Imagine arriving at a mainline London station and not being discombobulated by crowds milling in silly places. Imagine finding information easily. Imagine a sensible range of shops. Imagine easy access to the outside, to your office or a taxi. Imagine not being deafened. Imagine checking your luggage all the way to Rio. And then visit Paddington, where it is all beginning to happen.
It's Grimshaw's design, but client responsibility lies with Robert Lovell, Railtrack's asset development manager for five of the 14 termini, including Paddington, which are under the direct control of Railtrack.
Railtrack, he reminds me sternly, is a customer-led organisation. And he knows about customers. A surveyor by profession, before joining the newly formed Railtrack in the 1994, he developed retail centres for Capital and Counties Railtrack. He wants to offer a step change in customer care and he brings lessons from the retail industry: 'the best shopping centres are climate controlled places where customers want to go. . . we're aspiring to that standard.'
Grimshaw's work at Paddington, the first phase of a major overhaul, arises from an exercise called Station 2000. It started nearly four years ago, shortly after privatisation as a competition 'to investigate the potential of big stations'. The study focused on Paddington and Euston, 'the two extremes... one is Grade I-listed, the other isn't'. Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners was part of a multi-disciplinary team led by surveyors Richard Ellis. 'They are modern, forward-looking, clear-thinking and could robustly deal with the various agencies. remembers Lovell, 'They also have a good track record, and an analytical approach.'
The team came up with three principles: stations must be operationally excellent - 'everything you can think of to make travelling by train better for customers'; they have a duality of purpose - Victoria has the best WHSmith's in Europe and we want to open up to surrounding communities. . .'; they should also 'use the cube, the space we've got. . . acres are not used effectively. Why is the guards changing room where you could have a customer facility?'
Paddington, a 'splendid example' of Railtrack's legacy of fine architecture, claimed priority when it came to actual improvements. 'It's a big challenge to incorporate facilities in spaces not designed for them'. Paddington was designed with two platforms and parallel access by horse or cart. Various adjustments over time, such as the huge departure board, militated against appreciating Brunel's magnificent space.
It is the first major upgrade of a rail terminus in London for a long time. 'The last was Liverpool Street. That was ten years ago and off the back of a property scheme.' Paddington is the first with the railway industry's own money since Harold Macmillan sanctioned demolition of the egregious Euston Arch. 'Long may it stay at the bottom of the river', says Lovell with the conviction of someone for whom operational efficiency is more important than nostalgia.
'Grimshaw's impressed us enormously', say Lovell, 'so we asked them to carry on'. The brief emerged through consultation but there was an opportunity to increase retail space, to open up the train shed by re-defining the barrier line and to introduce a multi-screened TV-based information system throughout, even in the Underground. A later phase will see a new, ramped taxi facility, which links into Westminster City Council's local traffic management plan, and the removal of a listed structure. 'We are very pleased with the interface between traditional and modern', Lovell adds, 'Grimshaw's work wouldn t suit all stations, but where you need uncompromisingly modern work they can give it; they're very good with glass and metal, and as in Brunel's engineering-led design, you can see how it all works. . . they picked up Brunel's ideas - at least that's how they explained it to me'.
Stations where he has commissioned other architects include London Bridge and King's Cross. John McAslan and Partners brings a similar 'robustness with dealing with modern interventions in an old building' at the latter, also originally built with parallel-access platforms which subsequent alterations have not entirely resolved. London Bridge, 'an early London station but never finished to a grand plan', needed a more commercial approach which came from TP Bennett. It 'cuts a swathe through the heart of the station', making a three-storey concourse which links to the surrounding streets with greater 'clarity of circulation', capped by an office tower. Both are tied up with other rail developments, Thameslink at London Bridge and London and Continental's plans for St Pancras for King's Cross.
Lovell relishes the challenges facing the railways. There has been a 25 per cent increase in passengers since 1994, and the major stations have their characteristics. They are assets whose value is fed by the combination of activities within them, just like shopping centres but often circumscribed by historic building legislation and operational needs. He sees many lessons which the two building types could learn from each other, such as people-flow and especially how to handle levels effectively, ultimately the key to urban design. In opening out stations, in re-defining their operation and creating new relationships between essential functions like shopping and travel, between public and private realms, he sets out an agenda for architects to help achieve.