St Pancras station is without question a triumph. The palatial Victorian terminus befits exotic rail trips to Paris and Amsterdam. But were it not for an 11th hour change of heart, your Eurostar weekend break would have started next door, at King's Cross station.
When the Channel Tunnel was first being planned, British Rail calculated it could run the service on existing rail infrastructure and needed only one station, Waterloo, to do so. Within two years, they looked at the figures again and decided that a dedicated high speed link and a second London station were needed after all. Of an initial shortlist of four, King's Cross was chosen.
But this wouldn't involve using the existing King's Cross. Instead, a whole new station was to be built beneath it.
Enter (pre-Sir) Norman Foster
The man chosen for the job was renowned British architect (pre-Sir) Norman Foster. His concept was a grand open ticket hall, with glass walls and a roof comprising of nine triangular forms coming together to create something like one of those pyramids you make out of playing cards. The tip was to face Euston Road; the size of the building increasing as it as headed north.
Foster's triangles would slot into the mostly-vacant area between King's Cross and St Pancras. This new concourse also meant the ugly '70s extension at the front of King's Cross could be demolished.
Below ground, the station would have eight platforms, four for international trains, two for high speed trains going to Kent and a final two for Thameslink. King's Cross Thameslink station was already seen as inadequate and in need of replacement to coincide with British Rail's ambitious Thameslink 2000 proposals.
Foster's design brief didn't just stop with the new station concourse; he was also heading up a masterplan for the vast, 130-acre derelict wasteland behind King's Cross.
While the designs were certainly striking, the work required to deliver them dogged the project from the start. The position of his new concourse building required the demolition of the Great Northern Hotel; a Grade II listed Victorian building wedged between the two main stations and slap bang in the middle of where his triangles were going.
But if the demolition required for the structures above ground was a headache, it was nothing compared to what needed to happen underground.
83 homes and 58 shops demolished
The construction of a huge subterranean station, capable of handling 18-carriage Eurostar trains, as well as Kent commuter and Thameslink trains, required the clearance of 17 acres of land just to the east of King's Cross — to dig the hole required to build it. The area primarily affected was the southern end of Caledonian Road, where it joins with Pentonville Road and the small roads in between linking with York Way.
A Big Mac, fries and a train to Bedford please…
The plans would have seen 83 homes and 58 shops demolished. The scale of destruction would have witnessed landmark listed buildings like the Scala pulled down and pubs like The Big Chill Bar (back then, The Queens Head). The entire block between Caledonian Road, York Way and Caledonia Street would have also been lost. This included 8 Caledonian Road, another listed building and now an entrance to a collection of bars and restaurants in the old warehouse buildings. This area would have also seen an entrance to the Thameslink section of the station complex where McDonalds now stands. A Big Mac, fries and a train to Bedford please…
Unsurprisingly, the local community rose up and battled hard against the proposals, their campaign spearheaded by the South Caledonian Community Association. Because of the massive potential disruption, both Islington and Camden Councils also opposed the scheme as did the two local MPs at the time, Frank Dobson and Chris Smith. During one of the debates in Parliament, Dobson slammed the proposals and stated that the new station would be the "most notoriously stinking, gloomy pissoir in Europe".
The most notoriously stinking, gloomy pissoir in Europe
Both MPs also criticised British Rail for wanting to put the new station underground, when there was so much vacant land to the north of the station. They saw this as a cynical attempt to avoid losing any of this area from their massive redevelopment proposals to create over four million square feet of new office space. The wider King's Cross redevelopment plans were absolutely essential to the viability of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. In the 1987 Channel Tunnel Act, the government expressly forbids any public funds to go towards the construction of the high-speed link, so British Rail had to find other sources of cash to finance the scheme. Having just scored a success with the Broadgate development at Liverpool Street, another big commercial development seemed the way to go in London's late '80s boom.
The plan comes unstuck
Plans of this scale required an act of parliament, which also proved to be far from plain sailing. Debates on the bill lasted for over 53 days, the longest time spent on a railway scheme since Brunel brought forward the Great Western Railway proposals in 1835. During this process the campaigners caused British Rail to come unstuck on a number of occasions, not least the fact their original design for the station platforms wasn’t even going to be long enough for the 18 carriage Eurostar trains...
Trains could have run from Paris to Newcastle and Edinburgh
Despite the strong opposition from the two local MPs and a few others from neighbouring constituencies, including Jeremy Corbyn (whatever happened to him?), overall the plans gained strong support in parliament. This was particularly true for MPs from outside of London, who backed King's Cross because the scheme at the time included provision for international services to go beyond London up into the Midlands and the East Coast Main Line, offering journeys from Paris to Newcastle and Edinburgh. It was clear these politicians wanted to make sure their constituencies benefitted from the regeneration this new rail service would bring.
Despite this strong support in parliament, external events began conspiring to derail the King's Cross plan. Firstly, in 1991, the government had bowed to pressure in relation to the route of the rail link into London and altered the southern approach, removing the south London route via Peckham and instead taking an easterly route. The adoption of a new route opened up the possibility of a different London terminal station being used.
On top of that, London's late '80s boom had turned into an early '90s hangover and the capital started in the decade in deep recession. Demand for big office schemes evaporated and the original owners of Canary Wharf, Olympia and York, went bankrupt in 1992. Suddenly the King's Cross scheme and its millions of square feet of office space didn't seem such a 'win win'.
So St Pancras instead then?
Momentum behind the scenes began shifting to St Pancras, at the time served only by a handful of trains an hour. In January 1994, the government confirmed it had indeed gone for St Pancras, stating it was preferable to King's Cross 'on environmental, operational and commercial grounds'. There was also the case that it might be up to £400 million cheaper. Local residents breathed a sigh of relief. It was later confirmed over £40 million of public money had been spent on the abortive King's Cross scheme.
For the most part though, things did end up happily ever after, with the reinvigoration and restoration of St Pancras via Eurostar, albeit 13 years after the Channel Tunnel itself opened, with a new Thameslink station underneath it.
Sadly, this also signalled the end of Waterloo International, the original home of Eurostar trains from 1994-2007. It was originally planned that both stations would operate together, with one train an hour still departing from Waterloo, but this decision was reversed in 2004 as Eurostar bosses decided it was too expensive to keep it running for such a small number of services.
King's Cross station has since been transformed too, its own impressive new western concourse opening in 2012. Next time you're admiring one of these two restored Victorian masterpieces — preferably from one of the excellent on-site pubs like the Betjeman Arms or the Parcel Yard — just think how different things could have been…