A tale of two Eurostar terminals

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One has to ask, have the London international rail termini (eg Eurostar) ever been a prime enthusiast hotspot. A honeypot for train geeks? The answer’s a definite no, especially when one looks at Gare du Nord and sees just how close to the Eurostars one can get. At St Pancras its nigh on impossible to get a decent picture of the Eurostar sets – unless of course one is fortunate enough have both a passport and to be able to afford to travel on one. Its quite an inequality game.

One must of course understand both Waterloo and St Pancras were designed more like an air terminal rather than a railway terminal which of course means too if one was at an airport one would not get as close to the planes as they would like. However this is a railway system we are discussing – not an airline!

Ironically in the ‘old days’ one could stand anywhere along the third rail Eurostar route and take photographs of the Class 373s at very close quarters. Today its almost not possible. This is the point I want to highlight. That part of our ‘railway culture’ boils down to the way we see railways compared to Europe.

The idea of air terminals for our railways originated from the build of the new Euston station of 1968. There were no doubt other influences from around the world such as New York’s Grand Central. The idea was trains would be shut away out of sight of the passengers and usually only seen when one gained access to the platforms. Trains could not easily be seen from the main part of the station – unless one purchased a platform ticket.

At Waterloo International the same desire to get away from the concept of a railway terminus was undertaken as much as could possibly be done. And the same has been done to a great extent at St. Pancras. This is why everything (tickets, information, passenger lounges, customs, etc) are sited below the platforms, giving functional space to the different operations of the service. In this way the actual running of the trains and the passenger side of things are totally separated and unlike an ordinary railway station or terminus, neither side gets in the way of the other.

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Notes for the design & staffing of Eurostar’s original London termini – built on five different levels – each with a different purpose. Source: Twitter

As we know Waterloo and St Pancras International are not Eurostar’s only termini. Gare du Nord and Bruxelles Midi are its others. For the purposes of comparison in terms of size and scope its Gare du Nord we need to be looking at. Let’s see what the differences are at Paris and how those compare to St. Pancras.

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Gare du Nord station sign. Source: Twitter

In terms of Gare du Nord, its a very different scenario because the service uses an existing station and existing platforms. (Remember St. Pancras too is an existing station but the difference ends there!) There was no special construction of any sort at Gare du Nord where existing facilities were utilised and modified for the purpose. What is more important is Gare du Nord has a greater sense of international than St. Pancras – and that is because trains come from other countries too.

Some might point out that Gare du Nord isn’t an ideal station. Of course, but there are those who do not want it to become an airport style terminal as we will see. Let’s look briefly at some of the work undertaken to improve the station.

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Poster seen at Paris’ Gare du Nord during the station’s ongoing improvement works, certainly much needed to improve a somewhat poor flow of passengers. A major programme to improve the international (UK services) side of the station was undertaken and this was completed last year, greatly enhancing the passenger facilities and enabling a much smoother transition.

Certainly the Eurostar check in areas are on an upper level (Hall Londres) separate from the rest of the station itself however this used existing facilities and it was somewhat archaic as far as passengers were concerned. The check-in, the customs, and onto the trains hasn’t been that endearing and there have been numerous complaints about Gare du Nord.

Alighting from the trains here hasn’t been that much of a problem though. As soon as a train has arrived from London the glass doors onto the main concourse are opened and people simply walk straight off the Eurostar platforms!

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Nice prospect of Gare du Nord (including the one Eurostar – in green – on Izy service!) This view is taken from the footbridge leading to the Eurostar platforms. Source: Twitter

There are other plans for Gare du Nord. The biggest aspect of these is the desire to turn it into an airport style terminal. The authorities want it to be like St. Pancras because they admire that model. And guess what? The French don’t want it! Even Paris’ most eminent architects have lobbied to get the idea of an airport style terminal dropped. They say it is indecent. Clearly they want a proper railway station. Not some imitation airport style replacement which is what St. Pancras really is.

For years, the 19th-century building has suffered from unflattering comparisons with the gleaming St Pancras in London where Eurostar passengers alight in the UK. Andy Street, the former head of John Lewis who is mayor of the West Midlands, even had to apologise to France in 2014 after calling the Gare du Nord “the squalor pit of Europe” compared with what he called the “modern, forward-looking” St Pancras. Source: Guardian

The above quote highlights the problem! SNCF are looking at St. Pancras and saying this is what we want! Not so fast okay. A St. Pancras style terminal isn’t what the French want, and if the plans do indeed go ahead, it would be most regretted because the idea is not something the general French public desire.

And that is the point of this post I am writing – which is why St. Pancras isn’t a ‘railway station.’

The French should thank themselves lucky. Despite the recent minor changes changes to the station Gare du Nord fortunately remains a great location where one can see the E300s and E320s trains close up, and its without a doubt one of the best locations to see the Eurostars. The glass screens are almost right by the buffer stops and one can see the trains as they draw into the station and right up to main concourse.

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Proof of the pudding! Eurostar driver’s eye view of the passenger concourse at Gare du Nord! Source: Twitter

As the above image clearly shows, the view from the public areas to the Eurostars themselves is just a couple of metres or so and what it means is Gare du Nord is infinitely more exciting as a Eurostar terminus than St. Pancras could ever be and these are the sort of things that demonstrate for me, the substantial inequalities between the two cities’ termini.

