Glasgow & West Scotland

Station Secrets: Behind the scenes at Glasgow Central

Glasgow Central Station view
Image caption Glasgow Central Station has started offering behind-the-scenes tours three days a week

Glasgow's Central station has started running behind-the-scenes tours taking in everything from the huge glass roof to derelict tunnels deep underground.

Paul Lyons is a customer service assistant with an appetite for a story.

He has spent the 17 years he has worked at Glasgow's Central railway station absorbing the station's myth and history. Today is the first day that the station will offer regular tours - and Paul, as resident amateur historian, is the official guide.

Social fabric

The idea originally came during last year's Glasgow Open Doors Day. The station made 100 tickets available for guided tours - and then they received 83,500 applications. The current tours, scheduled to run until February, have already sold half their tickets.

Such popularity for a station tour might seem unfathomable, until you consider the sheer number of people for whom Glasgow Central is part of their everyday lives.

"It's the busiest station this side of London," says Paul, with just a hint of pride. About 106,000 people pass through the station every day: to catch trains, to meet friends, to say long-awaited hellos and painful goodbyes.

"It's more than a railway station," Paul explains. "It's part of the very social fabric of Glasgwegians."

His point is proved when the start of the tour is nearly hampered by several interested individuals asking when and how they can get tickets.

Steeped in history

Glasgow-born Michael Burke, 64, is one of the first to get the Central Station experience.

"I've been coming here with my grandmother since I was this high," he says, gesturing vaguely to somewhere below his waist.

And - pointing to Paul - "I see him almost every time I come into the station." But today is the first time Michael will see Paul in his true element.

Image caption The station's glass roof is one of the world's largest, with 48,000 panes in total
Image caption The tours will take in the station's historic glass roof area and allow people to see what remains of its abandoned underground village

Since it opened its doors in 1879, the station has grown from eight to 15 platforms. It's been the site of a murder (so the story goes) and a gas explosion. It even acted as a temporary mortuary during World War One.

"If these walls could talk they would tell you amazing stories," says Paul.

Luckily, no talking walls are required on this tour, as we have Paul himself, winding the group between the hundreds of passengers making their way through the station concourse with an ease that betrays his 17 years of experience.

First stop: the station's glass roof. It's one of the world's largest, with 48,000 panes making up 2.2 square miles of glass.

During World War Two, the whole thing was painted black to avoid catching the eye of the Luftwaffe - the plan worked, and it was never hit.

But after the Blitz, the black paint proved impossible to remove. It was only in 1998 that they finally started replacing every single pane.

Famous names

The air grows musty and humid as the tour moves down to the station's underbelly - once a village called Grahamston, until it made way for the station to be constructed.

Snaking silver pipes and long-forgotten station signs sit gathering dust as Paul tells the tour of the Great Train Robbery: an infamous mark on the station's history, as the targeted train departed from Glasgow Central.

Paul is full of stories of the names that have passed through the station since it opened its doors 135 years ago.

The story goes that John F Kennedy's very first public engagement took place in the station's hotel and manager's office, after his father was unavailable to repatriate American survivors of the sinking of SS Athenia.

Even prominent Nazi Rudolf Hess supposedly got on the train from platform one after he was arrested in Scotland in 1941 - not before his handcuffs were removed so he could have a cigarette.

Image caption Ghost stories about the station's colourful history have proliferated

Both wars left their mark on Glasgow Central. Troops bade their families farewell from the station's platforms before going to fight.

Many would never see Glasgow Central again, returning instead from the French battlefields as corpses to be stored in the station's makeshift mortuary during the First World War. The same families that waved them goodbye were called to the underground of the station to collect their bodies.

Ghost stories

At Glasgow Central, history meets myth. The station's colourful past is the perfect breeding ground for urban legends.

A desperate man who lost his fortune in the Wall Street Crash is rumoured to have killed his wife for her life insurance money in the old boiler room.

For years, station staff were too terrified to go into the grain store, where they insisted they saw a ghostly thin woman with brown hair. And just last year The Ghost Club conducted a fruitful official investigation into the station's alleged hauntings.

Image caption The old boiler room, where a former stock market trader is rumoured to have killed his wife

One of the final stops is the former platforms, lying forgotten in the bowels of the station, victims of the railway cuts advocated by Dr Robert Beeching in the 1960s.

Our slot may be over, but Paul - who's been touring since 09:00 that morning - isn't finished for the day.

Until February, he'll be giving six tours a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. For your average Customer Service Assistant, this might seem like a lot of storytelling. Paul seems to be rising to the challenge.

"You can't tell everybody all the stories," he says. "But I try my best."

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