BBC Culture

Ten of the world’s most beautiful railway stations

About the author

Jonathan Glancey is a journalist and broadcaster. Formerly Architecture and Design correspondent of the Guardian and Architecture and Design Editor of the Independent, he writes for the Daily Telegraph and works with the BBC on radio and television documentaries. His books include The Story of Architecture, Lost Buildings, Spitfire: the biography, Nagaland and Giants of Steam.

  • St Pancras International, London

    A magnificent and highly romantic addition to the skyline of Victorian London, St Pancras – named after a 3rd Century Roman martyr − is a glorious concatenation of salmon pink brick and veined marble clock towers, pinnacles, spires and pointed arches. A true cathedral of the early railway age, this great terminus and hotel was designed for the Midland Railway by the daring structural engineer William Barlow and the architect, Sir Gilbert Scott, the latter best known for new Gothic churches, the Albert Memorial and the restoration of many medieval buildings.

    Station and hotel opened fully in 1874, and yet its flamboyant design was considered not just old fashioned but vulgar and even outrageous by 1935, when the hotel closed and became scruffy railway offices. Threatened several times with demolition, St Pancras did more than survive: in recent years, it has been cleaned, restored, extended and transformed into the London terminus of 300kph Eurostar trains to continental Europe. The hotel is grand, its restaurants and bars fashionable and the whole 19th Century Gothic-meets-21st Century Modern architectural, design and engineering conflation is much loved and highly efficient. A true wonder of the railway world. (Corbis)

  • York

    Who can fail to be thrilled by the sight of an express train coursing its way around and under the great iron and glass sweep of the roof of York station? This majestic, 800-ft long structure is supported by avenues of mighty Corinthian columns, and the feeling here is that passengers are waiting for trains in what must surely be the most important railway station of all. When, in fact, it opened in 1877, York was – if briefly – the world’s largest. Set half way between London and Edinburgh, it has always been an important railway junction and served by some of Britain’s fastest and most prestigious trains including The Flying Scotsman, The Talisman and The Elizabethan.

    The station’s designers, Thomas Prosser and William Peachey, and the North Eastern Railway, knew they had to live up to the close-by medieval glory of York Minster, one of England’s greatest buildings. Today, you can still ride through York station on board express steam trains – enthusiasts’ specials, of course – and experience much the same thrill as 19th Century passengers must have as they rode majestically through a city renowned for its fine architecture. (Alamy)

  • Grand Central Terminal, New York

    Opened in 1903, Grand Central is grand in every way. Big, broad-shouldered, opulent and beautifully built, it is as much a meeting place – a vast urban drawing room – as it a commuter, and occasional long distance, railroad station. It is a truly great place to sit and while away the New York rush hour, cocktail to hand, while watching great shafts of evening sunlight slant through the huge Beaux-Arts windows of its sensationally ambitious concourse as passengers head for the platforms – all forty-four of them hidden on two levels beneath your feet. Look higher again, above the famous four-faced station clock, and there’s a glorious ceiling to marvel at, a map no less of the constellations and the signs of the zodiac.

    Not for nothing is Grand Central the world’s sixth most popular visitor attraction. One upon a time, you could ride from here to points far west on some of the world’s greatest trains including the legendary Twentieth Century Limited, overnight in sheer style from Manhattan to Chicago as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint did in Alfred Hitchcock’s impeccably stylish North by Northwest. Aircraft did for these superb trains, and today it does seem odd that all this architectural show – put on by the firms Reed and Stern and Warren and Whetmore more than a century ago - is for rather drab trains scuttling along suburban corridors. When the rush hour is over, it’s time to eat in the station’s beautiful Oyster Bar, and drink a toast to one of the finest railway stations of all. (Alamy)

  • Helsinki Central

    Built from 1857 during the time of the Russian Grand Duchy, Finnish railways were effectively state-owned from their inception. Stations were simple, functional and standardised. And then, half a century later, when the National Romantic movement in the arts caught on, characterised by the stirring music of Jean Sibelius, and a desire for independence from Russia was in the air, Finnish architects let rip with a wave of ambitious and beautifully crafted buildings; on the crest of this wave was Helsinki station.

