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Starved of money and care, British Rail’s designs were bound to fail

Owen Hatherley
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Owen Hatherley reviews a new book outlining the shortcomings (and successes) of British Rail architecture 

The demolition of Richard Seifert’s office blocks at Euston Station has begun, and this is being celebrated. Looked at coldly, this is strange. These three elegant towers, as well as RL Moorcroft’s lofty station hall, compare very well with the maddening tangle of, say, Victoria or Waterloo. However, it lacks a Doric arch, and for that, it can never be forgiven. Now, perhaps sooner rather than later, a mildewed and fishy Euston Arch hauled out of the River Lea will stand once again, in front of a giant mall with some trains in – some possibly high-speed – and the sins of British Rail will be forgiven.

What does Euston’s fate mean for the popular demand that the railways be renationalised? Usefully, the first book to assess the buildings of Britain’s 50-year experiment in socialist railways has just been published: David Lawrence’s British Rail Architecture 1948-97. It’s written with an awareness of how unpopular many of these buildings are. ‘Whilst British Rail is a receding memory – like a station passed at speed,’ he writes, ‘we hold on to a vision of post-1945 station architecture as bereft of design, comfort, and quite possibly regular trains.’ His book goes some way to explaining what went wrong – so we don’t do it again – but also, what went right.

Take, for instance, the real problem with Euston: the dingy, dark platforms. These are explained by the cash-strapped BR’s hopes to sell air rights above the platforms for an office development that never came. Unlike in other European countries, the notion was always that the state railways should pay for themselves – ironic, given the enormous sums of public money granted to today’s private operators. The sheer scale of the ‘Beeching axe’, meanwhile, has contributed more than anything else to our desperately backward favouring of private transport over public. Yet BR’s standards of signage and design were very high (Theo Inglis’s design of Lawrence’s book is modelled on them). Signs are much cheaper than buildings, after all.

Even at the time, British Rail was aware of how poor its buildings were by comparison with those of Germany or France, where massive wartime destruction meant a much more ambitious reconstruction. The rebuilding of Birmingham New Street was billed as Britain’s ‘first station to compare with the Continent’s outstanding examples of post-war reconstruction’ – preposterous, but comparable to the similar hype for the limp, viciously value-engineered ETFE mall built recently to replace it. 

Eventually, in the miserable BR buildings of the 70s, Lawrence finds ‘the ultimate reduction of the railway building to a rudimentary shelter’. Better than Network Rail’s painful recent efforts at Dartford and Newport, but only just.

British Rail was in the hands of governments that assumed we’d rather drive or fly

How did it come to this? Lawrence roots British Rail in the model for post-war Britain’s nationalised utilities, London Transport, which was nationalised in the early 30s and was a great model of public provision. Sometimes, BR matched this – its stations at Coventry, Harlow Town and Manchester Oxford Road are as good as anything from the 19th century. Similarly, there was some recovery near the end with the reconstruction of Liverpool Street and Grimshaw’s epic Waterloo Eurostar terminal. 

What went wrong was simple: money, care and resources were all directed elsewhere, as BR was in the hands of governments that assumed we’d rather drive or fly. A new nationalised railway could be based on the awareness that travelling by rail is the most comfortable and sustainable form of mass transit, and could shape its buildings to that. Instead, to make the stations profitable, we put more and more shops in, and take more and more seats out. Nothing has been learnt.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Plus ca change - the steady seepage of Osborne's post-2008 austerity measures is now beginning to degrade the built environment in the public realm
    Down here in Ashburton, South Devon, the town center streets at the Bullring are being closed for the next three nights so that the stone setts that are apparently too expensive to maintain can be ripped out and replaced with tarmac.
    I thought that this sort of degrading was a thing of the past - so much for living in a country more prosperous than others in Europe, but then the money for important stuff like Boris & George's Garden Bridge joint venture had to come from somewhere.

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  • Really good and accurate observations. It's all about the experience of travel that influences people’s choices; if trains are cheap, frequent, fast and clean, and if the stations are attractive and accessible, more people will travel by train more often.

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