Coventry Cathederal

Pen and ink sketch showing the nave of Coventry Cathederal

After a recent seminar in Coventry I had an hour to spare and so headed over to the famous cathederal. This sketch doesn’t come close to catching the finesse of the columns on this bold modern design but it serves to remind me of the textiures and feel of the place.

Hello St.Pancras

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For all the publicity in London about the opening of the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, passengers leaving Paris on its inaugural day wouldn’t have been any the wiser. The lack of Parisian interest in the new London terminal was underlined by the ticket prices: while it would have cost me over £100 to book a place on a train leaving St.Pancras that day, the cost of a ticket in the other direction was just £29! I can forgive the lack of excitement from that end of the line however. When it comes to high speed train networks, France’s is in its late twenties whilst Britain’s is still teething.

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Until yesterday, once the tunnel had been crossed and England reached, passengers were treated to a short stretch of tantalizing high-speed rail (the first part of the new link has been in use for some time now) before the trains slowed to a dismal trundle on the old line. Well, no more. Unfortunately it was dark so I did not get to see all that pristine Kent countryside that had seen routes for the line changed so many times. Before I knew it, a tunnel under the Thames, then we appeared to be over-ground and then back under again. We popped up for air again at what I guess was the building site for Stratford International before tunneling our way under North London. I remember five years ago a friend of mine living in Highbury had complained of rumbling under his basement flat for a period of about a week or so. He found out, from the council I believe, that those noises had been the tunnel digging machines digging those very tunnels that I was zooming through significantly faster.

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The train popped of the ground one last time and we were cruising into the magnificently lit train station. Words do not do justice to what an amazing site the new station is. Passengers off the train for the first time on these platforms walked in eerie gob-smacked silence. The train shed, with its arches of ‘heritage Barlow blue’ which soar over the tracks to support 18 000 panes of self cleaning glass, makes for quite a destination. Indeed there were plenty of people there who had just come for the opening. At the end of the platforms they posed for photos beneath the 9m tall sculpture of a couple kissing. Europe’s longest champagne bar was not long enough to accommodate the masses who came to toast the new station.

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I was grabbed for an interview by BBC Radio London who were broadcasting live from the concourse. I think I ticked a few of their boxes: not only had I just stepped off a train from Paris, but I was an enthusing engineer (and, as a bonus, someone whose father had arranged the medley of French songs played that afternoon by the LSO Brass section as part of the opening celebrations). On air, I was asked about how long it must have taken to paint the roof, a question to which I had no answer but assured them that it must take less time than that for the Forth Rail Bridge.

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For me, St Pancras represents the first completed major engineering project university colleagues of mine have been involved with during their summer placements. St Pancras celebrates the engineering of a bygone era, is a fine example of how old can become new, and puts international rail travel back into the national consciousness. Not a bad start!

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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