King’s Cross – Uncrossed!

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Estimated time to read this article: 5 minutes

(Featured image: King’s Cross sign and ongoing upgrade works in the background, taken on 18th April 2021)

With new railways taking up pretty much all the rail-related column inches in the mainstream media currently, you might be forgiven for thinking the current railway network doesn’t have much in the way of major upgrade schemes happening currently. However, that’s far from being the case – and a particularly large project currently taking shape is increasing capacity into one of London’s busiest railway stations, as part of a larger upgrade project covering the entire East Coast Main Line – and today marks a milestone with the first trains running through a newly retracked and electrified tunnel.

Before we look at the current changes though, and in order to appreciate the complexity of the trackwork running into the station today, let’s first take a quick look at the station’s history.

King’s Cross has been the primary gateway for trains linking London and Edinburgh for almost 160 years – and for a lot of that period has suffered with undercapacity immediately north of the station itself.

The original Kings Cross station layout (credit: lner.info – which also has an excellent more general summary on the history of Kings Cross)

When King’s Cross first opened in 1852, it had just one arrival and one departure platform for passenger services – and the main pinchpoint was a single double-track tunnel under the gasworks immediately north of the station, which had to handle both passenger and freight traffic. It became quickly apparent that this wasn’t going to be sufficient as demand for rail travel started to increase, and a project in the late 1870s built a bridge which separated traffic into the goods yard off so they didn’t have to cross the passenger lines, whilst simultaneously digging a second double-track tunnel under the gasworks. Demand continued to increase and in the 1890s, a third double-track tunnel was dug – for a total of 6 tracks running into the station throat.

The last time the track layout had a major remodel was in the 1970s – at around the same time as the extension of the passenger concourse into what is now King’s Cross Square was completed (with its ‘iconic’ green ‘temporary’ facade, only demolished in 2010!). The track layout was simplified, and the Gasworks tunnels cut from 6 tracks to 4, with the easternmost tunnel falling out of use and the track lifted…

The 1970s King’s Cross extension, hiding the elegance of the original station front! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

That is, until now!

Re-routing the tracks

Over the past year, work has been carried out to bring the King’s Cross station approach into the 21st Century! The vast majority of the trackwork and signalling (with the exception of the immediate approach into Platform 0, which opened in 2010) hasn’t had much major work for over 40 years, and as of next month, will be fully complete.

The most immediately obvious change is the reopening of the easternmost bore through the Gasworks Tunnel to add additional capacity on approach to the station – and the first two passenger trains through them this morning celebrated its opening by a parallel arrival into the station!

Let’s have a quick look at what else is changing also, per this diagram from when the project was first proposed (Source for this version of the diagram, used as it’s a nice comparison, but matches the layout indicated by Rail Engineer in an article from earlier this year)

One thing you might notice from that diagram is that King’s Cross is actually losing a platform as part of these works. This may seem counterintuitive, however it will allow platforms 9 and 10 to be significantly altered to give a much more straightforward route in and out of the platforms for trains, and also eliminates the current bottleneck on the platform itself if passengers are alighting/boarding from both platforms at once. The video in my two Tweets linked below (one taken from a service departing P9 and a second from a couple of days ago during the most recent closure) gives a good example of just how short platforms 9 to 11 are currently compared to 1-8, and the curvature required to connect into the station throat up until now:

I was also amazed when filming that video as to just how wide the station approach looks with the new trackwork now in place for the third tunnel – compared to the picture below, it’s a good visual demonstration of the capacity increase the additional tunnel will bring once the remodelling is fully complete, whilst also helping to reduce conflicting moves across the station with the revised points locations and giving more flexibility in times of disruption.

The old track layout at Kings Cross – note how much curvature is on some of the tracks on the left hand side of the picture (low-numbered platforms)!

Signalling the future

It’s not just the track layout that’s changing as part of this work – the King’s Cross approach is, from today, operated by signallers over 200 miles away in York’s state-of-the-art ROC (Railway Operating Centre) rather than a signalbox next to the approach.

Modern technology means that rather than physical panels like the one above, signallers can now route trains via a set of screens instead – perhaps not as nostalgic, but far more efficient, and improved reliability:

Summary

The station throat at Kings Cross – a hive of activity! (Picture taken 18th April 2021)

Whilst it hasn’t got all the press attention, as alluded to at the start of the article, personally I find the East Coast Upgrade project (of which these works are a major part) exciting – it’s bringing a part of the railway that hasn’t really had much work put into it for a significant period into the 21st Century allowing for more reliable services on one of the UK’s arterial routes.

Today marks the first day in over 40 years that there are 6 running lines into King’s Cross, and marks a major step in the year-long project to ‘uncross’ the lines approaching the platforms. As the Tweet below signifies, it really is the end of an era – but this much-needed upgrade will keep trains in and out of the station running smoothly in the years and decades ahead, and I can’t wait to see the finished layout when the station fully reopens in June.

You can keep up to date on progress and find out more at eastcoastupgrade.co.uk or by following @ECMLUpgrade on Twitter. Have you got any thoughts on the upgrade, or any other stories about the station? I’d be interested to hear them in the comments, or you can find me on Twitter @mdw1989!

Note: A minor update was made to this article a day after publication – 27th April – to correct a couple of facts regarding the removal of the current platform 10 – it mentioned the platforms would be lengthened but it turns out the source for this was incorrect, so a paragraph was reworded to focus on its other benefits.

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