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. 

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, which was agreed in the 1950s and opened in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as part of the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simpler: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.