Why do the signs at King's Cross St Pancras, London's biggest tube station, seem to take you the long way round?

Get lost. Image: Oxyman at Wikimedia Commons.

Kings Cross St Pancras Underground station is, as you'll know if you've been inside it, a bit of a nightmare. The clue is in the name: the station serves two mainline stations which, while close together, cover a vast area above ground between them – and an even vaster network of underground tunnels. As a pedometer user, I can vouch for the fact that the walk from Thameslink to the Piccadilly line represents a good fifth of your daily steps. 

The six tube lines and two train stations also make the station very busy, which can make navigating its hundreds of metres of tunnels even more difficult. Even before you get inside, the station has 11 entrances.

This is the best overview map I've been able to find of the station: each entrance is marked with the Underground symbol: 

In the centre is the "Tube ticket hall", which is the older, original ticket hall. Over time, bits and pieces have been added to it: a western ticket hall, serving the front of St Pancras International; and more recently, the Northern ticket hall, which stretches out towards the main, non-Eurostar bit of St Pancras. 

But there's a minor controversy surrounding all these ticket halls. That's because the station's signage sometimes points you along a route that isn't necessarily fastest.

To reach the Piccadilly and Victoria lines, for example, the signage directs you to the northern ticket hall – when actually it is quicker to go via the older ticket hall for example (to do so, follow the signs for the Metropolitan, Circle, and Hammersmith & City lines). The internet is littered with "hacks" to make your trek between lines a little shorter. 

So is the station really designed to slow you down? Is there a conspiracy against the blue lines? And do those hacks really work?

I called up Mike Guy, station manager at Kings Cross St Pancras, to find out. 

CityMetric: So why is the station so complicated?

Mike Guy: It's worth looking at the background here. When the Underground was first built, the earliest platforms were those now served by the Circle, Hammersmith and Metropolitan lines, all of which are “sub surface” [much less deep than, say, the Northern line]. 

What's happened is that over the years, as different lines have been constructed, the station has expanded, especially at lower levels. Recently, it's expanding further for two reasons. One is the Eurostar and St Pancras station. Then, in 2012, there was the introduction of the northern ticketed hall. 

CM: What's the best way to navigate it?

MG: Customers who know our station will choose the entrance with the most direct route to their line – our commuters tend to know by now which one that is. But for customers who don't know the station, the sheer size and the number of lines can make it quite confusing.

CM: So ideally everyone would use the best entrance for their line?

Right. We've signed as best we can, but if you enter from the north of the station, say, the walk to the Victoria line is quite a distance.

As a rule of thumb, the western part of the station, near St Pancras, is a good place to enter for the Metropolitan, Circle, and Hammersmith Lines. The Pentonville Road entrance is quickest for the Victoria line, but only during its opening hours (07:00 to 20:00, Monday-Friday). At other times, use the Euston Road entrance for both Victoria and Piccadilly lines, which is the smallest entrance and was the main station entrance for a number of years.

And for the Northern line, it's best to go via the newest entrance, or the north ticket hall, right next to King's Cross main line station. 

In case that's hard to visualise, here's a map showing which entrance to use:

CM: Why do some routes seem to send you a less direct route – like those that send you away from the old ticket hall for the Victoria and Piccadilly lines?

MG: We encourage people to use the subway which is at a lower level [marked above as the long pinkish tunnel running from the Victoria line to the Northern ticket hall] for transfers between lines. In general, that's fairly reasonable.

CM: That does mean you'd be walking for longer, depending on the transfer you're making – but is that to try and alleviate crowding? 

MG: Yes. And occasionally, to avoid congestion, we will divert passengers onto a longer route. 


CM: What could be done to improve things?

MG: We're continually trying to improve our signage and looking for feedback as to what could be different. I've been here for about four years, and I'm still interested to hear peoples' views on what we could do differently.

But I'm also very cautious - it's important that we don't make our signage too busy. Hopefully, passengers do find their way raound the station, but they'll occasionally choose a route that's slightly longer.

If you were to design the station from scratch, it wouldn't look like it does today. It's huge – that's why I enjoy working here. But it can be very disorientating.

* * *

So there you have it. Mike is right about the entrances: the best way to avoid the snare of tunnels is to bypass them before you even descend.

But we'd like to add a rule of thumb of our own: if you're already underground, head to the old ticket hall (from where you can access all lines*) by following signs for the Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City lines to avoid the special congestion-reducing line-changing tunnel Mike mentioned. Though don't tell too many of your friends. 

 

*You can actually access the Northern line directly from this ticket hall using a lift, though the walking access is cut off at the moment.  But maybe still better to head to the north ticket hall for the Northern line. Probably. This is getting too confusing now. I'm out. 

 
 
 
 

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