Au revoir Waterloo

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Last Tuesday evening I bid farewell to Waterloo International, the last day that Eurostar will serve this station before it transfers to St Pancras ‘in the (other) heart of London’. Before I even arrived I had fears that the Eurostar staff had packed up and gone as all the signs directing travelers from the Underground up to the terminal had already been whited out. How wrong I was. I arrived on the main station concourse to the sound of live music and the sight of dazzling lights. In the sunken entrance level to the Eurostar terminal, a stage had been set up and a band were playing, none too aptly, “Waterloo Sunset”.

I am happy to admit that I am a station spotter and have long been. It is cooler than being a train spotter as you get to talk about architecture, your subject doesn’t move so you don’t have to stand their waiting for it, there are plenty of food shops so no packed lunches required, and you can wear any clothes you like. This last advantage makes the station spotter hard to spot. I have blended in all these years and have simply thought that I was alone in my pursuit, unaware that other station spotters were all around me. That is until that evening when they showed their true colours and, in droves, they headed down to Waterloo International to wish it farewell.

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The police had crowd control measures in place to stop people pushing into the sunken entrance area. If your name wasn’t on the list (read, if you didn’t have a ticket) you weren’t getting in. By the time I got in, the show was wrapping up, leaving only video footage of the new station projected onto the wall. It felt like mass train station hysteria; one woman had a tear in her eye. Staff stood around beaming, journalists were interviewing. With all the publicity for the new St. Pancras terminal, international train travel has recaptured the public’s imagination. But from this train station 81,891,738 travelers over the last thirteen years have already trained it, internationally. And so one can understand people being sad to see it go.

But go where exactly? It is all very well to wish a station farewell but it is not going anywhere. What are they going to do with it? Scuttle it? The plan as I understand it is to make the platforms available for comunter trains to use. But what of the long arrival and departure concourses? When I was twelve or so, I saw an architectural model of the terminal with it’s snake-like blue roof. It is hard to believe that this structure will now lie largely obsolete.

The party was over on the other side of security (the real bouncers). The place has felt tatty for a while now. I can’t imagine the maintenance budget has been kept up in recent months. Shops lay half empty of stock which was annoying as I badly wanted an adaptor. There were girls handing out free cake. Just like at the end of a party.

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The squashed arch roof of the Hauptbahnhof in Berlin

I rode the escalator up to the platforms beneath their wonderful blue roof. This Grimshaw structure arches over the three platforms. Like that of the Hauptbahnhof (photo above) in Berlin the curving roof is made from a squashed arch which means that the roof in both Waterloo and at the Hauptbahnhof can cover the tracks without having to rise to high. By contrast the un-squashed arch of St Pancras’ roof soars high above the cityscape. Squashing the arch induces bending in the structure. In both cases the structure follows the exact form of the bending moment diagram giving a very pure structural aesthetic. At the Hauptbahnhof the arch is four-pinned and symmetric. At Waterloo, the designers chopped a third off this symmetric arch, giving it its asymmetric shape.

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With the fanfare far behind, I boarded the train and as we pulled out was reminded that it was not the station that was the problem but the line. As the train bumps through Vauxhall, the carriages bottom-out their suspension. We creaked round a sharp left turn and then screeched through Brixton, presumably deafening those on the platform. By Herne Hill, the train slowed further to skateboard speed. However, after forty minutes of this bumping and grinding, a reminder of what the new route will bring, as the the Eurostar joins the already-open section of high speed track and accelerates towards France.

And so Waterloo must close. I am sure that station spotters such as myself will get over it soon enough. The start of services to St Pancras, for example, might offer a suitable distraction. With this opening I am certain that a whole new generation of station spotters will be inspired into being