Simon Calder: The stations that fly in the face of mediocrity
The man who pays his way
Saturday 26 March 2011
From the airline passenger's perspective, the measure of what constitutes a "good week" is not especially demanding.
It could be seven days in which a fall of slightly less than four inches of snow at Heathrow does not lead to the cancellation of 4,000 flights, and when 750,000 passengers do not find their travel plans ruined (with a good few of them ending up sleeping on the floor of the terminals).
It might be a week in which the management of Europe's busiest airport, Heathrow, accepts that a good way to avoid a repeat of the pre-Christmas shambles is to improve "situational awareness" – which, translated, means moving the airport's Crisis Support Team to a room that has a window from which they can look out and see what is happening.
Or it could be when the Government reneges on a key pledge to increase the tax on flying.
Not a good week for the environment, though, since the Chancellor also abandoned the coalition's plan to tax each flight according to how much damage it does, rather than how many non-transit passengers happen to be on board. And thanks to the arbitrary rules on how Air Passenger Duty is calculated, a passenger on a five-hour flight to eastern Turkey will continue to pay £12, while the same length of trip costs the Egypt-bound passenger five times as much.
The week ahead looks even better for the flyer (and worse for the planet), because of the surge of new routes on offer from tomorrow when the summer schedules begin. Today we dedicate plenty of pages to the travel possibilities unlocked by new no-frills flights to France, Spain and the Middle East, as well as the prospect of cutthroat competition between airlines from London to Marrakech.
Yet the cheaper flying becomes, the more alluring the railways look. Trains, of course, comprise a far more relaxed and convivial way to travel, with the added bonus that some rail termini transcend mere transportation; while many airports struggle even to be merely mediocre, stations can be inspirational.
This week in Copenhagen, the Railway Terminal World Design and Technology Conference celebrates stations. Set off tomorrow afternoon, and you could reach the Danish capital's splendid station from majestic St Pancras (via mundane Brussels Midi and mighty Cologne Hauptbahnhof) by the start of business on Monday morning. In case you have other plans, I have talked to a key speaker: Stefan Krummeck, principal director of the architectural practice TFP Farrells in Hong Kong. He believes railway stations have the power to transform cities, as well as appeal to travellers – and cites the great New York terminal as a favourite.
"I like Grand Central. I like the way they're getting the light into the hall. I've studied it in a lot of detail. It was phenomenal how it was conceived. To start with people were complaining: how come it is so far away from the city centre? But within a short period of time the city grew towards it and started to grow over it."
That was 140 years ago; but Mr Krummeck says that the grand terminals built for the new high-speed network in China, are equally exciting: "One of our recent stations, the Beijing South Station is one of the marvels out there. It makes my heart beat faster". You can't say that about Heathrow Terminal Three.
It's a Parisian knock-out
Paris Gare du Nord is not quite in the same league as the other end of the Eurostar link, London St Pancras. With no undercroft in which to consign shops and ticket desks, it feels cluttered.
Yet the elegant stonework and soaring arches make Paris Nord a station to lift the spirits – except when you are feeling pressé about a connection to the Normandy resort of Granville from Montparnasse, surely the ugliest gare in Paris.
On paper, the transfer looks easy: Métro line 4 links them both. And this ligne also reminds you how densely packed are Métro stations, with separate stops for each half of the conjoined junction Chatelet-Les Halles.
As with New York City and rats, you are never far from a Métro station in Paris. Or so I thought; but to reach the right platform from line 4 at Montparnasse, requires an astonishing eight staircases (seven up, one down), four tapis roulants (moving walkways, although last Sunday one of them wasn't) and three long escalators – again, one broken.
Unencumbered by luggage, you might cover the distance in 15 minutes; weighed down with bags, you'll look like a loser from Jeux san Frontières.
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