The Discreet Charm of Train Stations

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When airports all look the same, why are train stations so different?

If you do a lot of hiking, there are certain things of which you will see a lot. In fact, it is possible to understand most, if not all hikes as a collation of recurring visual leitmotifs: rivers, mountains, valleys, highlighted by the occasional church steeple or castle ruin. Plus some wildlife, if you are lucky, although more likely horses and cows. And train stations.

"discreet charm of trains stations like station Longueville France"

Train stations are an inevitable part of the mix. The ones you arrive in are the ones you hardly notice, because you are in a hurry to leave them behind, but the ones you, eventually, depart from sometimes stay with you for hours.

It is in these long hours of enforced physical inactivity that you are beginning to think – and to wonder: why is it that train stations look the way they do?

By which I mainly mean: why do they all look so different? Take France, for example. All train stations in Greater Paris – where we did most of our weekend hiking for a number of years – may look alike (i.e. like the one in the picture above), as though they had all been designed by the same architect (which they probably were, come to think of it).

But the same design has not been used for stations in rural France, and in Germany, another train ride away, things are totally different yet again.

"discreet charm of train stations like this German Hauptbahnhof"

Then there are the prestige stations, the big railway building projects of the mid-to-late 19th century. Every architect appears to have come up with his own solution – a solution that may have included allusions to medieval masons’ guilds and the heavy shapes of the vernacular …

"discreet charm of train stations like the Hamburg main station"

… imitations of Venetian palazzi …

"part of the facade of St Pancras train station London"

 … and classic temples.

"discreet charm of train stations like the Gare du Nord Paris France"

I find that extremely puzzling for two reasons: for one because the architects’ solutions for the technical elements of the stations – the tracks, the platforms and the sheds – were remarkably similar and often technologically groundbreaking.

Take the train shed at London’s old St Pancras Station, for example: its single-span roof was revolutionary at the time and still looks breathtakingly bold. But when it came to the station’s facade (and the adjacent hotel), the owners of the Midland Line opted for a totally different approach, one that looked back in time rather than forward.

"discreet charm of train stations like the interior of the St Pancras in London"

And they were not alone:  all over Europe, architects decided with a strange unanimity to understand train stations, which represented a totally new type of architectural challenge, in terms of the old – without agreeing what that “old” might be.

Secondly, this is all the more remarkable when you consider the architectural history of the train station’s nearest equivalent, the airport.

When this new type of building emerged about a hundred years later, there was a consensus almost from the word go. Everybody appears to have known instinctively what an airport should look like. There are variations, but they are very few – so few, in fact, that all the world’s airport buildings appear to blur into one: Chicago, Munich, Tokyo – could you tell the difference?

And this, for the first time, also helped to create a certain uniformity in train station design. The new stations all look as though they were waiting for Flight 101 from New York to arrive any moment now.

"front of the regional train station in Paris Gare du Nord"

Train stations may still not quite know what they are – but at least, now we know what they want to look like.

Have you yourself been taken by the discreet charm of train stations in the places you recently visited?

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14 comments to The Discreet Charm of Train Stations

  • Great article! Trains do have their own quirky charm. It’s not like any other form of transportation!

  • Glad I opened eyes on train station architecture, Torsten, and thanks for dropping by!

  • Torsten

    I travel a lot and tend to see a lot of stations – including train stations – but don’t often have the time to take in my surroundings… So it’s great to see this post – I can now try to keep my eyes open on those journeys too!

    Just followed you on Twitter so I can see more interesting travel gems! Hope to see you there sometime.

  • We’ve been to Milan but sadly can’t remember how the Centrale looked like. That will be corrected soon, I hope. Thanks for dropping by!

  • I loved this article so much… I am totally with you on that, train stations and travelling by train have a unique charm. My favourite station is in my hometown, Milan Centrale. have you ever been?

  • You’re so right, Michael. We really don’t pay attention to train stations when we’re leaving, just like we don’t notice airports.
    Some of these stations in Europe are quite charming for sure. I’ve often wondered about some of the remaining stations we have in Jamaica – some are still pretty.
    I agree with Cathy about Grand Central Station here in NY. I also love Union Station in Washington DC (a company I worked with years ago was involved in the renovation so we were invited to the launch). I’ve been admiring some of the smaller stations outside New York and New Jersey — many are functional, others are quite beautiful.

  • I love Europe’s train stations – the activity, the architecture, the charm. Those countries sure know how to do train travel. I love the ones in Spain. We don’t do any train travel here in the US but the Los Angeles Union station is wonderful and has some great architectural features. I’ll need to pay more attention the next time we’re there.

  • I love train travel in Europe and the beautiful train stations are an added bonus! We don’t seem to have as many stylish train stations in Canada but Union Station is lovely and I have just recently visited the Gare du Palais train station in Québec City and it is also quite impressive!

  • Love to travel by train and to visit all of the great stations wherever I travel. Some are ordinary while others are remarkable structures designed with some of the world’s most beautiful architecture. Wonderful roundup my friends.

  • Yes, indeed, Gloria! Who wouldn’t be familiar with Le Train Bleu? But it doesn’t go anywhere anymore. ;-)

  • Great article…people who don’t travel by train miss out on so much. Are you familiar with the restaurant “Le Train Bleu” in Gare de Lyon station in Paris? I don’t know of anything else like it.

  • If I was asked to discuss railway stations in Canada I would with the exception of Union Station in Toronto come up with a blank look on my face. Some, like the one in Banff is unremarkable but at least the backdrop is stunning.
    Give me Europe for train stations any day.

  • Yes, I agree about the Grand Central Station. But we’ve not had the chance to travel by train in the US as often as we would like. Next time….

  • Yes, I’m often taken by the beauty or other unique aspects of train stations, especially in Europe. But we have some grand ones here in the U.S., too — Grand Central Station, of course. In Europe, one of my favorites is Central Station in Antwerp, Belgium — they call is “The Railway Cathedral” for good reason.

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