Rail 584: St Pancras spoilt by security Taliban

Having travelled through St Pancras International several times since its opening November, I realise that the fulsome praise given to the new station during the launch period, not least by me, needs some reappraisal. Don’t get me wrong – the station is a magnificent achievement and the roof a wonderful sight for people coming to London for the first time. However, there is a lot wrong which cannot just be put down to the inevitable teething problems but to a failure of imagination and terrible pusillanimity in the face of the dreaded Department of Transport’s Transec (see my column in Rail 580).

The most obvious example of a ridiculous burden imposed by Transec is the huge security area that has been left at the end of the platforms between the extra high glass barrier and the buffer stops. If you go see it, you will notice a complete empty space about quarter the size of a football pitch.

It has the effect of deadening the whole station, making the trains very remote from the public and squeezing people entering the station from the front – which is still partly boarded up – into a very small space between the barrier and the back wall. Even the hideous Meeting Place statue is in the wrong place cramped up against the back wall.

So what is the purpose of this ‘security zone’? One of the architects who refurbished the station told me on the opening day that Transec – the Department for Transport committee dealing with security and contingencies – had required that space in case of an evacuation of the trains in an incident where it would not be possible to allow people to go downstairs where there is a huge empty area. But the barrier has doors in it, and presumably the only reason for not allowing them to be opened in such a case would be that the authorities suspected that Mr Al-Qaeda was among the passengers. So the pen – for that is what it is – would only come into use for trapping passengers along with a suspected terrorist. Well, gee, thanks guys.

The most shocking aspect of this tale is that over the past few weeks I have quizzed the bosses of British Transport Police, Tom Harris, the rail minister, and Rob Holden, the boss of London & Continental, and none of them had any idea of why the ‘security area’ had been created. This unused security area contributes to an overall feeling that the station is more like a soulless airport terminal than a bustling station. Contrast it, for example, with the wonderful Gare du Nord which is a hectic, busy place teeming with people, shops, information desks and all the paraphernalia normally associated with stations. Instead, St Pancras has the ‘longest’ (is length really supposed to excite us?) champagne bar in Europe which also has a rather tacky design with booths lit by little lamps where the main view is of Eurostar bogeys. I had expected a grand marble counter stretching into infinity.

Interestingly one of the train crew on the Eurostar made precisely the point that I felt about St Pancras which is that it does not have the feel of a station:’ Why can’t you just walk off the trains into the street?’ he asked, a point I had queried as well. Instead, passengers arriving a shunted down an escalator, through a cavernous empty hall past immigration and overdressed Special Branch officers and then into the basement of a shopping arcade bizarrely called The Circle (and with many of the shops still not open over two months after the opening).

All this is mere box ticking. Just before Xmas I was travelling to Paris but decided to take the next service after checking in and found that to get out of the station, the security staff had to conduct a ‘search’.  To call it a farce is to dignify it with too much sense. No one asked where I had been, or why I was leaving, and the ‘search’ took about ten minutes, nothing like enough to make a comprehensive assessment of a huge area with several hundred people in it. Did they check all the cubicles in the toilets (including the ladies!), all the areas behind chairs, ask everyone whether the bags next to them were theirs? Mr Al-Qaeda is a clever guy and anyway if he had left a device somewhere he would be much safer getting on the train and out of the country, making sure the timer was set for long after he had reached his destination. And, most ridiculously, my bags had been checked when I went in, so where would I have magicked up these explosives anyway?

(While on the subject of daft security measures, Network Rail could save itself a few bob by not trying to prevent people taking pictures of stations. A correspondent of mine who used to take pictures at Edinburgh Waverley now finds he has to fill in yards of forms. What is the point? Mr Al-Qaeda will get his information anyway from old pics or just by walking around.

With everyone with a mobile phone effectively having a camera in their pocket these days, it is simply impossible to prevent pictures being taken.)

On the Department for Transport’s website, the section on Transec says it is supposed to ‘balance the need for protective security against the cost to the transport network by focusing security measures on those potential targets that are most at risk’. It is clearly not doing that. It is playing games to guard the backsides of the superannuated ex cops and terrified civil servants who make up the committee. But why does Transec assume the risk to the International parts of St Pancras completely is different from the domestic ones where anyone can turn up and leave a bag under a table or behind some flowers in the public areas? Given the prestige of St Pancras, would the ensuing carnage and publicity be any different? I think not but the truth is they simply could not impose that level of security on the whole station, so they do it on the part where they can get away with it.

Transec’s risk assessment is simply random and part of the problem is that there is no one to bat in a coordinated way for the railway. Transec is not having to face the sort of searching questions which it would if it were faced by a unified organisation – as it is say, with the very powerful BAA – which would have enough nous and experience to make it justify its decisions.

Indeed, contrast this with the situation at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5, opening in March, domestic and international passengers will be able to mix. Domestic passengers will be made to give their fingerprints – which will be destroyed afterwards – but as a comment on the Blogdial website puts it, ‘This is one of the biggest design blunders ever in the history of airport design, and now, passengers flying on domestic flights are going to have to submit to fingerprinting just to travel in their own country’. Of course, Mr Al Qaeda, who is going to blow himself up and who will not have had any previous brush with the law which means his dabs will not be in the criminal records, will not be fussed about leaving his fingerprints behind.

There are other things wrong with St Pancras, too. The road arrangements outside are remarkably pedestrian unfriendly, but seem to create traffic jams too. I gave up trying to take a taxi after it had clocked  up £5 and I barely had left the forecourt. There is very little bike parking and it is not signposted. The space between Kings Cross and St Pancras should have been left pedestrianised. And the new roof over the domestic services is already leaking.

All this is the failure to address detail, while at the same time caving in to ridiculous security requirements. All is not lost, however, as there could be remedies for most of these ills, but the problem is that there is no single organisation to push to change them. The various stakeholders – Network Rail, Eurostar, Stagecoach, FirstGroup etc – would have to agree between them to press Transec and the Department into making changes but it is doubtful where they would have the will to act collectively.

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