A high-speed blog post

No, I’m not typing any faster than normal, but rather intending to write about high-speed rail, something I’ve blogged about already.

Plenty has been written about the economic benefit of the proposed high-speed rail network in the UK, the development of which is managed by these people.  So I am not going to repeat in too much depth my views that it’s a long time coming, that we’re lightyears behind other countries on this front, and that the plans must go further north than Glasgow and Edinburgh (if indeed they ever get there at all).

However, I’d like to look at a slightly different aspect, inspired by this thought-provoking article in the Guardian.  The article explores the link between architecture and rail travel, focusing on the suggestion that the Euston Arch be rebuilt to coincide with Euston’s intended role as the London terminus of the new high-speed rail line.  This, the writer argues, is in the spirit of the development of the early railway network in the UK.  He writes:

Such early railways saw themselves as the industrial-age inheritors of ancient Greek and Roman values, although they were determined to outstrip these lauded cultures in sheer daring, grandeur and engineering prowess. The London and Birmingham would be the successor to the famous Roman roads; and what better way to nod respectfully to the ancients than to have trains running from a neo-classical terminus?

This, presumably is why so many of our major railway stations are – or were – hugely impressive examples of Victorian-era neo-classical architecture.  Glasgow Central is one of my favourites: both inside and out, the architecture shouts aspiration, grandeur and the age of Empire, and that evokes a sense of importance and adventure that was seen to lie within rail travel, and still does today.  It’s a hugely impressive place to travel to and from, even if just on the commuter services around Greater Glasgow.

Indeed, the one major criticism I’d make of Glasgow Central is that it is hard to fully appreciate its stunning main entrance on Gordon Street because it is faced so closely by the neighbouring block across the road.

Many such stations have been given the shocking 1960s treatment, such as Dundee, Inverness or Glasgow Queen Street, and the demolition of the Euston Arch is a perfectly awful example of how the aspirational sense of place and history that Victorian architecture presented was replaced by soulless post-war modernism that left buildings detached from any sense of going somewhere – which is precisely what railway stations are for.

Of course, the lessons learned from that era have led to some stunning restorations, and some beautiful fusions of old and new architecture – as Aberdeen’s Union Square or London’s King’s Cross/St Pancras demonstrates.

In fact, King’s Cross/St Pancras points the way forward.  As the London terminal for the only stretch of high-speed rail, the Eurostar to Paris and Brussels, there is a sense of awe in the  interior and exterior, one which is fit for international travel.  If you’re heading to mainland Europe via a magnificent piece of engineering, do you want to depart from a naff 60s building with a Burger King and dreary coffee shop, or do you want to depart from a building whose aspiration matches the aspirations we should have for our transport network?

Well-designed railway stations that have good facilities and are easily-navigable, pleasing to look at and comfortable, are naturally pleasant to spend time in.  If we want to tempt people to take the train, and if we want to prove that high-speed rail is something new, innovative and worth aspiring to, then the railway stations the network covers must match that desire.  Timing, fares, routes and train interiors are not the only ways to get people travelling by rail: it’s not just about making the railway feel important and worth investing in, but making the passengers feel that too.  Iconic terminals are an essential ingredient in doing that.

The restoration of the Euston Arch would be a terrific idea.  I hope other stations follow suit in scrubbing up and becoming fit for purpose for the UK’s forthcoming rail revolution.

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