Having spent time as a schoolboy watching steam trains ‘streak’ out of Kings Cross Station, the transformation is truly impressive. Cubitt’s simple station building is no longer black, but has been revealed in all its splendour. It has been matched by John McAslan’s graceful new concourse, which deserves wider recognition as an architectural icon. The fine restoration of the Parcel Yard as a Fuller’s pub restaurant has broadened the choice of good places to eat, which include more than just the usual names. Outside the new King’s Square is proving popular, along with other public spaces along the ‘boulevard’ which stretches up to the Granary, now the home of Central St Martin and the University of the Arts. Across Pancras Road, St Pancras International is now London’s gateway to Europe, and again old and new have been fused together. The whole area is experiencing a long overdue regeneration from its sleazy past. The case for weaving together the two sides is very strong.
But crossing the Euston Road is another matter. Breathing some of the city’s most polluted air, made worse by the continual running of taxi’s engines, the pedestrian (or cyclist) faces complete disorder. Narrow refuges and oddly timed traffic signals trap you in pens that no sheep would stomach. A cacophony of signs fail to point out the main attractions, which include the new concert hall and galleries at Kings Place, the Wellcome Museum, and the British Library, let alone point the way to London’s main hotel quarter in Bloomsbury, with some 10,000 beds. At any point, crossing is perilous, as traffic comes from all sides, for this is London’s Inner Ring Road leading on to the A40. It is also where a major North South route crosses the main East West route, leading from Grays Inn or Farringdon Roads into the appropriately named York Way or Caledonian Road. An extensive gyratory has made most of the surrounding roads one way, causing the traffic to move in short jerks. Fortunately go a little further and the surrounding neighbourhoods are havens of quiet, including Cromer Street where we now live.
It seems scandalous that over £1000 million of public funds could be spent on doing up the two stations without doing anything to make crossing the road easier. Indeed months of inexplicable work on the narrow underpass have put one its staircases out of use. The relatively new exit from the Victoria Line at King’s Cross to an area named as ‘Regents Canal’ involves a long circuitous walk without any relief, which is hardly compensated for by the delights of the new Northern entrance. Yet this is an area where thousands more are expected to work when the Crick Institute (cancer research) and the Google HQ open up. The problems can only grow if High Speed 2 were ever to descend on Euston, as proposed.
The contrast with other competing cities is only too obvious. In Berlin the new Hautbahnhof was built at half the cost as the centrepiece of a major regeneration area. In Paris, the development of Paris Rive Gauche, with some three times the space being provided on the old railway lands at King’s Cross, has involved covering over the railway tracks leading to the Gare de l’Austerlitz that cut a poor residential area off from the River Seine. In Brussels trams, metro lines and a covered taxi rank get you to your destination. In Strasbourg, a grassy square outside the main station covers the traffic below. In Vienna, shops line the many underpasses under the main roads.
However perhaps an end is now in sight? Transport for London are making improvements a priority to be completed before the end of Boris Johnson’s term of office. Camden Council would like to see the whole of the Euston Road turned into the Boulevard that Sir Terry Farrell has proposed. And a workshop that drew urban practitioners and designers together came up with a long list of improvements that could be made in the short-term while planning for the replacement of the gyratory gets going. But will the planners and politicians have the courage not only to spend some real money on making it easier and safe to walk and cycle, but also to face up to the much stronger lobbies of motorists, taxis, and delivery vehicles who currently make King’s Cross a place to avoid if you can.