Transformative infrastructure goes both ways

Marseille

In my previous post I was talking about the experience of distance, and how, when understood as an experience, distance is no longer a fixed entity.

That post was triggered by some lines from Proust in which the narrator is talking about how his perception of local distances alters when he switches from rail transport to motorcar. Some further thoughts on this topic.

I recall how the distances between various destinations, and therefore the shape of the city itself, appeared to change when the London Overground, an orbital railway in the inner suburbs, opened. All of a sudden areas of the city that seemed far away felt much closer: South-East London, previously impossibly far, was now a nearby neighbourhood to where I lived in the North-East.

Such a step-change in the experience of city living demonstrates the transformative power of civil engineering infrastructure. Linking, drawing together, connecting – this is what engineers have been doing for centuries.

Continue reading “Transformative infrastructure goes both ways”

Surface travel – Münster to London

Overview

  • Six trains and one monorail
  • Leisure
  • 709km
  • £130

Today I take my journey home from Münster to London via a different route from my way out. Outbound I came by ferry because it was cheaper; travelling back midweek I can just about afford the Eurostar. The route gives me the chance for a quick stop in Köln and the chance for an engineering detour via the Wupertaal suspended monorail.

Münster to Wuppertal

Münster is a beautiful town. I’ve spent the last few days staying with a friend and working on my book in the city library. The cities walls were removed to create a circumferential boulevard that is now tree-lined and a major thoroughfare for bikes and pedestrians. I walk this path one last time and peel off at the Hauptbahnhof.

I ride for twenty minutes on a quiet commuter train to Hamm. The flat landscape is filled with a mixture of fields and factories, with the occasional wind turbine. It reminds me of travelling up the Lea Valley north of London.

Hamm station feels in the middle of nowhere but its ten unloved platforms are busy with trains of all sorts coming and going. I get to my platform early and see one of the slightly older German high speed ICE trains arriving. Its bright white carriages are like hermetically sealed capsules. You can imagine this train is capable of zooming along the sea bed as easily as over land.

The ICE train is in fact two hitched together. I watch as the two are uncoupled and the front half pulls away. Just in time, I realise the back half is my train to Wuppertal, and I jump aboard. The land becomes more rutted and we follow an industrial valley that is well scored into the valley – it resembles  the valley of the Seine as it winds its way north from Paris to Rouen in Normandy.

My connection time in Wuppertal is three-and-a-half hours; that was deliberate to give me time to make an engineering pilgrimage to a highly unusual railway, the Schweibebahn, Wuppertal’s suspended monorail. More details of that in a separate post.

Wuppertal to Köln

I’m blown away by the monorail – a great piece of railway engineering integrated into the city. With hindsight, three-and-a-half hours was a bit too long for my engineering excursion and I struggle to find the inspiration to explore the town further. It’s nothing against Wuppertal: I’m just keen to get on. I wait impatiently at the platform for my next train.

If the last ICE train I took looked like it could be amphibious, this train, a next generation edition, looks ready for space flight, with it’s pointed nose and sleek black-and-white lines. It’s a short twenty-minute ride to Köln and before I know it we are rumbling across the bridge over the Rhine. Köln Hauptbhahnhoff is covered by a wide arching roof; beneath, trains come and go from across Germany – and I see my first French train, the Thalys service to Paris.

I have fifty minutes between trains so I visit the magnificent cathedral which is surprisingly right next door to the station – almost on top of it. It’s quiet pews are better than any waiting room I can think of.

Köln to Bruxelles Midi

I get on board another of the sleek new DB ICE trains and settle in. I don’t remember much about this 2-hour leg as I slept most of the way. The day before long journeys I rarely sleep well as I worry about missing my train, and last night’s wakefulness just caught up with me. As we slow down on the approach into Brussels I see some fairly grotty looking commuter trains and I realise these are the oldest trains I have seen since I left the UK. All the trains I’ve taken over the last few days in Germany or the Netherlands, whether high speed or slower, were well looked after. I am reminded why I don’t ever get that excited about train travel through Belgium. I may however just be prejudiced against Belgian railways because they were responsible for putting the DB night train to Berlin out of business when they put up the transit fees they charge other countries for their overnight services.

Bruxelles Midi to London

Bruxelles Midi is an endless warren of tunnels where the light at the end never seems that appealing. I have an hour and a half before I can check in; I bought tickets for a later train because it would save me £50. The beer in the cafe is half the price of the tea, which is a shame as I’ve just decided to give up alcohol for a few days.

The journey flies by; before I know it I am back in St Pancras. As I walk down the long platforms I am struck that in all the stations that I have been through on either my outbound or my return journey in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and France nothing quite compares to the experience of arriving under the magnificent Midland Blue-coloured soaring arch of St Pancras station. A fantastic piece of engineering lovingly re-invented for a different century.

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