Don’t get me wrong, the stations at St Pancras and King’s Cross are much-improved compared to how I remember them a few years ago. My interest lies in the signage, its fitness for purpose, and who decides what goes where. What test is used, if any is used, to conclude whether it works? I wonder if, while the pundits are dribbling on about the great roof, or the restoration of the clock, they notice the signs at all (except maybe to criticize the colour blue used). I spent some time at both stations and concluded that if anything let them down it was the signage, and particularly the public transport information.
It is obvious stuff, but signs have to provide consistent information from the point at which a user needs particular information to the point that the person arrives at the feature required. On the way, intermediate signs may be required (1) to direct at decision points, and (2) to reassure if the feature is a long way away.
The signs at Kings Cross start off at a disadvantage because the roof is not available from which to hang large signs that can be seen from a distance, which is the ideal. In consequence they are stacked up on five floor-mounted pedestals, which must be limited in number as they are obstructions to flow (there is a sixth, out of the main stream near an exit). The outcome are signs that are relatively small, and cannot realistically be seen from a long way away. So, instead of someone coming into the station and identifying whatever it is that is wanted without breaking step, as it were, it is necessary to divert to one side (for they tend to be towards the western side to avoid being in the way) and study them for whatever is wanted. It isn’t a disaster, but in a crowded space it is unhelpful. I was looking for bus information and found it very difficult to glean what I wanted; not one of these signs mentions buses at all. The only reference to buses was at the exits, where they simply pointed outwards, including one pointing north west into an area where there were no stops. It did not help that even this meagre information stops at the ticket hall boundary and one was left bereft of further guidance having left the building (and you cannot see any of the the bus stops from the exits). OK, I accept that most people will leave via the arrivals ticket hall (the old one), but certainly not anyone coming in via platforms 9-11.
I actually wanted a northbound 46 bus (yes, really). This proved a challenge as there was no signage within Kings Cross concourse that hinted at north-south bus routes. An ‘onwards travel’ display would have been handy, but if there was one I couldn’t find it (I thought they were mandatory). Nor was there a ‘Where to Board’ display or a local map leaflet in the new Underground ticket hall, underneath. I suspected the bus I wanted would have used the northbound road route between Kings Cross and St Pancras but couldn’t see a stop. I went into St Pancras main line station, but even here there was no sign ‘to buses’ pointing towards this exit (Pancras Road), but I did eventually find one pointing to the extreme western exit (Midland Road); here was the southbound stop. Here, and only here, I found a “Where to Board” display telling me I had to return to Pancras Road and walk pretty much most of the way towards Euston Road. Why, I wondered, at a brand new station, was the bus stop not near the station entrances; in the case of St Pancras the entrance was cluttered up with a car drop off and cab rank, though there was plenty of room for a bus stop (there is no stop between NB bus stop T near Euston Road and St Pancras Road north of Goods Way, a particularly long gap between stops).
Thinking it must be me, and that I’d missed something, I returned on a later occasion and went to the East Midland platforms to see if there was any bus information there for the benefit of arriving passengers, which there wasn’t. A sign ‘Buses’ pointed down the escalator but at the bottom there was absolutely nothing to tell intending bus passengers where to go next. I exclude a sign a little way behind the escalator pointing to the southbound 46 stop, which someone coming down the escalator would not have seen. The next ‘forwards’ sign for buses that I noticed was about 100 metres away, pointing into the LU ticket hall, and by inference to Euston Road. I could not find any ‘onward travel’ information at St Pancras either, at least not on the main line station.
I’m genuinely puzzled about who ordains what signs go where, and whether they ever use public transport. Perhaps the reason that a lot of transport signage is not very good is because those specifying it are too familiar with the locations, so never see signs as passengers would wish to see them. I assume that Network Rail is responsible for signs at Kings Cross, but St Pancras was recreated by Union Railways and is owned by HS1 Ltd..
I got a response to my initial blog that pointed out that ‘onward travel’ information is actually available at a number of electronic information kiosks dotted about St Pancras station, which I had evidently missed. Yet another visit was called for. I found about six of them, well disguised as advertisement hoardings and pretty much ignored by all. Indeed the pair at East Midlands Trains level presented only their advertising faces to arriving passengers who would have needed to divert from direct route to escalator and go round to the back of them in order to discover there was information there. Why would they do that? They didn’t. I hung around for a bit but nobody went near them although it was quite busy. They really needed a large sign on top saying ‘information’ in the station’s signage style if they are to stand a fighting chance of contributing anything. I did, eventually, notice a small pale yellow ‘i’ sign on the side, but this is frankly hopeless. I noticed that (for example) the ATMs were very well signed; why the difference, I wonder?
The information provided by these touch-screen kiosks was also a bit grim, ‘Travel’ being one of about six available headings. The bus information screen presented a station map (with no bus information on it) and part of a TfL-type spider map one could click on to get a full screen map of area. This did show some and maybe all the bus stops, but because of the number of routes it was impossible to relate the diagrammatic stop positions to the station map. What this cried out for was for the diagrammatic map to refer to the TfL stop letters and for these to be shown on the station map. The diagrammatic map also contained incorrect routing information, probably an error in transferring it to electronic display format. There was also a ‘local map’, but one could not display this with the bus map. The local map, intruigingly, appeared to show the bus stops but a quick check showed these were some kind of notional information that bore no relation to what was on the street (it showed two stops in Pancras Road, both on east (!) side and neither anywhere near the single stop there is in this road, on west side). The screen quality also wasn’t very good. With the best will in the world, this is simply no good. Also a TfL style ‘where to board’ type display would have allowed passengers to identify final destinations while the diagram providing the on-screen information, on their own, were really only useful for getting to other places a short distance away that also happen to be on the diagrams.
By the way, the street map on the St Pancras kiosks is not the same one appearing on the St Pancras website. The web version does show the bus stops (useful) but has succeeded in getting the Midland Road and Pancras Road bus information the wrong way round, so that won’t help people much. This is so frustrating and it is so hard to believe that anybody takes these things seriously. Check it out at: http://stpancras.com/How-to-Get-Here/Buses.
I also revisited Kings Cross main line to confirm what was each one of the signage units and to look at the Arrivals Area. After wandering around for a bit I finally found a kind on onward travel local map. This was mounted on the rear of a brick pier near where the old gateline had been and was in a quite dark area. There is absolutely no way any arriving passenger could have seen it.
I make the following suggestions. First it is important there is good onward travel information somewhere convenient on the walking route from all of the train arrivals platforms so that people can identify and select onward travel modes. This is obviously the best place to have bus route information because it is before passengers have to make their first decision about how to proceed next; in all of the train arrivals areas there is pace to do this. Traditional paper display methods are perfectly satisfactory and much useful material already exists in this form; if a technical solution is provided then something a great deal better than the present kiosks is necessary. Signage then needs to take people all the way to their selected mode. Unless buses all leave from the same location, then simply sticking up a sign saying “buses” (as though any vehicle will do) may not be sufficient and needs some help, like westbound buses, or buses towards central London, or something of the kind. The main thing is to look at what is needed from a passenger’s point of view, not that of an ‘expert’. Information then needs to be checked for accuracy and the management system needs to be capable of identifying and implemented any subsequent changes required. Guidance is available.
As I say, I would not wish to deride the excellent and essential improvements made at either St Pancras or King’s Cross stations. However I do think the signage could be better, and the modal-change signage I believe is capable of much improvement (it is often a neglected area as my work with train operators has shown me). It is also not very difficult for those with an eye for detail to point out, nor is it expensive to fix. But the will must be there first.