As you cannot fail to be aware, Waterloo station is partly closed at the moment. Ten of the platforms have been shut for three weeks so they can be lengthened and the track layout outside the station can be enhanced.
Hell on earth, they promised us.
"Waterloo will be exceptionally busy"
"You will be required to queue to enter or leave the station, particularly at the busiest times"
"You will have a better journey if you can avoid the station during this time"
Wrong on every count, it seems.
London's not seen transport gridlock paranoia on this scale since the Olympics. In 2012 they promised us the world would end, or at least that there'd be hour long queues outside Mile End station. When the Games finally arrived the trains were busy but they weren't that bad, almost as if the warnings had been entirely fictional, designed solely to frighten passengers away.
According to the media yesterdaymorning you'd be forgiven for assuming the same thing had happened again. A bunch of Cassandras moaning for months how bad everything's going to be, and then empty concourses and trains with more free seats than usual. Either the predictions were incompetent, or else a carefully orchestrated campaign of scare tactics worked as planned and prevented railhead lockdown. I like to think the latter.
I went to check.
"Waterloo will be exceptionally busy", they said. It wasn't. Admittedly I turned up mid-afternoon, rather than in the rush hour, but Waterloo wasn't even busy, let alone exceptionally so. This is the problem with oversimplified warnings. Presumably "Waterloo will be exceptionally busy at peak times" was ruled out for being too complicated, or not scary enough.
"You will be required to queue to enter or leave the station, particularly at the busiest times", they said. I wasn't. Admittedly I turned up mid-afternoon, rather than in the rush hour, but nobody was queuing anywhere. This is the problem with over-presumptuous warnings. I guess "You may be required to queue to enter or leave the station, particularly at the busiest times" was ruled out for being too vague, and not scary enough.
"You will have a better journey if you can avoid the station during this time", they said. Again, not so. I had a totally excellent journey, specifically because I had turned up during the three weeks they didn't want me to turn up during. Specifically I got to catch a train from platforms 20-24 - the old Eurostar terminus - which is something I hadn't done in well over a decade.
Eurostar trains were diverted from Waterloo International to St Pancras international in 2007, since which time the old terminus has been essentially mothballed, and only dusted off for events such as performances of The Railway Children. It had been intended to return them to general service considerably earlier, but a substantial amount of track reengineering was necessary, and money's tight. However, full reopening is on the cards for December next year, which'll help boost Waterloo's capacity, and enough preparatory work's been done for them to be reopened during this summer's upgrade work.
Platforms 20-24 are a bit of a hike from the rest of the station. You can't walk down the steps that used to be here when this was the gateway to Paris, you have to walk around the back and then up a long approach towards a new row of ticket barriers, and then forwards some more. During the current awkwardness platforms aren't being announced until a few minutes before trains depart, which isn't at all helpful, so try not to be up the wrong end of the station if you can. But when you do get there, ooh yes, very late 20th century, very chic.
The roof is glass and steel, of course, comprising 37 non-identical arches and tapering off into the middle distance. It's bright and airy, very spacious, and as yet unencumbered by adverts for new cars or Lucozade. The platforms are also suitably long, which they had to be to fit Eurostar trains, so you're unlikely to have to walk all the way to the end. The vaulted structure won RIBA's Building of the Year in 1994, so it's a shame it hasn't been used for so long, and great that it'll be in permanent use again.
Did I also mention how incredibly unbusy it was?
It would of course be wrong to base criticism of the scare campaign on one mid-afternoon jaunt. So I spent a bit of time heading out to Clapham Junction (which wasn't busy, but had barriers up along the overbridge in case it was), and to Vauxhall (which wasn't busy, but was full of extra staff standing around in blue tabards hoping to be helpful). I even went to poor old Queenstown Road, which is one of the handful of stations that's completely closed for the next three weeks. I was expecting to see banners hung outside warning passengers away, and a member of staff or two in case anyone turned up, but no. Access to the platform was shut off, the front doors were closed, nobody was outside, and all the useful warning notices were locked inside the ticket hall.
And then, at the very start of the evening peak, I went back to Waterloo. It wasn't busy, but then it wouldn't normally be at this time. However, in readiness for the approaching hordes, ooh, the escalators halfway down the platform were now operational. They're really new, the treads are almost pristine, and they lead down into... golly. A cavernous space exists below platform level, which when Eurostar were here would have been used for passport control, customs, and circulation. What would have been bureaux de changes or first class lounges are hermetically sealed off, and a walking route exists into the bowels of the station.
On the opposite side of the lower concourse are further stairs down - a hint that the 1990s weren't such a great time for step-free access - and then another long passage to follow. There are plans to turn this concrete undercroft into a shopping mall, because that's what all unused bits of mainline stations get turned into these days, and there are certainly enough potential units to create quite a retail cluster. A lot of dressing-up will be needed, however, because the current ambience is more drab service tunnel than boutique destination.
After a dogleg at the far end, the passageway eventually leads out into the peak hour subway that links all of Waterloo's platforms at basement level. A slight technical hitch yesterday was that all the doors out of that subway were locked, which especially annoyed all the passengers who'd just been funnelled down into it. "Someone's gone to get a key," was the apologetic response from one of the blue-tabarded staff, who smiled with obvious relief when that someone finally turned up and let us escape. We emerged immediately opposite the ramps down to the Waterloo and City line, as our novel subterranean trek came to an end.
I understand that the evening peak at Waterloo yesterday turned into a chaotic maelstrom. The station was exceptionally busy, homebound commuters were required to queue, and they might have had a better journey if they'd avoided the station. Perhaps all those scare stories were absolutely true after all. But if you come down outside the busiest times, you too can experience a wing of Waterloo that's simultaneously the past, and very much the future.