King’s Cross Central development, is currently classified as being among the most socially deprived areas in England. The development as it stands arguably offers very little real benefits to those living literally across the road.

A new station on their doorstep could be transformative in this respect. While the York Road station analysis argued this impact would be minimal, a station serving both Overground and Underground – going above and beyond to connect the local area – would likely be even more effective.

So, there you are. One day soon, King’s Cross St. Pancras might need a hand. And who better to lend one than its old friend from just up the road?


 

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.