My favourite railway stations
At the start of any long railway journey I love to get to the station early and just wander around for a while soaking up the atmosphere.
Some stations are better for soaking up atmosphere than others of course. Not all stations are worth lingering around in, but a few stations are worth visiting even when you are not catching a train.
Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of 13 great stations to wander around, wait in or just marvel at:
1. Cincinnati Union (USA -1933)
This is cheating slightly as I have never caught a train from this station. Amtrak’s Cardinal Service only serves the station 3 times a week, so it is actually quite difficult to catch one. I have visited it though and to me it is one of the most amazing Art Deco buildings in the world. It features the largest semi-dome in the western hemisphere. The building, which serves mainly as a museum these days, is positively dripping with Art Deco decorations.
2. Gare De Lyon, Paris (France-1900)
The station was built at the time of the World Exposition. It has a pleasing style and even features a clock tower similar to Big Ben.
I probably like Gare De Lyon because its trains depart to faraway and attractive places like the French riviera. I think that having trains that are going somewhere you really want to go always adds to the atmosphere of a station.
Gare De Lyon also houses the one of the most famous station restaurants in the world. The “Train Bleu” has stunning ornate décor and is well worth a visit for a meal or even just a drink.
3. Grand Central, New York (USA -1913)
Grand Central Terminal is truly one of the world’s most impressive station buildings. It is often the winner in lists of “amazing stations” in newspaper articles.
I have been lucky to visit it many times and it never fails to lift my spirits. When you stand in the centre of the amazing concourse it is incredible to think that the station was potentially scheduled for demolition in the 1960’s. The story goes that Jacqueline Kennedy stepped in and, with many others, saved it.
Grand Central features 44 platforms (more than anywhere else in the world) on two levels. It also features another of the most famous station restaurants in the world; the Oyster bar which is recommended both for the décor and the food.
The only downside is that long-distance trains no longer depart from Grand Central. It has essentially been downgraded to a commuter terminal and as a consequence has lost a little of its romance.
4. Kiyevskaya, Moscow (Russia -1918)
All the Moscow stations have a special atmosphere, especially in winter, but I especially like Kiyevskaya because it has a beautiful train shed. The other Moscow stations tend to have their platforms in the open air or at least separated from their terminal buildings, but Kiyevskaya has a train shed linked to the main building.
The roof was designed by acclaimed Russian engineer Vladimir Shukhov who was also responsible for the roof of the G.U.M store.
Trains to Ukraine and Moldova depart from Kiyevskaya and the station is also the terminal for the Aeroexpress to Vnukovo Airport.
5. Kings Cross (UK-1852/2014)
I have always had a soft spot for Kings Cross. Until recently it really didn’t look its best. The 2014 development has transformed the station. The new entrance concourse on the west side of the station is excellent and has enabled the ugly 1970’s buildings at the front to be removed.
The wonderful Cubbitt façade has now been restored in all its glory. I think the new addition is really well done too and it complements the old station really well.
Kings Cross should also get a mention for having a platform 0 and a platform 9 ¾.
6. Kyoto (Japan-1877/1964/1997)
Kyoto is a three-for-the-price-of-one deal.
First there is the original station in the centre of things. Kyoto was traditionally one of the central points of the Japanese railway network and remains very busy today.
Then at the south side there is the shinkansen station which hosts the impressive and frequent high speed services.
Finally there is the new station building on the north side. This new part is awe inspiring in its scale. It is one of Japan’s largest buildings and one of the most impressive pieces of modern station architecture in the world.
7. Marylebone, London (UK – 1899)
I like Marylebone partly because it seems to be the forgotten London station. It would probably the last London terminus that most people would remember in a quiz. It was also the last terminus in the capital to open. It was originally part of the ill-fated Great Central route and it never really fulfilled its promise.
Yet it is a survivor. It originally served Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield but lost them all in the 1960’s. These days it lives on with a brand new set of destinations including Birmingham, Banbury and Oxford.
It has a lovely compact “L shaped” concourse with lots of light flowing in. The nearby Landmark (formally Great Central) Hotel was originally connected to the station and is also worth a visit.
8. – Milano Centrale (Italy – 1931)
Milan Central Station has an unfortunate association with Mussolini. It was opened in 1931 and the fascist leader regarded it as one of the great modern symbols of his regime.
It was not Mussolini’s idea though; the original design, based on Washington Union, was first conceived in 1912 a full 10 years before he took power.
It is true, though, that the dictator embellished the plans and made the station grander and added icons of his regime. The changes he ordered partly account for the strange mixture of styles, notably Art Deco mixing with Beaux Arts / Liberty.
I first passed through Milan on my Inter Rail trip in 1984 and I remember that the scale of the station totally astounded me. It is possibly the only pre-war station in Europe that competes in scale with Grand Central Terminal.
The train shed with its 24 platforms is amazing in itself…
and then come the two separated concourses….
and finally the old roadway access entrance which has now been converted to a third concourse.
The station has undergone extensive modernisation in the last few years. The investments were made to coincide with the opening of high speed railway connections with Rome and other parts of Italy.
The station has effectively been has been crammed with shops and restaurants and transformed to become more of a destination building in the style of Grand Central Itself.
The changes are not without their critics, but I think they work very well. They help to soften the feel of the building and make it seem much more human. I remember it being a bit dark and foreboding before, but now it is bright and full of colour. The scale is still impressive though and the coffee is not bad either.
9. Otford (UK -1882)
I simply had to include Otford as the vast majority of my journeys start or finish there.
It was opened in 1882. The station actually opened a full 20 years after the line itself. It was only built after the headmaster of the local school, Mr Goff, campaigned long and hard for it.
Otford may not be Grand Central or Kings Cross, but it has a pleasing Victorian layout and retains its ticket office. The waiting room features books and magazines to borrow and in recent years a small coffee kiosk has opened on Platform 1.
Whether my journey is to the other side of London or to the other side of the world, Otford always provides me with a comfortable place to wait.
10. Paddington, London (UK – 1838/ 1854)
I have always found Paddington Station to be a magical place. Whether I am arriving there by train or emerging from the Underground onto the concourse, Paddington never fails to lift my spirits. I am not even quite sure why.
I know that it partly stems from it being part of my first ever long distance rail trip in 1974. But it is probably also down to the fact that the trains from Paddington depart to some of the most attractive and romantic parts of Britain especially Devon and Cornwall.
Over the years I have spent many a happy hour at Paddington watching the comings and goings whilst waiting to board the restaurant car express down to the West Country.
11. Preston (UK – 1838/1880)
Preston Station will always have a special place in my heart. My fascination with railways and travel began there. Even today a visit there still fills me with a little bit of the excitement.
Whenever I used to return to Preston I would hear the Lancashire accents of the station announcers (now sadly automated) and know I was home.
One of the most interesting features of Preston is the free buffet that was provided for servicemen in both world wars. The buffet never closed from 1915 to 1919 and served over 3 million men. I have often sat in the waiting room where the buffet was located and imagined all those soldiers and sailors queuing up for their tea and sandwiches.
12. St Pancras (UK- 1868/2007)
St Pancras was once the Cinderella of the London termini and, like Grand Central in New York, it was even threatened with demolition in the 1960s. It has now been transformed by the arrival of Eurostar and it is simply stunning. The restoration work on the hotel with its amazing gothic façade and on the magnificent train shed is remarkable. St Pancras is now probably the most beautiful station in London.
John Betjeman famously led the campaign to save St Pancras and I have spent many an hour in the pub located on the concourse that is named for him. I sit there, pint in hand, watching the passengers and marvelling at the building.
13. York (UK -1877)
York is one of the most beautiful stations in Britain. The stunning arched roof is reminiscent of years gone by. The station has also been well modernised and it is light, comfortable and welcoming.
York is right in the centre of the east coast main line from London to Edinburgh, and so there is always something interesting happening. The station is close to the famous railway museum too.