“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.
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.