Rail 586: St Pancras mystery deepens

The plot thickens around the waste of space at St Pancras (see Rail 584) and I am now even more convinced than before that not only is there no logical reason for it, but also that no one has thought through the reasons for having created it in the first place.

To recap for new readers, I am trying to solve the mystery as to why there is a huge empty space between the buffer stops and the barrier that separates off international from domestic passengers at St Pancras. This not only squeezes passengers into a small space between the main wall and the barrier and means that the meeting place statue is in the wrong place, as it is too near the wall, but also contributes to a very dead and empty feel in that part of the station.

I was very gratified that Tom Harris, the rail minister, was kind enough to attempt to address the subject in his letter in the last issue and I have also had a lengthy discussion with a senior civil servant to try to get to the bottom of the story. However neither, I’m afraid, have been able to shed any light into the thinking behind its creation.

I really respect Harris as a minister. He has got to grips with railway issues really quickly, he is prepared to stick his neck out with the industry, such as calling an innovation seminar in an effort to bang heads together and I suspect privately he shares some of the concerns about th4e railway’s structure that came to the fore over Xmas.

However, constrained by having to toe the line, nothing in his letter enlightens us as to why there is this vast empty space which, having looked at it again, I underestimated – it is more the size of half a football pitch rather than a quarter.

The minister says in his letter that the area was not reserved solely for a potential terrorism incident but that it ‘is there for safe evacuation of the station in the event of an incident of any type.’ Then he adds ‘the doors [in the barrier] would be opened automatically as part of an emergency evacuation’.

OK, let’s dissect this. If there is a fire on an occupied train in the station, and everyone is told to get out, presumably they would be herded to this space. Why they could not evacuated through the normal exit underneath the station is unclear but OK, they flee towards this pen but then, as Harris said, ‘the doors would be opened automatically’ (as an aside, the addition of ‘ed’ at the end of the verb turns this sentence an oxymoron, since either the doors open automatically or they are opened, but not both). Therefore, there is no use for this pen since the passengers would escape into the concourse whether the barriers were next to the buffer stops or where they are now.

Let’s consider a terrorist alert on an arriving train. Again the passengers would be evacuated but since they have all been security checked at Brussels or Paris, then they could all be allowed out through the barriers. Again, the pen does not seem to add anything to passenger security. And If there were a problem with the train after it had been boarded, the passengers could simply go back downstairs to the waiting hall, rather like air passengers going back into the departure lounge. So Tom, when you said that you

In my search for a scenario in which this pen could be used, I turned to a senior civil servant whom I met at a conference and who said he wanted to take issue with me over my column. He said that new standards at stations meant that such a space was necessary for evacuation purposes. But, I said, even if such a space were required, why does it have to be fenced off with a barrier. I said, people would not want to be herded at the end of the platform trapped between the glass barrier if there were a train on fire or a bomb had gone off. No, he said, the barriers would be opened. So, I asked, what is the point of having the area enclosed by barriers – it could be part of the ordinary concourse. Collapse of stout party who said he would be asking more questions of his staff. I await his and the minister’s answers.

Therefore, I am launching the MTB (Move the Barrier) campaign not just to improve the environment at St Pancras, but also to highlight the ridiculous safety requirements that are being imposed on the rail industry at great cost and at no benefit to passengers or their security.

I need readers’ help here. Can anyone devise a scenario in which it would be appropriate to herd people into the space and expect them to stand there while an emergency was dealt with?  Moreover, I would also welcome suggestions about what alternative use the space could be put to: I will start the suggestions rolling with the idea that it could make a very good prayer area (although east points towards a pub which is not ideal) or the site of a farmers’ market, or a sniffer dog area, complete with doggy toilet. Any others?

Italian odyssey

I have sinned but paid for my sins. I went to Italy for a week to work on my new book and booked a Ryanair flight to Perugia, for £67, including all the ridiculous extras which now include paying for the pleasure of checking in at the airport, which you have to do if you have baggage anyway (for which you also pay extra). I spent a week beavering away, but as I approached the airport for the return journey I immediately sensed trouble. The whole Umbrian plain was shrouded in heavy damp fog and there was not the merest whiff of wind to blow it away.

Ryanair is always full of nice tricks and one of these is never to give any information out. I checked in but it was pretty obvious that no planes would be flying out of Perugia that day. When we heard the engines of the plane approach but then the noise disappeared without any sight of that banal logo, it was clear the plane had performed what in the business is called a go-around: the plane makes a normal approach but if the visibility is too low then suddenly the pilot puts on full thrust, to overcome the drag of the wings which have all their flaps and ailerons out, and you go zooming up in the air. It’s quite exciting really, but not, as happened to me recently, when they do it twice in succession.

Ryanair first announced that we would be going to Rome in buses, and indeed the buses turned up on the apron, but then after another 20 minutes delay, the tannoy announced the flight was annulla(cancelled), as I had expected. With no flights from Perugia for three days, and the ground staff (who do not work for Ryanair) handing out numbers for a call centre that was closed on Sundays, I decided that I would let the train take the strain.

I was able to get a lift to Terontola, on the main line to Florence from where I took the sleeper train to Paris and then Eurostar home. It was all fine except that it reminded of the lack of customer focus of the railway. On the sleeper train, for 130 Euros (£97), I was crammed into a compartment with five other people including a snoring Frenchman and an Italian who spoke to his wife in the middle of the night whereas half the carriage consisted of empty compartments. We could have all spread out and been far more comfortable, but the service was clearly being run for the workers not the staff.

Then I had to pay the ridiculous amount of 180 Euros (£135) for the Eurostar, and even only got that by buying a return ticket which I was not going to use or otherwise it would have been 50 Euros  more. I have banged on about this daft pricing, but why can’t they have a reasonable walk on fare, valid on off-peak trains such as the 12 13 I used? So it’s the choice between cheap Ryanair which doesn’t fly or an expensive train which has pretty much the same attitude towards customers as the world’s most unpleasant airline. Mamma Mia.

Time for NEx advertising to grow up

Using pretty ‘girls’ to highlight services has long been the last resort for the unimaginative marketing man and it is utterly depressing to see the National Express relying heavily on it so heavily for its campaign to boost passenger numbers on its new East Coast franchise.

travellers at York station with her new eye-catching outfit’. And then, three days later, we had former Miss Scotland, Aisling Friel, in the same dress ‘small is definitely beautiful as she dazzles travellers at Edinburgh Waverley station….etc etc’.

It went on: ‘Heads turned on the platform as Aisling, sporting a mini dress made up of rail tickets, posed for pictures’. Now to whom is this sort of rubbish supposed to appeal? Not women, certainly. National Express is showing contempt for its customers and betraying the fact that it sees men as its target audience. Grow up boys, and think of a rather more imaginative way of getting your message across.

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