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Light at the end of the tunnel

The Government committed £160M to improve access to the tube at King's Cross station this week. But is it cause for celebration?

The tragedy at King's Cross station in 1987 shocked the nation. Fire rapidly engulfed the cramped underground passages and escalators and left 31 commuters dead, hundreds more injured and the public with serious doubts about the safety of London's primary public transport asset.

This week - 11 years later - the Government gave the go-ahead for what it describes as a project 'to address in full one of the few outstanding recommendations of the Fennel Report on the King's Cross fire'. The two- phase £160M scheme is aimed at relieving congestion at the station - London Underground's third busiest - and provide better access to the five tube lines, Thameslink services and the numerous heavy rail services which the station handles.

It is clearly a vital scheme to safeguard the lives of the 70M people passing through the station each year. And anyone who has used the station will be familiar with the crush of bodies as commuters battle to and from trains via the access points at the ends of platforms. So why has it taken 11 years to find the cash?

The delay in bringing the scheme forward must certainly be blamed on the project's 'other' use - increasing capacity at King's Cross is key to London Underground's preparation for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

According to Gibb chief executive Peter Brettell, the project has been around in its current form at least since 1993. Plans to build a western concourse alongside the existing entrance, linked to another new concourse further north to serve CTRL passengers from St Pancras, were established by Gibb when commissioned by Union Railways to examine options for terminating the CTRL at King's Cross, he insists.

'King's Cross is very well served by trains but not by platforms,' says Brettell. 'The beauty of the scheme is that you can build the whole scheme without disrupting the existing infrastructure.'

Brettell's team established that to route the CTRL to a completely remodelled King's Cross rather than expanding St Pancras would have caused unacceptable chaos at this busy station. It would also have cost another £1bn to rip the station apart and start again. Tagging on new concourses and interconnecting passageways is, therefore, a sensible solution.

However, while Londoners should be relieved that money has at last been committed to improve this notoriously congested part of the network, it should be noted that no firm start date has been given for phase two of the project. And while the aim is to create an interchange with CTRL traffic from St Pancras, it will also improve access to the Victoria and Piccadilly Lines.

Once again, the fate of improvements to the tube network are dependent on outside forces - in this case 'when Section 2 of the CTRL is constructed, currently expected to start in 2001', according to the DETR - 14 years after the King's Cross fire. This start date is the most optimistic assessment, particularly in the light of Railtrack's decision this week to reassess the Thameslink 2000 project.

Here, construction of another £150M interchange box at King's Cross to link with the CTRL is vital and would be built at the same time as the London Underground work. But ominously, like the LU work, it is dependent not only on the CTRL being continued into central London but also on Government funding to pay for the box.

So while there is cause for celebrating that cash has been found to carry out vital improvements to the tube network, this week's announcement underlines the need properly to address the long term funding of the underground. The CTRL is a commercial venture by a commercial company - to have vital works on the tube, particularly those relating to safety, dependent on its progress must be seen as a strange way to run the network.

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