    A fairy tale design, singing of Finland, its stirring granite facades are dominated by stern faced giants bearing huge lanterns in their outsized hands. Once past these guardians, passengers pass into grand vaulted halls. Spotless, delightful, purposeful and comfortable, these add immeasurably to the lustre and magic of this happily idiosyncratic, yet perfectly functional building. Beyond these halls, trains that run religiously to time will take you to the Arctic Circle, east to Russia or west to the enchanting Finnish archipelago jutting into the Baltic Sea. The architect of Helsinki Station, completed in 1914, was Eliel Saarinen, an Arts and Crafts master, who later emigrated to the United States. His city terminus might have been much smaller than New York’s Grand Central, yet it packs an equal aesthetic punch. (Alamy)

  • Victoria Terminus, Mumbai

    Crafted in yellow sandstone, granite and blue-grey basalt, Victoria Terminus (since renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, although only officials and politicians seem to refer to it by this name) in what was once Bombay, was opened in 1887 coinciding with the Golden Jubilee of the Queen Empress, Victoria. It was completed the following year. It is of course, a younger, imperial sibling of London’s St Pancras, although imbued with ‘Hindu’ details, and equally joyous. Even today, street life around the station, with red double-deck buses and Hindustan Ambassador taxis based on 1950s Morris Oxfords, has a curiously British feel about it.

    This glorious architectural medley – or melee – was the work of the architect-engineer Frederick William Stevens for the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. Inside, it displays a wealth of Victorian craftsmanship, with tiles, ironwork and countless inventive details, as well as high vaulted spaces and very long and crowded platforms, some of it made locally and some shipped from Britain. ‘VT’ as the station is known locally, is India’s busiest: statistics tell you this, but your eyes will, too. It is a city within a city, an unforgettable experience crowned with more than memorable architecture. (Alamy)

  • Lahore Junction, Pakistan

    When this picture-book station was built at the end of the 1850s, immediately after the horrific ‘Indian Mutiny’ when so much blood was spilt cruelly on both sides, Lahore was, in effect, a British military garrison guarding approaches to the Khyber Pass and the North West Frontier. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the railway station was built with warfare, and terrorism, in mind. Designed by William Brunton, Chief Engineer of the Amritsar and Multan Railway in the guise of what appeared to be a toy fort, great steel doors could be slid across the ends of the train shed over the platforms, turning Lahore Junction into a makeshift fortress. Slits in the deep, bombproof walls were designed for romantic effect, but also for Maxim guns to be fired through them.

    Tragically, after decades of peaceful existence, the station was the scene of atrocious slaughter at the time of partition in 1947 when Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims massacred one another. Today, although political and religious tensions still run high in Lahore, the station remains for all its dark history a special place and a compelling building.

    It is from here that the Samjhauta Express runs to Delhi, a rolling bridge over steel rails between Pakistan and India. The express rumbles out between Gothic columns, medieval-style iron screens, contemporary religious slogans, people washing clothes on well-worn platforms, signs for Coca-Cola and seemingly incongruous branches of Pizza Hut and McDonald’s. Adding, more innocently, to the international mix, a preserved ZB-class steam locomotive from 1932 and built in Germany serves as the station’s gate guardian. Here is the history of divided peoples coming together and diverging from a haunting railway junction. (Alamy)

  • Santa Maria Novella, Florence

    Of all the many rich sights Florence has to offer, Santa Maria Novella station designed by Giovanni Michelucci and the Gruppo Toscano with Angiolo Mazzoni is among the very finest. Opened in 1934, it was heralded as a great Fascist achievement, the kind of station where Mussolini’s trains would arrive and depart on time. Yet, its exquisite if rational structure is about as timeless as modern architecture has ever got. It has something of the feel of an ancient Roman basilica about it, albeit one stripped of decoration, while its play of horizontal forms, wide marble stairs and long, deep canopies evoke the spirit of fast, streamlined modern trains.

