Transforming London’s Stations


After I had major eye surgery I was supposed to be collected from the hospital but my ride fell through and it was raining so hard that there were no cabs, so I did a dumb thing.

I went by tube. In the rush hour. With only 20% sight. And to make matters worse, I had to use the Baker Street interchange. This might have been fit for purpose in 1888, but now you have to be a mind-reader to find your platform because there’s no central hub and you must march along different platforms, up and down Escheresque staircases, and keep an eye out for signs which are contradictory and tucked away – it was fine for Victorians but the modern world is more crowded and faster. I stalled and turned and felt my way along walls, and suddenly I was like a boulder in a stream, blocking everything. We are programmed to move fast and see nothing.

The signs for Tokyo Station are now repeated in English for visitors and are no longer confusing, but in the UK we like to compound confusion. There are endless audio announcements, some funny, some over-explanatory, some annoying. No two stations are alike, the Thatcher ministers having tarted up a few (very badly – look at Leicester Square) while ignoring the crumbling infrastructure. After years of mismanagement the damage is being repaired.

Now the new termini are nearly all amazing; London Bridge has cleverly put its seating behind the barriers, clearing the concourse, and its wooden ceiling seems to reference the beloved Festival Hall. King’s Cross / St Pancras is being held as a stunning global model of reinvention. It has everything, including a champagne bar with heated seats, so there’s that. Soon will come the destruction of the worst example of sixties vandalism, Euston, which saw the removal of its oversized Corinthian arch and dazzling booking hall, replacing it with the tackiest of station malls.

When I said ‘nearly all amazing’ back there I was obviously referring to the ongoing disaster of Victoria tube, which feels like entering an air-raid shelter and after 15 years of works seems no closer to being finished. Waterloo, once grand and elegant, suffered several misfortunes; a giant roundabout at the bottom of its great staircase and a Eurostar terminal that was defunct almost as soon as it was built.

Once the taxis used to take you right onto the platform at Paddington. I would catch the one minute to midnight train to Cornwall, having been dropped by taxi outside the train door – sadly no more. Now, in typical London fashion, travellers wishing to get from overland to underground are faced with hilariously contradictory signs and a quarter-mile walk.

And so it goes. The confident branding that once defined building uses (glazed maroon tiles for stations, green tiles for pubs, black and white traffic signs) and made streets instantly identifiable as ‘London-y’ have been eroded as a new generic style emerges for everything – glass, concrete, steel – but occasionally something wonderful gets through.

9 comments on “Transforming London’s Stations”

  1. Bernard says:

    Spend a few days attempting to navigate the New York subway and its regional railways then return to London. You’ll be singing London’s praises from the rooftops.

  2. Brooke says:

    Well said, Bernard. U.S. transit systems are being starved to death. Count yourself lucky that there is some investment in London’s system.

  3. Ian Luck says:

    I heard today, that the last two mainline railway stations to charge people to use the toilet, are going to cancel the charge. One was Liverpool Street. I was shocked to find that they were charging 50p a visit. Ten Bob for a slash! The last time I needed the W.C. in London, I used the quiet, and immaculately clean toilets in the Asian galleries of The British Museum. Yorkshire viewers might be pleased to know that it cost most. Gratis. Nought pence, etc. Probably a gift shop full of screaming kids, now.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Curse of the sausage fingers, part XVIII: After the word ‘Cost’ it should read ‘Nowt’ NOT ‘Most’. The complete polar opposite, in fact. Sorry.

  5. Roger says:

    One side-effect of medicine I have to take is that I sometimes have to use the toilet in a hurry. I make a point of buying my cheese in Selfridges, partly because their cheese counter is very good, partly in gratitude for their excellent free toilets. All the London museums and art galleries have free toilets and I’ve brushed up my culture considerably as a result.
    Unless you are absolutely desperate, though, stay away from Macdonalds.

  6. Helen Jones says:

    Didn’t anyone offer to help you? (even the staff)
    If you had been up here in the East Midlands some kind soul would have guided you to the exit and helped you into a taxi.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    I’m feeling a bit reckless. Having spent the last 18 years living near Liverpool-having escaped from London-I would like to point out to the “Londoncentric” towny Mr F. that he would have been given a hell of a lot more help up here when he was tottering around with eye difficulties in the Undergound. It says so much about the “dead from the neck up” mentality of the London crowd mind-set.

  8. Laura Spira says:

    Best toilets are in smart hotel. I recommend the Marriott at Marble Arch – march confidently through the reception area and down the stairs, toilets on the right – and the Savoy – through the lounge, turn left, toilets opposite cloakroom.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    The Vancouver Hotel was considered posh for a long time (may still be) and people wanting a posh drink went to The Timber Club bar behind reception. We had an outdoor and alcohol free New Year celebration for a few years with concerts and performances all over the downtown. The only problem was that all the businesses were closed and we don’t have free standing public toilets any more so there were some rather desperate people around. A line formed along the corridor to the Vancouver’s toilets, people in warm boots, toques, and heavy jackets eyeing the drinkers up in the Timber Club. Nothing was said so we all got to use the posh facilities that night.

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