Train Stations – London

When I traveled to the UK in the fall of 2009, it was my second time in Europe and my first time in the UK (besides a layover in Heathrow airport the previous year when I traveled to the Netherlands and Turkey).

In October of 2009, I was happy to see the UK for my first time as I have always wanted to visit.  For my visit, I made sure that I visited two railroad stations in London, as they were world famous for their historical significance and architectural beauty.  Most of my stay was in Wales, but for one week, I was able to visit London and I spent a little time at the huge and great St. Pancras Station for few hours, then I did spend one almost entire half-day at Victoria Station.  Both of these stations are quite impressive and I, of course, being a train fan, was thrilled.

When I was a child, growing up in Japan, train travel was the most important way for Japanese to get around.  Even today, it is the primary mode of travel.  Trains were immaculate, impressive, beautiful and fast.  Steam trains were thrilling in their energy, smoke, steam, and sounds but by the time the late 70s came, steam trains in Japan had disappeared except for special excursion trips.  When our family moved to the United States in 1962, my father was loving enough and wanted me to experience steam trains in the US but was told that they were all gone and that we would ride the new modern diesel-powered ‘El Capitan’ of the Santa Fe Railroad from Los Angeles to Albuquerque.

I, of course wanted to see and ride behind a steam locomotive, but was nevertheless thrilled to ride on the beautiful ‘war bonnet’ red, gold, white diesel-powered streamliner, double-decked throughout.

Today, even that mode of travel is gone in the US.  In the 1970s, the railroads increasingly became financially strapped and the conglomerate Amtrak was formed.  Rail travel continues its downward spiral in the US, with a very few people in the US who even know that people can travel by train.  Most train stations are torn down, empty and dirty, abandoned and un-cared for, and people could really care less.   Trains and airlines are the way to go.  However, with the airlines in trouble and the economy on a down-turn, there has been a slight renewed interest in rail passenger travel.  President Obama has announced plans and wishes for a new high-speed rail system in the US with certain regions receiving major financial backing.  Where this will lead we will see.

Along with the trains themselves, the train station has played an important part in national histories around the world.  As mentioned earlier, the train station is where passengers come to ride the rails.  When rail was in its heyday, the train stations were more than places to get onto trains.  They were meeting places, places to eat and drink and spend time, to shop.  They played an important part in urban and rural community identity, when train stations and their surroundings were most often the first place that passengers would see when getting off the train.  First impressions played a major role in business and economic growth.  The more attractive the stations and surroundings were, along with the train itself and its ride, the more lucrative your community (town, village, city) would become.

There are notably three types of hubs for passenger travel stops.  For rural places, the buildings were called stations.  Stations would have station-masters, who were in charge of the ambience of the station, the passengers and the workers’ relationship with the town itself.  The station-masters kept these small stations going and provided the friendly and professional face and also the lead in making sure the employees of the station did their jobs in providing out-of-towners a good welcoming experience.  Comfort, safety, and pleasantries were the mode of operation, while making sure the details of baggage handling, mail, schedules, hotels, land transportation, and other aspects of traveling were taken care of.  It was very true that in most of the small towns, the entire population would know the train schedule at heart.  This was because the train station was usually the most intense and powerful communication with the world outside of the station.  Sometimes there was only one phone in the town and the telegraph machines.  They would be at the train station.  No one had personal phones in many of these towns in the early days.   Also, packages from relatives and loved ones would arrive at the station.  Indeed, the train station was the most important place in town next to the markets and banks.

Union stations, as they were called, were usually in large cities and were the centerpiece of individual railroad companies.  Union stations were often owned by one railroad, along with the smaller stations in the rural areas.  Usually, these union stations were designed by some of the top architects in the country and were the pride of the city.

Terminals are usually huge, and represented a meeting of several railroads in one building.  Some terminals had several hundred trains of four to ten or more railroad companies’ trains departing and arriving, transporting a hundreds of thousands of passengers a day.

In Europe, Eastern and South Asia and most parts of the Middle East, railroads still carry a primary importance in passenger travel.  In the US, privatization has created different ideas on the preservation and/or destruction of rail service.  In Europe and Asia, the governments view railroad station and rail service, as a public service.  This creates a special feeling towards pride and care.  In Japan, privatization has taken over.  However, rail service is the primary way people are mobile in Japan and its maintenance is of continued importance.

The two videos below are of the two London train terminals I visited.  These are not my videos and I thank these great video artists in providing beautiful images of these great buildings.  I am transported back to my visit when seeing these videos.  I want my visit to the UK to be longer next time!!!!!

For readers interested in Stations and railroads, steam trains and rail history, please visit my new blog site, always in progress: