Network Rail have been announcing the big news for weeks. The new entrance to King's Cross station opens today. Except it actually opened yesterday. Never open in the rush hour when you can soft launch at the weekend.
A brand new semicircular atrium has been bolted onto the western side of the existing station building. It's vast, and tall, with a swirling lattice of white metal rising up from a central point and spreading out to form a roof. Actually 'roof' is underselling it, it's a fantasticstructure. The eye of every traveller, and the camera lens of a substantial proportion, is drawn to look up at the ceiling and to capture the scene. And the funnel's not simply decoration. The concourse has been built directly over the tube station's northern ticket hall, so the lofty roof has to be supported solely from one side where the floor's less weak.
You'll see this redevelopment soon enough, the next time you board a train to Edinburgh, Leeds or Potters Bar. But the comment that most struck home when I wandered around yesterday came from an angry mother as she struggled to work out where on earth to go to catch her train. "It's like a bloody airport," she said. And I think she's right.
The new King's Cross station separates departures from arrivals, just like an airport. You arrive in one part, which happens to be the new western concourse, and you depart through another, which is the existing southern concourse. Network Rail's intended aim is to minimise contact between the two streams of passenger traffic as much as possible, and thus to keep throughflow separated. It'll take some getting used to, which is why several grinning youths were standing around yesterday with giant slip-on hands pointing the correct way into the station. They'll be out again today, at all the former entrances that are now exit only, until everybody's got the hang of things and adapted their behaviour appropriately. Stop thinking of King's Cross as a station and start thinking airport and it'll make a lot more sense.
Departures: Here they come, the people with luggage. Lumbering along the passageways from the tube platforms, following the signs like sheep until eventually they reach the northern ticket hall. One singleescalator rises up in the far corner, which'll be switched to run downwards only when rush hour flow requires it. The main escalators are to the left, and these emerge in the centre of the ground floor shops because that's what commercial sensibility demands these days. Unless you plan your route carefully you're going to have to walk past the newsagent, the greetings card shop, the sandwich dispensary and the coffee merchant, rather than walking directly and swiftly to board your train. Just as passengers are forced to endure lengthy wandering at airports, sorry, King's Cross is much the same both below and above ground.
The way that rail pricing is going, increasing numbers of long-haul travellers are forced to buy timed tickets to keep costs down. This means arriving at the station well in advance of the scheduled departure time, because it's never worth the expense of being unintentionally late. King's Cross is therefore full of people hanging around for half an hour, an hour, maybe more, until their designated scheduled service is ready to board. The new western concourse is well equipped to keep these premature arrivals occupied in a way that the old concourse wasn't. As well as all those shops at the top of the escalators, there's also a pub squeezed into the gap between platforms 8 and 9. Close by is the wall with an embedded trolley where Harry Potter fans can pretend they're at Platform 9¾, next to an independent bookshop where JK Rowling's novels can be purchased. If you're quick you might grab one of the less-than-50 seats near the entrance to the ticket office. If not, and you need a sit down, you'll have to go upstairs.
The mezzanine level is accessed by escalators at either end of the concourse. Up here are the toilets (30p, since you ask) as well as a curve of restaurants ready to fill your waiting time. Lovers of Japanese, Mexican, Italian or world cuisine will find plenty of choice and a selection of tables to munch at. If it's British cuisine you want then there are pasties and M&S sandwiches downstairs, but only those spending more upstairs get the seats. A cunning design feature is the upperpassageway which funnels mezzanine diners directly into the station once their train is ready. They don't need to head down through the main ticket barriers at the end of the platforms, they can emerge halfway along the platforms via a dedicated one-way footbridge and a series of descending escalators. Whether short-haul commuters will be tempted this way I doubt, but the gateline downstairs should cope well enough with rush hour traffic.
Arrivals: As at most airports, it's quicker to arrive than depart. Passengers on local trains arriving at platforms 9 to 11 have it easiest, which is a turnaround from how things used to be, as they can reach the escalators down to the tube fairly quickly. But all inter-city arrivals pull into the main train shed at platforms 0-8, and they've got a very set path to follow. There's no access to the footbridge, remember, so it's the usual long walk down the platform and then through the broad line of automatic ticket gates across the far end. Welcome to the arrivals concourse, which is what used to be the entire station, and which is destined to be completely demolished next year. It's reallyquiet here when no trains have arrived, and then suddenly the rush begins and everyone pours in and suddenly the cashier at WH Smith has something to do.
There are, for now, three ways out. Straight ahead takes you out onto the Euston Road where there are buses and an entrance to the tube. Gullible first-timers, however, are likely to be lured in by the roundel above the entrance to the right. This is the 2010 portal designed by sadists, with signs urging you to deviate several minutes out of your way via the northern ticket hall. No change there, alas. And thirdly there's a single exit out onto York Way, which from today becomes one-way only, which is bad news for locals living on the Islington side of King's Cross who now face a longer walk to get anywhere, their direct passage blocked. There will be, as of next year, just one way out, into the open air, onto the new public piazza. No shops, no protection from the rain, just ejected into Greater London and left to get on with it.
No doubt you'll be catching a flight from King's Cross Airport soon. Admire the new terminal building, it's rather special. But do be aware of all the ins and outs, and try not to spend too much time and money in duty-free on the way through.