    The interior is all of a piece, concourse and train shed flowing seamlessly one into the other. Its cool marble walls and striped terrazzo floors gleam. Powerful artworks – sculptures by Italo Griselli and paintings by Ottone Rosai and Mario Romoli – are incorporated into the flowing structure. It all seems so logical, so right and so serene, although a plaque near Platform 8 reminds passengers that, from here, trainloads of Jews were deported from Italy to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As trains slide unthinkingly in and out of their platforms, railway stations frame our histories: good, bad, uplifting and, sometimes, vile. (Alamy)

  • Kazan Station, Moscow

    The restaurant in Moscow’s Kazan station has never quite matched that of the Gare de Lyon for the sheer quality of meals on offer, but its riotous Rococo ceiling is hard to beat, an architectural dessert seemingly whipped up in a kitchen rather than drawn to plan in a studio. Kazan is the Russian city’s biggest station. Here, comfortable overnight trains, many still equipped with kitchen cars where fresh food is prepared and cooked, menus changing down the line according to what’s available from local markets, disappear across the boundless steppes to Rostov-on-Don, Tashkent and Yekaterinburg and Kazan itself.

    The architecture of the station itself is a decidedly rich and spicy dish served up by Alexey Shchusev, who worked for the Tsars and Stalin alike. An expert in local Russian historical styles, he fused many of these together in the design of Kazan station: here you can find Art Nouveau details dancing with architectural motifs drawn from the Kremlin as well as elements from Kazan itself, the capital of Tatarstan after which the Moscow terminus is named. Such was the richness of the structure and decoration, the station was not completed until 1940. Shchusev also designed the stunning Komsomolskaya Moscow Metro station complete with a lavish 17th Century-style interior. Here, as with Kazan station was architecture seemingly good enough to eat – or at least a feast for the eyes of a Tsar or Communist dictator. (Corbis)

  • Gare de Lyon, Paris

    Millions of people come every year to catch trains from this showcase Parisian station. Others come simply for the decorative and gastronomic splendours of Le Train Bleu. This is the glorious, if slightly run to seed, Belle Époque restaurant that commands view high above the concourse of arriving and departing trains. Pretty much unchanged since the day it opened in 1901, the gorgeous restaurant interior was the work of the station architect, Marius Toudoire, in association with thirty artists commissioned to paint scenes of towns served by the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseilles Railway].

    Regulars who once sat on the long leather banquettes under the restaurant’s sensational ceiling and luxuriant chandeliers have included Brigitte Bardot, Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel, Jean Gabin and Salvador Dali. The architecture of the Gare de Lyon was built as a show-off design for the 1900 Paris World Expo. And how delightful it is to find a grand restaurant at the heart of a Parisian railway station. What else should you expect? Trains, of course, to Lyon and the Mediterranean, to Spain and Switzerland. Today, these are very fast indeed, and yet perhaps this is one station where it pays to slow down to the speed of 1900, to enjoy a delicious, old-fashioned brasserie meal in a stunning setting before making a luxurious exit to all points south. (Alamy)

  • Berlin Hauptbahnhof

    This ultra-modern, crystalline station is not just a major German railway station, but also a symbol of the unification of the city and of the country, a momentous event signalled by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Chancellor Angela Merkel opened this bombastic new station, designed by Meinhard von Gerkan, in 2006. It rises from the site of the former Lehrter Stadtbahnhof, a building badly damaged during the Battle of Berlin in 1945, and demolished in the late 1950s. The new work was a massive affair that could be watched for many years from the S-Bahn and mainline trains passing close by.

    It involved the construction of numerous ingenious bridges, the diversion of the River Spree and deep excavations as trains were to run on several levels. The complete building was roofed over with a heroic steel and glass roof paying homage to the design of 19th Century train sheds and yet looking up-to-the-minute at the same time. The vast and airy main concourse is flanked by two steel and glass towers and serves as a shopping mall, a common feature of the large-scale new stations around the world. The sheer complexity of the Hauptbahnhof, and the huge number and variety of destinations it serves, makes this imposing and largely transparent building seem like a machine producing hundreds of trains of all shapes, sizes, speeds and colours. Its sheer energy suggests, quite rightly, that the 21st Century is as much the era of the train as the 19th Century that spawned it along, of course, with so many dramatic and mesmerising railway buildings. (Alamy)