The Worst Train Station in the World (2010)

Before you ask, no I haven’t been to every train station in the world.  But sometimes you realise that an experience is so bad that it has reached a zenith of consumer misery that would be unsurpassable.

In any quest there comes a time when the hero must dismount, and tell himself that there is no maiden fairer, no prize greater, no more land to discover that is worth the effort. Or in this case, no railway station experience more miserable.

And I’ve seen some bad ones.

Those where the only shelter remained locked during a blizzard.

Those where the only source of heat was little more than a hair dryer bolted to a wall on a timer switch. And it didn’t work.

Those where the staff are only present for a couple of hours a day and make unhelpfulness an art-form (most are friendly and helpful, but some are veritable black belts in grumpy disservice).

But these pretenders to the crown are doomed to fail. They’re too small to hurt enough people. They are minor dots on the Network Rail map: most people will never be inconvenienced by them, and regular travellers learn to adapt to their shortcomings and soon simply grunt back at the charmless nerk behind the counter in a style that owes more to cavemen than modern man.

No, we’re going to need something altogether more substantial.

I give you London’s Kings Cross Station. Nestling in the groin of London’s grime, surrounded by dirty streets, tatty convenience stores and fast food outlets that position themselves at the “will you be assaulted by a fellow customer or get food poisoning” end of the market.

The problem, however, is the way the station is run.

For some reason the station management have created an ‘information’ system (and the word really isn’t justified) that forces passengers to behave like battery-farmed animals.

Despite having eleven platforms, information is typically provided for just a couple of trains.

Yes, that’s right, a major train station, with eleven platforms, and there is information about just two.

On top of this, the information is presented in two columns. These are listed by train operator. Train operator!!

Fortunately, I only travel into London occasionally by train, but I have no idea which train operator I’m travelling with. I know which station I want to go to.

The presentation of information also doesn’t lend itself to reading the names of station that are on the route to the clearly displayed information.

So you have an information that presumes you know which rail operator you’re using and the ultimate destination of the train beyond your chosen stop.

Rather than provide their customers with the information they need in a way that reflects how customers think about their journey, they present it according to their model of the world.


And what is the impact of only providing platform information for two trains?

Everyone must stand around gazing at the board hoping that they will receive enlightenment from the information gods operating the screens. (And my don’t we all look happy in the picture). Incidentally, this is half past two in the afternoon. You should see it when it’s busy!

And when the deities deign to release the platform information guess what happens? Masses of people charge off in one direction, anxious to secure a seat for their journey, creating the sort of scramble you see when a field of sheep realise a dog has appeared and would like to bite them.

The issues are compounded by the fact that platforms 9, 10 and 11 are situated some distance away. Passengers for trains announced at these stations can participate in a middle distance event that combines speed, stamina and agility (to negotiate the ticket barriers): I imagine it will be included in the 2012 games.

All this anxiety and lack of personal control are the antithesis of a good consumer experience. It’s a recipe for misery.

Of course, people accept it, in their downtrodden way.

But really, whoever came up with this torture should be put before some kind of International Crimes Against Consumers commission.

At London’s Liverpool Street station details are provided in advance of trains arriving for all the platforms, along with information about every stop on the journey (displayed in a clear way).

I know they have more space, but that’s not the point. They give customers as much information as possible and it’s easy to scan the lists of information to find your own (non-destination) stop.

The latest psychological research into how people who feel empowered perceive things differently sheds an important light on what clinches Kings Cross’s crown as the ultimate in poor station experiences: a recent study by the University of Kent has found that people underestimate the time it takes to complete a task when they feel powerful.

There is no danger that customers at Kings Cross will underestimate how long they are having to wait for their train… quite the reverse!

Is it any wonder that when T-Mobile wanted a location for their flash mob dance they opted for Liverpool Street station and not Kings Cross? The former is a bright, open space full of people who feel in control of their journeys. The latter is dingy shed, full of depressed customers who would probably sooner strangle someone who started dancing than tap their feet and join in!

Source: Weick et al. How Long Will It Take? Power Biases Time Predictions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.03.005

Image courtesy: Paolo Margari


  1. R.H. Omea

    Sorry mate, I’ve been in train stations from Manhattan to Mumbai and back, including Kings Cross and dozens in the UK from Aberdeen down to Brighton. The absolute topper for the The World’s Worst Train Station, by any and every criteria is New York Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan. Where to start? It sits in the center of one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. Crowd crush: It’s the busiest terminal in all of North America with more than 700K commuter rail and long-distance Amtrak passengers a day and up to 1000/minute coming through the doors during rush hours. and that number does NOT include the 6 subway lines and TWO metro bus terminals with at least 30 bus lines (local and tristate area) functioning under its external canopy. Including those it would be safe to say that at least 1.2-1.5 MILLION people traverse the entries and walkways in and around Penn Station every day. The low ceilings in all THREE levels of hell provide no space for the body heat and stench of sweating commuters in its minimally air-conditioned summers. hell it’s even warm, smelly and sticky in the winter as the trains are stacked up on three levels all emitting heat that has no place to go but into the station. Waiting areas have ZERO seating, the floors are poured concrete topped with stone so leg killing to stand on and wait for trains. The entire space reeks of the cheap gross food being cooked within its confines, and the overall lack of space means that people must bunch up like the starting line of the NY Marathon and practically run each other over to get to the platforms when a train is announced -on tracks that for an unknown reason must differ by the hour and day instead of being at the same track every day at the same time. Kings Cross, with its lovely high, smokestack era iron and glass enclosures and relatively spacious platform access is like paradise by comparison!

    1. Philip Graves

      You missed the date reference at the top of the article. Kings Cross now is a fine station, with only a minor throw back to the bad old days of mad scrambles from the ridiculously designed announcement board to the cramped platforms. I’d like to think that my article caused them to rebuild it (but sadly my influence doesn’t extend quite that far).

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