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An overdue appreciation of railway stations

Simon Jenkins’ new book about our railways is the perfect platform to celebrate them

08 February, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman

St Pancras station by John O’Connor

PRIME minister Margaret Thatcher hated trains, having once been accosted while on a journey. She even told Simon Jenkins: “People love them too much,” adamantly refusing at that point to countenance the privatisation of the nation’s railways.

Thankfully, Simon Jenkins, former Times newspaper editor, journalist, columnist, conservationist, loves trains, just as he loves Britain’s cathedrals and churches. He knows our railways story from the inside having been a non-executive board member of British Rail for 10 years from 1980.

And we now benefit a thousand times from that in his brilliant new book entitled Britain’s 100 Best Railways Stations, which is slightly misleading in that he has written a modern history of our innovation in creating for the world a totally new form of transport.

En route he selects the five best railway stations throughout the land with Camden’s own King’s Cross and its neighbour, St Pancras standing proudly among them.

The historical story is a dramatic a saga of peaks and troughs, bravery and bravado equal to any fiction, from the moment George Stephenson launched the first steam-hauled wagons with his engine Locomotion from Stockton and Darlington in 1825, an event strictly only for freight.

Passenger carriages then were drawn by horses and the idea of steam locomotion was dismissed by the Duke of Wellington. “I see no reason to suppose that these machines will ever force themselves into general use,” insisted the victor of Waterloo, yet to be named after the battle.

He was totally wrong as the railway revolution took off in what was then described as a mania with an astonishing 4,000 miles of track laid across Britain in the 15 years after the 1832 Reform Act.

By 1845 there were projected 1,200 new railways notionally requiring £500 million in public subscription, a sum equal today to £50 billion.

And as Jenkins writes: “Travel beyond one village or town had been confined to a few, mostly prosperous people. Most humans lived, worked, played and died within single communities. Travel now became an obsession…

“The railway tore open contemporary society. It redefined geographical identity and rewrote the conversation between London and the nation, town and country, rich and poor. It also introduced a new realm of classlessness.”

The Betjeman statue at St Pancras

Excellent architects too built the great stations – Philip Hardwick at Paddington, Alfred Waterhouse at Liverpool, Sir George Gilbert Scott at St Pancras. At the entrance there today stands the statue of the poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, who played a significant role in railway preservation, though Jenkins surprisingly fails to identify the sculptor as Martin Jennings.

The bubble, naturally, burst with the arrival of the 20th century, the unregulated industry haunted by the evils of fragmentation with a network of 120 separate railway companies no longer fit for purpose. The arrival of the motor car, lorries and coaches resulted in passenger decline and shares becoming worthless.

British Railways emerged as the new public corporation with Dr Richard Beeching as chairman, 3,000 miles of under-used railway lines were closed while stations disappeared.

Prime minister Harold Macmillan, wanting to be seen as a man of the future, ordered the destruction of the most historic building, the Doric arch at Euston, declaring too that a newly modernised railway should be “made to pay”.

And the consequences are within living history.

What is equally fascinating in a long, convoluted yet memorable story that while Britain was half a century ahead of Europe in creating railways the major countries of Europe, Germany and France in particular, learned by our mistakes. That’s why today they run railways in the national interest with reasonable fares and much more efficient and effective health services than our crisis-hit NHS.

Jenkins goes into considerable detail writing about King’s Cross and St Pancras.

On the former, built in 1852 as London’s “plain Jane, poor kid on the block”, he picks out its “exhilarating” new semi-circular fan vault roof made out of white tubes.

St Pancras he regards as a masterpiece, adding: “The lower concourse reflects the architecture of the station, while forming an avenue of cafés, boutiques and bistros.

“The grandest of stations is reduced to the cosiest of high streets. St Pancras is truly a station apart.”

I will always buy a ticket to ride our railways any time, to gaze on the chameleon clothed passengers as they crowd in and roam our too often under-sung stations – albeit with a senior rail card.

• Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations. By Simon Jenkins, Viking, £25.

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