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‘Uncomfortable, unpleasant, unsafe’: How London’s Euston Station became hell on earth



If hell exists, then surely it resembles the concourse at Euston station. You stand, neck craned towards the departures board, squinting under artificial lights that seem perfectly calibrated to induce migraines. You dodge passengers who stampede like wildebeests towards platforms announced moments before trains are due to leave. Venture outside for air, and it’s grey as far as the eye can see: the concrete rectangle of the station, the equally drab units housing Pret and Nando’s on the forecourt, the faces of the people freshly traumatised by their Euston experience. It is an ugly, smelly, joy-sapping experience. “Absolute chaos – never again,” one recent Tripadvisor review sighs. “Depressing and disgusting,” another snappily sums it up.

And then there are the delays, the cancellations, the throngs of pissed-off travellers packing the main hall. Barely a week seems to go by without reports of some fresh form of carnage breaking out at the station, accompanied by videos showing vast crowds jammed shoulder to shoulder (in the run-up to Christmas, Euston’s seasonal nadir, one memorable tweet described it as “a Petri dish of chaos”). It’s enough to send any regular travellers into fight-or-flight mode. I’ve had the misfortune to journey to and from Euston on the West Coast Main Line – which runs to cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow – for about a decade. It’s never been an especially enjoyable experience. I used to put on my running shoes before attempting to travel on a Friday night, kidding myself that it might give me the edge in the infamous “Euston dash”. But in recent years, it has sharply deteriorated.

Last autumn, the Office of Rail and Road said that crowds had reached “unacceptable levels” at Euston, and issued Network Rail with an improvement notice (at the time, a Network Rail spokesperson said that managing “a busy and popular station like Euston is a daily challenge”, and said they were trialling measures like earlier boarding to reduce crowding). A few months later, Avanti, the rail company that operates along the west coast, emerged as Britain’s least punctual train operator, with just 46.3 per cent of services arriving on time. And huge question marks surround plans to bring HS2 there: in October, the government said that the route will only terminate at a new station in Euston if it can partly be financed by private investment.

How did Euston acquire such a grim reputation? The great irony of its backstory is that, as London’s first inter-city railway station, it was once an aspirational, innovative place. George and Robert Stephenson, engineers for the London and Birmingham Railway, chose a spot on what was then the edge of London, surrounded by farmland owned by the Dukes of Grafton; their family seat, Euston Hall in Suffolk, gave the new terminus its name. Work began in the 1830s, and Charles Dickens would later recall the “dire disorder” of the railway’s construction in his novel Dombey and Son. “Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground, enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up,” he wrote. The station opened in 1837, initially taking passengers to Boxmoor in Hertfordshire. When the line was extended to Birmingham the following year, the trip took just over five hours (I’ll leave you to insert your own punchline about 21st-century journey times here).

Demolished: the Euston Arch was knocked down in the Sixties (Getty)

The man in charge of its design was the architect Philip Hardwick. Train travel was in its infancy, so railway companies wanted their stations to evoke a reassuring sense of tradition. To pull this off, Hardwick looked to the ancient Greeks to dream up a worthy “gateway to the North”. In 1838, a 72-foot-tall propylaeum supported by Doric columns, like the entrance to a Greek temple, was unveiled outside the station. Propylaeum, of course, doesn’t really roll off the tongue, so the structure became known as the Euston Arch. Fast-forward 10 years and Euston also boasted a beautiful, neoclassical Great Hall designed by Hardwick’s son, complete with plaster reliefs inspired by the cities it served and a coffered ceiling that recalled Rome’s Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls.

But being the first of its kind had drawbacks. “Generally when you do new things, you get a dominant design: people work out how to do things, and it sticks,” says Marcus Mayers, a visiting research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University who has decades of experience in the railway industry. “Euston was built before the dominant design of railway stations and services had been established.” It expanded piecemeal: although the Great Hall was a stunner, much of the rest was “dilapidated and derelict”, with outdated platforms, Mayers explains. Plans for an overhaul were put on hold during the Second World War, and the station was further damaged in the blitz.

It needs to be literally double the size it is to deal with the number of passengers

Gareth Dennis, railway engineer and writer

In the Sixties, the whole site was earmarked for demolition. The poet John Betjeman was among those who campaigned for the Arch to be saved, but then-prime minister Harold Macmillan was unmoved. “An obsession with such buildings will drain our national vitality,” he said. The Arch was unceremoniously destroyed, in what the Royal Institute of British Architects has described as one of the country’s “greatest acts of post-war architectural vandalism”. Stones from the monument were eventually discovered in a back garden in Kent and at the bottom of the River Lea.

The Sixties redesign gave us the Brutalist-style concrete box we know and love to hate today. It might not appeal to contemporary sensibilities, but at the time it was functional and fresh, thanks to simple, clean lines and more natural light. “It was the opposite of what it is today: it was clean, it was slick, it was modern,” says railway engineer and writer Gareth Dennis. “It felt like the future.” A brochure showing off the new station describes fancy facilities like a “catering room” available for “banquets and buffet dances”, as well as “high-class toilets with showers and baths”. Now, it’s hard to think of somewhere you’d be less willing to have a bath than Euston station. What went so very wrong?

One of the biggest issues, Dennis suggests, is that the volume of trains going in and out of Euston has vastly increased since then, but the station itself hasn’t grown in tandem. “The station is still the same size station that carried six times fewer trains a day,” he says. “[It] needs to be literally double the size it is to deal with the number of passengers.” HS2 and even Crossrail 2, he argues, might have taken some of that pressure off. Plus, shops and cafes have encroached on the floor space (the new-ish mezzanine level, where you can pick up a Leon wrap while surveying the frazzled passengers below, only enhances the sense of claustrophobia). “All of a sudden, that station that once felt large and airy feels like a small shed,” Dennis adds. And when multiple trains are delayed or cancelled, “you’re talking about thousands of people squished into that space. It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s not just unpleasant, it’s unsafe.”

Overcrowding: passengers gather in the concourse when trains are cancelled (AFP via Getty)

There are other factors that help compound Euston’s woeful reputation. “If people get frustrated, their perception of an environment changes,” explains David Bamford, professor of operations management at Manchester Metropolitan University. And Euston is certainly a dispiriting place for a passenger. Bamford’s research has found that poor signage only makes stressful places more stressful – and “the signage in Euston is absolutely rubbish”. The station, he adds “seems more interested in advertising with a big LED screen” – a relatively recent addition that now dominates the station’s back wall – “than it does in actually helping you get on your journey.” Platform information is non-existent, too, until a few minutes before departure. This all creates a lack of passenger trust, he argues, which is only compounded by “the uncertainty that you’re actually going to reach your destination”. Euston, Mayers suggests, is currently “in a horrible locked position because of politics. No one’s going to do anything because they don’t know what’s going to happen next”. But it’s not all doom and gloom: he reckons that the station is “eminently redesignable”, as there’s “no shortage of space”.

In the short term, the first point of action should be “ensuring the reliability on that line goes way back up into the high 90 per cent [range]”, Dennis suggests, “so you don’t have the situation where thousands of people are stuck”. To make things better for those who do end up waiting for delayed trains, he says, he recommends “getting rid of all the advertising, pulling back retail [spaces] even more, more seating: all those things that really prioritise the passenger who’s stuck”.

Euston is the start and end point of one of the busiest routes in the UK: we deserve a station that’s fit for purpose (I’d even settle for one that doesn’t frequently reduce me to tears). But we’ll only get that if the people in charge are willing to make big decisions, instead of papering over the cracks. “Euston should be a grand gateway station, rather than ‘how do we deliver as cheaply as possible?’” Dennis says. “It’s never going to be fixed long term without us going ‘We want something that’s brilliant, rather than the minimum viable product.’”

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