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Iain Robertson – Train stations

Oh yes! Now here’s an exciting topic! There’s no reason why I should choose to post this today, no anniversary; no re-opening of a historic but recently refurbished station; beyond the fact that I’ve seen quite a few of them recently! Cheltenham, for instance, a monument to 1970s desecration of a classically-inspired facade (but at least it is not Gloucester….). Stonehouse station is too short to fit the London train on; whilst the station on Rannoch Moor stands in splendid isolation in the middle of peat bog in the Highlands of Scotland. So, I’ve seen a few, then, and they got me thinking. My thought was that these are fantastic monuments to a fascinating period in our history. You can’t claim that they are wholly unsung and you certainly can’t claim that they are wholly ‘heritage from below’ but there are elements of both of this about them. The next time you stand on a platform of one of our great mainline stations – I was stood on Temple Meads in Bristol just the other day – look around you (history is as much visual as it is literary and oral) and admire the wonderful architecture! Cast iron and glass, a fantastic combination that makes for beautiful design.

I was asked as well why Temple Meads is so spacious – a temple to Victorian engineering. The answer is simple. Here is the hub of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway. And the GWR ran on broad gauge – considerably wider (and therefore smoother) than standard gauge (look it up!!!). So stations had to be more spacious to accommodate the wider tracks. Interestingly for the local historians amongst you, one of the points where the broad gauge met with the standard gauge used by the other railway companies (pre-nationalisation – when was that?) was Gloucester! And because the two sets of lines were incompatible Gloucester had two stations! Both unfortunately were lost in the rationalisation and ‘modernisation’ of the 1970s and replaced by the workaday, tired municipal architecture we now have blotting the Gloucester landscape…..

And finally, Liverpool Street station, London. I was there the other day with a group of first years discussing modernist and postmodern architecture. And we decided that here is a thoroughly postmodern piece. Yes it looks old, but it stands in the heart of the Broadgate development (1980s) and the developers wanted to knock it down. Fortunately the heritage lobby managed to prevent them. But what we got instead was something of a pastiche… A refurbishment which replaced genuine (and historic) brick columns with a concrete inner and a layer of bricks stuck on the outside to give the impression of old. Likewise completely new cafes styled to look old. And genuinely old buildings taken down brick by brick, cleaned and rebuilt brick by brick. It is a hyperrealist fantasy. A Disneyland for London’s jaded commuters….


Chesney Smart says:

Technically, there were 2 nationalisations of the railways – 1923 saw the ‘Big Four’ Grouping and then in 1948 into British Rail.

Broad Gauge was inevitably a success for the Great Western Railway; its ‘Iron Duke’ class broad gauge engines repeatedly ran between Swindon and London Paddington at speeds averaging 60 mph, the high-speed network of the mid-nineteenth century. If the 1845 Royal Commission had not decided in favour of standard gauge, and thus forced the GWR to (slowly) downgrade its broad gauge lines from 7 ft 0 1⁄4 in to the standard gauge of 4 ft 8½ in., things might have been very different today! It is also a pity that no original broad gauge engines survived into preservation (the sole engine saved for preservation in 1884 was later scrapped in the 1906, an action which has been labelled as an act of heritage sabotage by many railway enthusiasts!). There is a replica, built in the 1980s, that is part of the National Railway Museum’s collection in York (though it was on loan in 2010 to the Gloucestershire-Warwickshire Railway, which its end terminus is based just by Cheltenham Racecourse!)

It was unbelievably complicated for trains arriving and departing from Gloucester! As well as the fact that there was broad gauge, standard gauge and mixed gauge lines to handle, the 3 initial railway companies based at Gloucester were eventually absorbed into the rival companies of the Midland Railway and the Great Western Railway. This meant that the station porters at Gloucester were ordered not to unload goods or carry passengers’ luggage if they were changing trains to ones being operated by the other railway company! Furthermore, due to the track layout, trains had to reverse into Gloucester, unless they were going through onto Newport and Cardiff (this reversing still happens today, though it is not a problem anymore with modern diesel and electric multiple-units, since they can be operated from both ends of the train).

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