According to the latest figures, which are for 2010, Blackfriars is by far the least used tube station in London, with absolutely no passengers at all. It closed in March 2009 for a serious bout of refurbishment while the mainline station above was being redveloped, supposedly until "late 2011". The opening date was then delayed to Sunday 26th February 2012, a date loudly announced on posters in every underground ticket hall. But then the station suddenly reopenedyesterday, simultaneously six days early and a couple of months late. Rejoice, because in 2012 Blackfriars won't be the least used tube station in London at all, not by a long chalk. Have you been yet?
Look, here it is on the tube map. Blackfriars is now a step-free station, with lifts and escalators and everything, rather than the poky little rat warren it used to be. Change at Blackfriars for National Rail and for riverboat services, that's what the little symbols here say. And then there's a dagger, which means check the key, which says "For reopening date see Planned Closures posters at stations". Even the tube map on the platform at Blackfriars tube station has a dagger on it, even though the station is already open, obviously, because you're standing on the platform reading it. One day they'll open a new tube station containing a tube map which correctly references the fact that the tube station is already open, but now is not that time.
The platforms at Blackfriars are very different. They used to be a bitgloomy, with stained black ceiling and daylight streaming in above the tracks. Not that this was in any way awful, you understand, but a row of urinals along the tiled walls wouldn't have looked entirely out of place. Now it's a fresh but somewhat bland place, all bright lights and scrubbed off-magnolia surfaces. One outstanding feature is the row ofblue-edgedvertical dividers at the narrow western end of the platform - as if a series of payphones had once been located here - but these aren't new, merely re-tiled. Elsewhere there are generic benches, and generic signs, and white-ridged covers shielding generic cabling overhead. These platforms are no arty masterpiece - the days of modern architectural excellence on the tube are long gone. But there's plenty of space, and it's airy and smart, and it'll get the passengers moving, no problem.
The previous platform entrances have been hidden behind new doors, and have probably been repurposed as storerooms or liftshafts or both. Instead there are new sweeping staircases down, plus two escalators on either side, which greatly improves access for passengers. The linking walkway at the top, by the new control room, would be large enough to hold an entire concert orchestra were that ever necessary, it's that wide. Then there's a line of closable crowd-control doors leading out to the wall of ticket gates, all twelve of them. There shouldn't be any footfall congestion streaming through here, not even once Thameslink upgrades - this is future-proofing on a grand scale.
The main entrance hall is very big. I would call this a ticket hall, but selling tickets is merely a minorsideshow for TfL these days, as we see every time they add a fresh station to the network. Forget concert orchestras, this stone expanse is big enough for roller hockey, if only the several staff and cameras keeping an eagle eye would let you. There appears to be a thick blue cylindrical artwork in one corner, rising from floor to extended ceiling, but you'll look in vain for what it symbolises. In fact it's a newly-built ventilation shaft for the platforms below, from the centre of the tracks upwards - a purely practical feature stashed back out of the way behind the glass wall façade.
And when's the next train due? There are two indicator boards pinned up above the ticket gates, one for Thameslink, one for the Underground. The Thameslink board is reasonably sized, though nothing massive, with an electronic update of next services to Bedford, Brighton, Mitcham Junction or wherever. But the screen for the tube is one of those generic square boards you find at far-flung stations like Bow Road or Neasden, and completely dwarfed in the temple-sized cavern of the entrance hall. An optician could use it to check your eyesight as you strolled in from the street, and I'd bet many commuters wouldn't be able to tell their Wimbledons from their Richmonds before getting up close. If you remember those giant clattering display boards from the past which used to show destinations and passing stations, white on black, they're long gone, and the space where history might have placed them will no doubt be taken by a giant illuminated advert.
Off to the right, through an as-yet unassuming passageway, is the gateway to the National Rail side of the station. One gateline is for all points north, another for all points south, via the two platforms that are all that's ready for now until the station's properly finished later this summer. This is London's unique new Thames-spanning station, with entrances on either bank. That may sound good, but the reality is a vast platform dwarfing anything but the longest trains, and a bloody long walk (three minutes!) from one end to the other. City Thameslink up the line is similar, and expect Crossrail to continue the pattern of mega-long platforms requiring lengthy passenger treks. And don't come up here hoping to enjoy what should be the finest feature of the station - the view from a bridge across the Thames. At the moment that's boarded off on both sides, and the station might as well be fifty feet underground for all the ambience it lacks.
But yay, a South Bank exit, how cool is that? Alas not that cool, just yet, while exiting the station still feels like walking down prefabricated stairs into the back of a multi-storey car park. But exit here for Tate Modern, and the Founders Arms pub, and the walkway beneath Blackfriars Bridge that'll one day no longer be semi-boarded-off, and the coolness quotient rapidly rises. What we actually have here, for the first time as of yesterday, is a brand new tube station in South London! It may be a good five minutes from here to a train (rest assured the three sets of barriers will let you through without overcharging), but the Circle line now has its first outlet on the opposite side of the Thames.