The new cathedral for the railways

St Pancras is a rare example of upstaging the French at a game they usually play better far better than us. The transformation of the station to accommodate Eurostar was a grand projet on which public money was lavished in order to create a major amenity for which future generations will be grateful. The Gare du Nord is pleasant but banal compared to the splendour of the new ‘destination station’, as the ads call it.

And for once, the publicity is not exaggerated. The only possible contender for the title of greatest station in the world is the new Berlin Hauptbanhof, and that lacks the sheer craziness of the Gothic folly of Gilbert Scott’s hotel and the sheer expanse of Barlow’s train shed.

St Pancras is something else that we do not normally do well: a fantastic blend of the old and the new. The brilliant way that a station built by the Midland Railway 140 years ago has been refurbished to accommodate 18 coach trains carrying international passengers is testimony to Britain’s engineering talent. The real genius is in using the undercroft, supported by nearly 800 pillars and built originally to store and send out beer delivered from the Midlands, for the check-in areas, lit by the natural live from huge holes carved out of the original platform level.

Such audacious design in the refurbishment an old listed building is a rare feature in this country where the powerful heritage lobby, with its love of classical pastiche and fear of creating ‘carbuncles’, holds sway. St Pancras International will, as promised, herald a new age of the train and ensure that the Channel Tunnel, which has relatively little patronage since its opening in 1994, is better used.

However, being Britain there are, of course, disappointments such as the fact that no new destinations will be served by Eurostar trains, meaning passengers for Germany or Holland will be expected to change since the trains to operate regional services in the UK and sleeper services bought by British Rail have been sold off.

It is a shame, too, that the road network around the station is redolent of the sort of gyratory system which elsewhere Transport for London is busily removing. Cyclists, too, appear to have been forgotten in the plans by being offered minimal parking facilities.

However, it would be churlish not to celebrate wholeheartedly this momentous event. It’s just a shame there is not another in the schedule with no plans even to consider building another high speed line until 2014 at the earliest.

Christian Wolmar is the author of Fire & Steam, a new history of the railways in Britain, just published by Atlantic books.

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