“All life's serious journeys involve a railway terminus”: Europe is cleaning up its destination stations

Antwerp Centraal, 2009. Image: Getty.

“All life's really serious journeys involve a railway terminus,” remarked Stephen Fry, playing Oscar in the film Wilde and riffing neatly on The Importance of being Earnest.

He’s right: there’s nothing quite like stepping off a train and knowing you’ve arrived, especially beneath a full-on nineteenth-century railway cathedral arch. And yet, some of Europe’s finest stations need a bit of TLC, while the areas around them are often a bit of a dump (as anyone who’s strolled out of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof down Kaisterstrasse knows).

Since the turn of the century, however, railway companies across Europe have been polishing up the jewels in the ferrovial crown, and work is well underway on the centrepiece. Paris Gare du Nord: Europe’s busiest station, this machine for moving people serves 2,100 trains and 700,000 travellers every day.


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I first encountered Gare du Nord as an Erasmus student, back in 2003, with my first experience of proper, scary harassment on the escalators there. In 2006, my laptop got stolen there when leaving the Thalys. In 2007, when Eurostar’s London terminus moved to St. Pancras, a gleaming collection of fancy shops, craft ale bars and the longest champagne bar in Europe, poor old Gare du Nord looked even more tatty by comparison.

Back in January, Harry Mount called it a “dump,” in the Spectator, “haunted by lost souls, homeless, drunk and begging.” 

But now it’s all change at the terminus. Much like the gloomy narrative about Marine Le Pen’s success in French politics in recent months actually turned out to be overdone, Gare du Nord is getting refurbished and the first bits look as sharp as Emmanuel Macron’s Presidential portrait. The first stage of works is due to finish in 2019, but already they’ve smartened up the RER platforms, opened a ton of new shops and got a Michelin-starred chef to open a Brasserie (so #onbrand for France).

The new Eurostar business lounge is complete, and a complete delight, as well. There’s a superb view for a bit of high-speed train spotting (GdN has trains to four countries other than France) as well as a fancy gin corner. This in turn has freed up plenty of space in the main lounge and boarding area. But it’s just the start: I’ve had a peek at what comes next, and it looks very interesting.

Gare du Nord is the biggest and oldest of Paris’ stations, but it’s been mired in drama since the start. It doesn’t have a large forecourt like most grand C19th stations because of a personal conflict between 19th-century Barons Rothschild and Haussmann, which has made it particularly challenging to extend the station halls as demand grew. Gares et Interconnexions, the arm of SNCF in charge of the works, says the challenge is to “push the walls in this constrained space and modernise the station without losing the character of its listed architecture”.

That means a complete reworking of the surrounding area and making more sense of the links with neighbouring Gare de l’Est and Magenta, the underground station for local trains on the RER E line. The area out the front, with its much-abused drop-off point, will be entirely pedestrianised, so sitting out the front of Terminus Nord with a glass of something chilled will become even more appealing. The “historic, recently-restored, front elevation, will take a real aesthetic and symbolic place in this newly-calmed forecourt which will attract restaurant terrasses, events and an urban and social life which will benefit the neighbourhood”.

An impression of the new Gare du Nord. Image: Wilmotte.

Destination stations aren’t about “if you build it, they will come” so much as “people are going to use this travel hub anyway so we might as well make it as attractive as possible”. This usually involves “wow factor” architecture, rethinking the user experience and sticking in a load of shops, without the airport constraint that you’re obliged to go through them, Temple-Grandin style.

Look at Antwerp Centraal: designed by Louis Dela Censerie because King Leopold II felt that previous plans weren’t grand enough, this railway cathedral opened in 1905 and has been an icon ever since. In the sixties, it was nearly demolished (like Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple, knocked down for an office block) but in 2009 it was restored to more than its former glory.

Previously a terminus, a tunnel underneath means high speed trains can go through from Paris to Amsterdam; a whole new station entrance at the other end means it’s less crowded and easier to navigate. In February 2009, Newsweek named it the world’s 4th most beautiful station. And the shops? Darling, it has its own diamond gallery (and some cracking waffle stands).

The shopping thing is particularly helpful in Germany, where the Ladenschlussgesetz means shopping on Sunday is generally a big fat nein unless you’re in a railway station, petrol station or airport. Having slagged off Frankfurt HbF earlier, it does have one of the best multi-language bookshops I know – right there in the station. But Germany’s premier Bahnhofserlebnis must be Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Opened in 2006, it has an incredible multi-level design – imagine a collaboration between MC Escher and Hornby – and serves 300,000 passengers a day. It’s light, airy and has outstanding signage – a railway cathedral for the 21st century.

Destination stations aren’t all about fast trains and fine dining, however. Refurbishments usually also improve disabled access, add plenty of new bike parking, and better links with local public transport, meaning fewer cars in city centres.

In the ten years since its opened, a Deutsche Bahn spokesman says, Berlin HbF has added improved information system for disabled and blind people, switched its lighting to LED technology, and added over 1000 new lockers. They have also added more than 30 new clocks – as the German saying goes, punctuality is the politeness of kings.

As CityMetric noted recently, “the stench of urine that greets you on leaving Gare du Nord” is far too many people’s first impression of Paris. It’s high time that changed – with the first stages of the refurbishment complete, we can’t wait to see how the finished project looks.


How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.

Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.