Wien Hauptbahnhof (photo © Andras Csontos / dreamstime.com).
For a time last year it really felt like the Gods of European rail travel were out to get me. It didn’t matter if I was catching the Eurostar from London, an ICE in Cologne, or a regional train from Berlin into the Brandenburg countryside, every journey seemed to be delayed.
Those incidents gave cause for thought. I found myself spending hours at stations I had expected to pass through very quickly. And it gave me a lot of time, as I stalked the platforms and concourses, to think about what makes the perfect station.
Of all the physical locations that are linked to different forms of transport, from the railway station to the airport, the bus terminal and the motorway service area, it is surely only the station that maintains any semblance of romance. The great writer and defender of the railways Tony Judt described them as secular cathedrals, as places that reshaped our cities, containing within them all you would need to survive quite comfortably in one place and the means to strike out to discover whole new landscapes and cultures.
Unfortunately, over the decades since the first great railway stations were built, not all stations have continued to live up to this ideal. Any regular traveller on the trains of Europe will be able to reel off their own checklist of terminal failures, whether because of neglect, poor investment or misguided improvements. But this is not the place to focus on the worst. Instead, I want to conjure up the best, taking from a highly subjective list of favourite stations and station experiences, almost certainly based on faulty, over-romanticised memory, to create my own ideal of the station of my dreams.
I start with the building itself. Of course, there is something majestic about the greatest of the nineteenth-century stations, a grandeur in the architecture and design that was built to impress and is hard to beat. At the same time, rail travel should not be merely an exercise in nostalgia, and some modern stations are truly spectacular buildings in their own right, making a statement on behalf of their home cities in the way that their predecessors did during the Industrial Revolution.
So I want a mix of the old and the new, and so I’m going to take King’s Cross, rather than its more celebrated neighbour St Pancras. King’s Cross is rooted in railway history but has incorporated a modern expansion without losing the sense of itself as a station first and foremost. And I have a soft spot for King’s Cross, because if I am there it means I am almost certainly travelling to see family and friends.
But for my dream departure board, the train to Leeds alone is not going to cut it. So I need to leave King’s Cross, and head over the water. I need a place that has a good range of local and international connections, and again on a personal note, one that will deliver me quickly to the mountains. And when I think of my favourite destinations, the rail journeys I have loved and the ones that are still on the to-do list, there is only really one contender.
The list of destinations from Wien Hauptbahnhof is pretty close to my own dream departure board: Berlin, Budapest, Salzburg, Prague, Venice, Belgrade, Ljubljana, Warsaw, Zagreb, Minsk, Kyiv, Nice, Zurich, Hamburg, Rome. It is the starting point for many fine Alpine railway adventures and, thanks to ÖBB’s impressive commitment to the night train, there are all kinds of nocturnal journeys possible. The only thing missing, and which I would add from my own perfect station, is a direct service to Spain, and maybe one via Denmark to Sweden.
Of course my perfect station needs to be more than just a nice building and a list of destinations. And here I pull out some specific memories to add the detail. For a morning snack and coffee, the little bar in Trieste where I stopped for an espresso after a night train journey in the late 2000s. For a late afternoon or evening departure, the bar beneath the art nouveau ceiling dome in Prague in the 1990s, where the beers were so cheap and tasty, the prospect of a delay was no hardship at all.
Whether for time in the waiting room or for the journey itself, I will need reading material. So I take the newspaper shop at Zoologischer Garten in Berlin, where the international press selection is remarkable, and the wonderful bookshop in Leipzig with its ornate windows and high ceilings, part of one of the finest station halls of them all.
If I have to wait, the station whose atmosphere I enjoyed the most was the Gare de l’Est in Paris, although if the weather is fine it would be good to step out in Venice and go sit by the canal. And I would also like the man who made my ham and cheese sandwich at Barcelona-Sants to have his own stand in the corner, or perhaps just supplying his wares to the Triestini coffee bar next to the left luggage lockers. Toilets would of course be as clean as in Tokyo, and free of charge.
I know others will have their own ideas. I know that some will have stopped reading the moment I wrote the words ‘King’s Cross’. Others will place importance on things other than sandwiches, beer and reading material. All our perfect stations will look different. But ultimately they will all represent the same thing: the possibility of the next adventure.