If one is fortunate to be able to use the Eurostars there’s an additional benefit in using Gare du Nord – and that’s the bird’s eye view of the trains as one passes over the glass footbridges leading down to the platforms. There’s also a side passage leading along almost the entire length of the trains themselves. At St. Pancras one only get a partial view on the west side and on the east side and often there’s information boards or other stuff in those locations too.

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View from the Gare du Nord footbridge. Source: Twitter

In order to gain a privileged position of sorts at St Pancras, one almost needs to be able to buy a drink! Yes I have been able to take pictures within the longest bar in Britain but that’s only because I plucked up the confidence to seek permission from the staff – especially in view of the matter that communication for me is prohibitively difficult with others and some chose to see it as a means to discriminate against me. You see, there’s an imposed inequality at St. Pancras.

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As Eurostar’s Justin own picture admirably shows, one simply cannot have the same level of ‘geek’ at St. Pancras as at Gare du Nord! That’s the big difference and shows a level of class privilege that is imposed here in Britain. Source: Twitter

In terms of St. Pancras (similarly at the former Waterloo International) one does not find the same sort of ‘geekiness’ (if that’s how some prefer to describe it.) The trains are remote from the public areas. Its not to say there aren’t any areas where people can view the Eurostars close-up because there are, as I have just mentioned. These being the Midland line platforms and the Kent line platforms are and the trains can be viewed through the glass screens. However these are side on views, no great drama of any sort of the Eurostar trains drawing to a full stop right up by the buffers. It means the better areas for viewing the Eurostars are simply out of bounds to most.

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Even the Gare du Nord walkway is one people can go and view the whole station in its splendour. Source: Gettys

The fact St. Pancras keeps putting exhibitions along the glass partition opposite the Betjeman statue doesn’t help either because this precludes people from getting a really nice view of the sleek shape of the Eurostar trains at exactly the very point the trains draw to a stop. Its somehow as if the station doesn’t want enthusiasts and would rather people spend their time in the bars or the shops.

This is what I mean. If one is the kind of person the station seeks to attract then there should be no problems. Shopping. Eating. That sort of thing, before getting a train (or the tube) home. But if one is like me and sees it not as a shopping venue, a drinks venue but in fact a serious railway terminus, that is where the problems start. Oh yes, there’s Barlow’s famous shed. Its awe inspiring. The numerous iron pillars that have ‘Butterley Works’ stamped on them, they’re wonderful! Butterley Works has a special place in my historical understanding of the industrial revolution. But one cannot see these iron columns in the actual context of the trains thus Barlow’s shed has lost its essence.

Of course there are other delights – the architecture, the imposing frontage on Euston Road, the numerous dragons. St. Pancras has always been a special place for me as it could be seen fro my aunt’s flat nearby. I do remember the station in the days when London’s trolleybuses trundled past but it was a complete dump. It was dirty, unkempt. But at least one could see the trains properly. And that is the whole point.

St. Pancras is probably most enjoyable when one wears rose-tinted spectacles…

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The one main spot for seeing the Eurostars is always obscured by these strategically placed information boards! At times there’s been six of these and one cant see the trains to any reasonable extent! No wonder Betjeman prefers to admire the station’s roof instead!

Its as if the station management don’t want people to be able to get nice views of the trains! Its actually very awkward to even get any decent sort of photographs of the front of the trains and it seems to me the authorities wants to preserve views of the trains for an exclusive sort of person – which I would of course not be one – people who can afford to use the stations exclusive facilities or even go on the trains themselves…

I think its clever how the original main line railway terminus level has been retained whilst opening up the former cellar area below to create a new shopping mall, and there is a clear and visible thoroughfare along the west side of the station – which does indeed give many advantages in that it creates a continuity between the tube/buses, the domestic/international parts of the station and the shopping mall. No wonder it has won awards.

However from what I can personally see, the station itself is considerably unfriendly in terms of appreciating its trains. It shouts out exclusivity and tells me I’m not welcome. Its designed for those who spend money.

We do not need another St. Pancras. The idea Gare du Nord should even emulate London’s terminus would be a huge mistake.

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A nice picture of a E320 at St. Pancras (but I didnt take this!) Source: Twitter

Everytime I ventured to St. Pancras it was nearly always the same shots, namely looking through the glass screen across the Eurostar concourse. Despite the great limitations of having to work behind a glass screen and very distant photographic shots, I have tried to be better at getting unusual angles of the station. Its very hard work and in fact one is at the behest of the security and the police.

I tried to be creative and take some different shots – which of course was much to the chagrin of staff and even the police who tried to question me. But how could I be a threat to the trains? I am disabled and I remained behind the glass screens at ALL times! I just tried to be better by thinking beyond the limitations those glass screens offered. But for the operating authorities it seems anyone doing something like this must be up to no-good. I mean – if they don’t want even anyone to take pictures why not just put the whole bloody lot behind a wall which no one can see through or over? Just make the station totally exclusive and no train enthusiasts of any sort allowed.

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The cordoned off upper level. Perhaps this is how it should be at all times – exclusive to certain clients only?

In the second part of this post are some photographic attempts I undertook to try and convey a totally different sense of the London Eurostar terminus – without even being on the platforms themselves. Of course it wont be the same as what one could quite easily achieve at Gare du Nord.

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