I am speeding north on a train from Aix-en-Provence TGV and reflecting on what it is I like so much about this station. It sits on the southern section of the high-speed line from Paris to Marseilles. The original line built in the 1970s went as far as Lyon. In the 1990s, as part of President Mitterand’s ‘grand projets’ the line way extended to the Marseille.
The extension feels like an unapologeticly bold statement of the importance of high-speed rail. All the stations and many of the bridges have a monumental quality to them. No doubt the line was built with huge controversy – it seems to pay little reverence to the villages and countrysides it blasts through other than to say this is a piece of national infrastructure to be proud of.
Aix-en-Provence TGV is one several brand new stations build out-of-town for this line. Avoiding city centres reduces construction cost. These stations in the middle of nowhere are therefore modal transfer points, mainly from car or bus to train. The train lines running through these stations have a different feel to traditional stations. They are a pean to high-speed – the platforms that form their spine are like launch rails for rockets that zoom horizontally across the landscape connecting cities.
Unencumbered by surrounding buildings, and probably helped along with a generous budget, it feels as if the designers have had the opportunity to build the perfect station. Here the basic diagram is clear: two straight lines crossing each other, with a circle surrounding the intersection. One straight is the high-speed line, the other is the local road and the circle is a ring road which surrounds the central complex.
One side of the station is dedicated to Paris-bound travellers: there’s food, cafes, facilities; the other is for arriving back from Paris and the north, needing much less by means of intrastructure. Travellers arrive by bus in tunnels under the station and then ride up into the middle of the station. Drivers park in the segments defined between the crossing lines and the surrounding circle. A magnificent station clock presides over everything.
The structural diagram is also simple, but realised on a big scale – a wave that starts low over one end of the platform, rises to a peak in the middle of the station, and then curving back down again. From the distance the station profile looks like a giant moustache imposed on this semi-Martian landscape.
The structure is exposed, with beautify expressed connections between the divergent struts and timber-clad columns beneath.
If you are travelling to this station, and have the time, I recommend arriving early and spending some time kicking back on the giant deck-chairs on the mezzanine level facing south, for a stunning view across the Provencal plain to the jagged hills in the distance.
Sadly, at the end of writing this post, I realised that none of my photos of this station of are of sufficent resolution to post online, so you’ll have to do with this one, taken a few years ago on the same journey.
See all my posts about Surface Travel: the art of not flying.
And if you like high-speed trains, check out Episode 4 of the Eiffel Over podcast, called ‘Crossing France Very Very Fast‘.