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. 

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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