- Saint Germain-en-Laye Railway Station, France, at the start of the 20th century, on the railway line to Paris Saint-Lazare Station.
- Inaugurated in 1837 between Paris and Le Pecq, this way the first railway line to be built out of Paris, as well as the first in France designed to carry passengers only. The Pereire brothers wanted a loading dock - the name given to stations at the time - at Place de la Madeleine in Paris. Following protests from local residents, however, the loading dock was eventually moved further down to Place de l’Europe. At Saint Germain-en-Laye the terminus was constructed in a trench in the castle gardens, interrupting the symmetry of the flowerbeds in the gardens designed by Le Nôtre.
In the earliest days of railways, nobody knew how a station should be or what it should look like; it was simply to accommodate staff and passengers waiting for trains. Sometimes old buildings were used for station purposes.
Even the first names given to stations did not clearly indicate their function. In some countries (such as France or Spain), stations were initially called “pier” where people board ships. Similarly with airplanes, the word “airport” derived its name from ships as “the port for air traffic”. Intermediate stations were simply known as “halts”.
The first stations were often modest, functional buildings. In many cases, stations also served other purposes of the railway company such as main offices, sometimes headquarters or maintenance workshops, etc.
Stations were systematically located out of the city centre. There was no question of disrupting or destroying the cities at that time – in some cases that would come later. In the early days of railways the train was considered impressive and futuristic but not a clean mode of transport.
When the growth of passenger and freight traffic began to structure countries and society, railway companies became increasingly important and needed more financing. Consequently, a railway’s façade to the city (the station) had to be more impressive in order to build investor confidence and attract more money to finance this mode of transport which would change the world.
In the second half of the 19th century large, iconic buildings started to emerge in big (and smaller) cities and the names of architects began to appear alongside those of railway companies.
The first dilemma regarding the functional design of stations (and railway operations in general) in big cities was whether they should be the terminus or a through-station. In big cities it was thought that stations should represent the end of the railway line, and consequently tracks should end at the station terminal.
In America, where trains (locomotives and carriages) became bigger much earlier than in Europe, large locomotives were not allowed inside station terminals because they released a great deal of smoke. For this reason it was quite common in the US for trains to enter the station by switching back, with the locomotive pushing the train and consequently keeping it out of the passenger waiting area.
Large stations required large train sheds. These needed to be a certain size due to the large battery rails and platforms and of a certain height in order to evacuate smoke from the locomotives.
While railways were developing, metallic structures became increasingly popular (something Mr Eiffel knew a thing or two about), and consequently large and rich railway companies started to build big train sheds. In some cases they were so proud of these structures that they incorporated them into the main façade of the station, facing the city. Budapest Nyugaty and Madrid Delicias stations are two examples of this.
The shape of the main building was also conditioned by the evolution of traffic.
The first station terminals included three main buildings or parts of buildings, in the shape of a “U”.
Soon, however, as traffic increased, the “U” become too small to meet the increasing traffic needs which were growing – sometimes unexpectedly, and the “U” shape did not allow the possibility for extension.
The best solution for this was to build stations in an “L” shape, with more important buildings in the front (or main façade) as well as on the “departure” side and giving the “arrivals” section a less important building, which was later rebuilt and enabled the station to be extended.
- Pennsylvania Railway Station in New York City in 1911.
- View from the norteast. Most of the buildings in the scene are no longer standing, and have been replaced with taller buildings and skyscrapers. The original Pennsylvania Station was considered a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style and one of the busiest passenger transportation facilities in the United States and in North America.
For many decades railway stations were some of the most important neuralgic points in the city. Everybody coming in or going out of the city needed to use the station. The first half of the 20th century was a period of mythical trains as well as impressive and mythical stations.
However almost nothing in life escapes change. Competition from road and then air made rail transport decline and adapt in order to survive (where possible).
At the same time, railways were adjusting to a new life. As far as they were obliged to compete, they became more and more specialised in the areas where they were more competitive. One of the consequences was the development of mass transport, which required a particular type of station that was quite different to the big and solemn terminals.
As train stations and particularly train tracks moved more towards the city centre, this sometimes caused disruption to the city. The solution was to build an underground or viaduct, which resulted in different kind of station.
During the second half of the 20th century, train stations were presented with new visions and options. Business opportunities were generated by stations in privileged parts of the city as well as large volumes of people attracted by the stations themselves.
In some cases, these opportunities represented the end of station buildings, such as with Penn Station in New York City.
The station still exists but now hidden in the middle of a business district and the well-known Madison Square Garden.
Its famous sister station, Grand Central, was saved at the last moment and has just celebrated its centenary.
Good examples of how stations can be magnets for business, shopping, leisure centres and restaurants are Tokyo Central (known as “Tokyo Station” or even “Tokyo”), and Seoul, etc.
In other cases both the train and the railway have been removed from the station, as is the case in Manila, in the Philippines. In cases such as these, the station is no longer a station but becomes something else.
The political and social interest derived from these iconic buildings serving city centres presents another opportunity for famous architects who have launched the rediscovery of these “cathedrals of the 20th (or 21st) centuries” such as Liège-Guillemins, Lisbon, Shanghai South and Beijing South. There are stations that even have a tropical garden in the middle of the city, such as Madrid (which is not exactly located in a tropical climate).
- Project of Wuhan Railway Station, China.
And what about the future?
Train stations will survive as long as railways survive. And railways will survive, probably with some important differences, and will be increasingly important for society. Train stations of the future will be large or small, aboveground or underground, iconic or anodyne, discrete places or places of reference, historical or modern buildings, only with railways or multimodal transport, with good business or little business.
None of this is important as long as there is a train and it serves a purpose.
What is most important is that the railway stations of the future will continue to be (good) railway stations.