The reborn St Pancras has a soaring blue roof and champagne bar - and now hosts record-breaking continental rail services. But in the 1980s, the station was looking forlorn.
By Trevor Timpson
It was "grossly underused", says John Prideaux, the rail executive whom many credit with pushing through its choice as Britain's continental rail hub.
Railway competition made St Pancras magnificent, as in the 19th Century the Midland Railway's directors strove to build a finer terminus than its rivals had already established at Euston and King's Cross.
But competition also made it redundant when rationalisation set in. Merged first into the London Midland and Scottish (LMS) company based at Euston, then into British Railways, it went into decline.
Empty and dark
St Pancras plodded on through bombing in both world wars, the removal of its services to other stations, a merger plan that could have seen it turned into a sports hall, and rows over its fantasy gothic hotel.
Its huge roof, only partially reglazed after wartime damage, made it seem both empty and dark.
John Prideaux says the choice of St Pancras ended his BR career
Then in 1994 came a new twist.
The plan to drive the Channel Tunnel rail link straight under south-east London to a terminus somewhere beneath King's Cross was rejected.
In what railway historian Terry Gourvish calls "a change of tack well into the planning process", a plan was substituted for the link to approach London from the east, bringing redevelopment along its route.
The process of dropping the south-east London route is said to have started in 1991, when the then Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine's desire for urban renewal carried the argument in government.
The prospects for the grand but underused rail terminus looked bright. The crucial issue was available railway land, close to rail connections for the North - and for this the King's Cross-St Pancras area was unrivalled.
Richard Hope, consulting editor of Railway Gazette, thinks there were two reasons why St Pancras was chosen.
"First, it was seen as potentially redundant, or at least seriously underused," he says.
As well as moving its suburban services underground to Thameslink, British Rail had a plan to divert St Pancras' main line services into Euston via Market Harborough and Northampton.
Second, engineers initially thought "relatively cheap access" could be available using the North London Line through north-east London, Mr Hope adds.
The North London Line idea held out the prospect of avoiding "a lot of expensive tunnelling" says Terry Gourvish - but the prospects soon proved illusory.
In January 1994 the then Transport Secretary, John MacGregor, told MPs that Union Railways - the company set up to construct the Channel Tunnel link - had concluded that "St Pancras is preferable to King's Cross as the terminus on environmental, operational and commercial grounds".
The North London Line route, said Mr MacGregor, had been rejected as "difficult to construct and environmentally damaging".
John Prideaux was the first head of Union Railways, set up by British Rail to push through the Channel Tunnel rail link.
The alternative to St Pancras would have stretched under the main King's Cross building, the carriage entrance on its north-west side, and a gasworks to the north, he says.
It would have been very big because of the length of the Eurostar trains.
It would have involved excavation under listed buildings, under a medieval fever and smallpox hospital and the gasworks, creating huge constructional and pollution problems.
Nevertheless, its rejection was not inevitable, says Mr Prideaux. A bill providing for the south-east London-King's Cross plan had been before Parliament for more than three years.
British Rail executives had been making a case for the route for five years, and buying property in preparation for the King's Cross route.
So it was understandable that the change was very unpopular among his colleagues, Mr Prideaux says.
Seeing St Pancras reborn makes it all worthwhile, says John Prideaux
He does not say it was entirely due to him that King's Cross was rejected - but adds that the change led to his own departure from British Rail.
In the eyes of John Prideaux the reborn St Pancras station is "absolutely fantastic - a monument to modern British railways".
And after attending the Royal opening, he stressed: "How pleased I am now to see it happen. It makes things seem quite worthwhile, really."