How did the world’s major rail terminals get their names?

What IS that smell? Gare du Nord. Image: Hugh Llewelyn/Wikimedia Commons.

As I was leaving Paris last week (did I mention I was in Paris last week? I was in Paris last week), a question struck me: why is Gare du Nord called Gare du Nord?

The phrase literally translates as “station of the north” or, less formally, “north station”. That implies it takes its name from its location relative to central Paris: it’s the same naming convention as the definitely equally glamorous North Acton.

The one slight problem with this theory is that Gare du Nord is literally over the road from Gare de l’Est, and while the north station can reasonably be described as north of central Paris the east station isn’t obviously east of it.

So: maybe it actually refers to the destinations. From Gare du Nord you can take trains to northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and England. By the same token, those from Gare de l’Est go to eastern France, Germany, even Poland and Russia. By this logic, Gare du Nord should be interpreted not as “station in the north” so much as the “station for the north”.

Because I’m lazy and have no filter these days I put this question to Twitter. Anthony Zacharzewski of the Democratic Society was kind enough to answer:

In other words: the station wasn’t really named for either its location in Paris or, directly, where its trains go. It was named after the company that built it, whose name translates as “Northern Railways”. (Incidentally, “Chemins de Fer” literally means “paths of iron”. Cool.)

Anyway, this is all a very long way of saying that I’ve been thinking about where rail terminals get their names. There are, best I can tell, five major categories, though they overlap on occasion, and some are more common than others. Here’s a sort of taxonomy of how cities name their stations:

1. Stations named for their location

An easy one to start off with: many stations are named, simply, after where they are. This is probably the one most familiar to you if you’re reading in Britain, as it not only includes most of the London rail terminals, but also the major stations of several of the other big cities.

“Location” can mean several different things, however. Stations can take their names from:

            a) streets – London Liverpool Street, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly, Liverpool Lime Street;

            b) districts – London Paddington, London St Pancras, Paris Montparnasse, Madrid Atocha, Barcelona Sants;

            c) compass points - Brussels Midi, Amsterdam Centraal, Glasgow Central;

            d) landmarks – London Bridge, London Charing Cross, Marseille St Charles (named for the cemetary on whose site it sits).

Marseille St Charles. Look at those beautiful steps. Image: Ignis/Wikimedia Commons.

Some of these merge into each other over time. London Kings Cross, for example, is a station that takes its name from a district that took its name from an actual cross to George IV that stood in the area from 1830, the year of his death, until 1845. (Not much sentimental attachment to George IV, it seems.) The station didn’t open until 1852, seven years after the cross disappeared – but by then the name of the landmark had become attached to the district, so the name stuck.

This sort of blurriness is something we’ll be coming back to.

2. Stations named after their function

This one seems to be specific to certain countries, notably the US and Germany, but is fairly self-explanatory.

New York’s Grand Central station is called that because, well, it’s a big station that brought the trains from a number of different companies and lines into a single terminal. It’s the same logic that led to several other US cities (Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles) ending up with Union Stations: there used to be several stations, that were later replaced by one big one.

In the same way, several cities in the German speaking  world (Berlin, Vienna, Munich) have a “Hauptbahnhof” – literally, main station.

It’s difficult to think of any British stations that follow this sort of naming convention – Cardiff Central, perhaps? – but if you can think of one do feel free to write in.

The booking hall at Grand Central Terminal. Beat that. Image: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons.

UPDATE, 13:20hrs: Someone wrote in. Tom Whyman points out that stations like Bristol Parkway are named after their functions, too: specifically, being a station in a green bit outside the city proper. So, there you go.

3. Stations named after their major destination

A few stations are named after the places where a bunch of their trains end up. The obvious example is the Gare de Lyon, back in Paris, which serves destinations to the south – but a number of the lost stations of Berlin (Lehrter Bahnhof, Hamburger Bahnhof) seem to have followed this convention too.

There aren’t many of these, however. Indeed, several of the stations that do seem to follow this convention are actually...

4. Stations named after the company that built them

We’ve already mentioned Gare du Nord and Gare de L’est. Others in this category include New York’s Penn station, named after the Pennsylvania Railroad which, despite its name, in fact spread all over the MidWest and Midatlantic states; and St Petersburg’s Finland station, where Lenin famously returned from exile in 1917, and which was actually built by the Finnish state railway.

The only one I can think of in Britain is London’s Great Central, which was named after the hilariously optimistic company that built it. Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to be great for anything, they renamed it Marylebone. (CORRECTION, 19 July: Someone has written in to point out that this only applies to the tube station; the main line one was always Marylebone. Bad me.)

Finally, there are:


5. Stations whose names commemorate a person or an event

The obvious one here is in Paris again: the Gare d’Austerlitz, which is named after the 1805 battle in what is now the Czech Republic, at which Napoleon kicked the crap out of the Third Coalition army.

Other seemed to fit in this category, when I first came up with this scheme, but now I’m not so sure. London Waterloo, for example, was originally named Waterloo Bridge. The bridge took its name from the battle (France vs the Fifth coaltion in 1815; that one didn’t go quite so well for Napoleon); but the station took its name from the bridge, since when, the area has taken its name from the station. So is the name commemorative or geographical?

Similarly, Victoria station was named after Her Maj in the 1850s; but it was also at the end of Victoria Street, which had sucked up to her first. So – is that commemorative, or is it geographical? Or both?

Maybe there isn’t actually a neat taxonomy for this stuff and I’ve just wasted both your time and mine. Ah well.

Anyway. My knowledge of the stations of the world is obviously incomplete: if you’ve spotted a rail terminal whose name doesn’t fit into my neat scheme, give me a shout.

I know, I can’t believe I get paid for this stuff either.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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