Here are seven of the world’s best stations

Sorry, New York's Grand Central, we forgot to include you. Image: Getty.

Stations are, when you think about it, pretty important places. Whether you file through them mindlessly twice a day pondering existentialism, whether this is really all there is, and what’s for dinner, or whether you take pioneering long-distance trains to far-flung exotic places like Slough, they have symbolic value. Think Harry Potter, and tell me stations don’t occupy some part of our collective consciousness.

But what makes a station special? Is it how well it works? How beautiful it looks? How historic or groundbreaking its design? How unique it is?

Whatever floats your boat, or steams your train, here’s a selection of the finest the world has to offer.

Rotterdam Centraal

Image: Jan Oosterhuis/Wikimedia Commons.

Rebuilt between 2008 and 2014, Rotterdam’s new central railway terminus is a beauty. Though the old station didn’t go without a fight - on its last day in use the letters “CENTRAAL STATION” were rearranged to read “TRAAN LATEN”, meaning “shed a tear” - the new more than makes up for its loss.

Designed by Benthem Crouwel Architekten, MVSA Meyer & Van Schooten Architects, and West 8, the new station was built to cope with increasing passenger numbers and a higher number of trains, including high speed services to Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels, and the new RandstadRail intercity metro system.

The central station clock and station name lettering from the original 1957 station were carried across to the new building, giving its dramatic angular facade a familiar touch.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Image: Getty.

Berlin’s “head-train-yard” (to take a literal translation) is pretty much as you’d expect Berlin’s main train station to be. Big, solid, functional-looking, and more shiny and efficient than you.

Approximately 300,000 passengers shuffle through its concourses every day, which is where Berlin Hbf’s sleek functionality comes in. Platforms are separated between an upper level, with six tracks and three platforms, and a lower level, with ten tracks and five platforms.

The types of train service are split across the two levels, too. The S-Bahn (Stadtschnellbahn, kind of equivalent to the Overground) runs on the higher level along with some mainline services, whilst the U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn, or “underground train”) runs on the lower level with more mainline services thrown in.

The clever thing, though, is the separation of directions that goes with it. The upper level is east-west, whisking you off to the likes of Spandau (home of ballet) in the west and Prague in the east, whilst the lower level runs north-south. This comes in handy for nipping over to the Brandenburg Gate, or a jolly weekend in Munich.

With loads of escalators ready to trundle you happily to your platform and enough light, bright signage to keep every passing graphic designer happy, Berlin Hauptbahnhof wins on the functionality measure, even if it looks a bit, well, German.

London Blackfriars

Image: Getty.

The first time I pulled into the new station at London Blackfriars I had to stop myself standing up and declaring to my fellow Thameslinkers “God bless you all and God bless the United Kingdom”, such was my brief flicker of national pride.

I mean, come on. We needed to expand and improve on a station that was sitting awkwardly by a river, so what did we do? We put the station on the river. What a beautiful country we live in.

The station concourse is light, airy, and grandiose, the platforms are gloriously long, the views as you wait for your yet-again delayed train are unbeatable, and to top it all off the roof generates electricity. What more could you want?

Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus

Image: Joe Ravi/Wikimedia Commons.

Moving away from shiny glass things, briefly, to glorious old things, Mumbai’s CST (as it’s known) is like St Pancras on speed.

Designed by Frederick William Stevens in the 1870s, CST has the unusual accolade for a train station of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though it has since seen a change of name (from Victoria Station to its current title), a terrorist attack, and the endless tuts of over 3m commuters a day, CST stands firm.

The station has 18 platforms, four ticket offices, and a large number of air-conditioned dormitories. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, chosen as a filming location for the iconic film Slumdog Millionaire.

Helsinki Central

Image: Revontuli/Wikimedia Commons.

Helsinki's main railway terminus has, among other things, the remarkable accolade of being the most visited building in the entire country. Around 200,000 passengers filter through every day, and the station connects all trains on Helsinki’s commuter rail network with the Finnish capital’s busiest metro station, and a hefty share of Finland’s long-distance rail services.

The station has a strangely symbolic significance in Finland thanks to its four stone men statues, holding large globular lamps that light up at night. These characters, made of the same Finnish granite as the station building, have even been parodied elsewhere in Finland, and have featured in rap-song advertisements for the Finnish national railway company.

Take that, Charing Cross.


Image: Getty.

The Victorians were really into their trains, weren’t they? I mean, I know that Belgians in the time of Leopold II (1865-1909) probably wouldn’t have liked being called Victorians, but still: Antwerpen-Centraal, built between 1895 and 1905, is pretty Victorian.

It’s vast, filled with stone, marble, and glass, and has an entrance hall that puts New York’s Grand Central to shame. If you like trains, Antwerpen-Centraal is kind of like a cathedral for them, except you might have to take a fold-out camping table with you to use as an altar.

As a one-up to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the station has platforms over three levels, with two levels below ground, the original station platforms one storey above ground level, and an extra floor of commercial space thrown in for good measure.

Cook, South Australia

We have no idea why Google Maps feels the need to bring frozen meals into this. Image: Google.

Niche, but bear with me.

In the middle of the Nullabor Plain in the desert of South Australia, there’s a ghost town with nowt more than a railway station, an empty airstrip, and the remains of an abandoned town. The only trains that run through here are of the Indian Pacific service, a mostly tourist and novelty affair that chugs all the way across Australia from Perth to Sydney.

The nearest major city is Port Augusta, a mere 826km away, and Cook station sits in the middle of the longest straight section of railway in the entire world.

Never mind yoga retreats in rural Guadeloupe, just get off the train at Cook station and wait for the next one to come.

In a week’s time.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.