There is little else that stirs the soul so effectively as a powerful steam engine pouring thick smoke across the countryside as it tackles a steep incline while pulling a dozen smartly painted carriages.
Perhaps equally impressive are the narrow gauge trains of Europe that climb mountains almost effortlessly, and the high-speed flyers in Japan, China and France. I enjoy a ride on all of these but nothing quite beats the opportunity to photograph them from a hidden countryside hideaway.
True trainspotters can be somewhat strange people but let’s acknowledge that they do what many of us would like to do if we had the time and opportunity. But it is not only the trains that appeal to many. What most travellers can do is see some of the grand railway stations without too much effort. Railway stations are evocative, personal, and so much more interesting than airports or bus stations.
Here are a few of my favourites that I have seen during my travels.
Grand Central, New York, USA
This is a wonderful monument to the classic Age of Rail. It has repeatedly been named the most beautiful station in the world, and that probably explains why it’s the sixth most visited tourist attraction in the world, with over 26 million visitors annually. With 44 platforms it also happens to have the most of any station in the world.
The fabulous Main Concourse is a show-stopper. See the celestial ceiling mural, the antique gold-barred ticket windows, the four-faced brass clock, and the magnificent gold chandeliers which show off the power of electricity, which was still relatively new when the station was built.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai, India
This train station is Mumbai’s most exuberant Gothic building. It looks more like a lavishly decorated palace than a train station. Mumbai is the capital of Bollywood, so this is almost certainly the railway station which has been featured in more movies than any other. You may recognise it as the setting of the finale in the Oscar-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site, still known to many as Victoria Terminus, features a stunning blend of Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival and traditional Indian Mughal styles. The first train in Asia ran from this spot to nearby Thana in 1853. These days, the station is the busiest in India, serving both long distance and commuter trains leaving from Mumbai.
St Pancras, London, UK
The station’s immense halls greet people arriving in London from all over the UK, and from France and Belgium on the Eurostar. The station took 20 years to build, and when it was completed in 1868, it was the largest enclosed space in the world.
The red brick Gothic façade remains a testament to England’s great Victorian architecture. During WW11 it was an important escape route and meeting point for the Allied soldiers.
A security-sealed terminal area has been constructed for services to continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel. The restored station has 15 platforms, a shopping centre, a coach facility, restaurants, and bars, including the famous Searcys Champagne Bar.
Flinders Street, Melbourne, Australia
Flinders Street Station is Australia’s oldest train station, and it was the world’s busiest passenger station in the late 1920s. With its newly refurbished distinctive yellow facade and green copper dome, it’s a city icon. Its design is an intriguing mix of early Art Nouveau and Queen Anne, with a striking ensemble of domes and arches. The distinctive clocks under the main dome that show the departure times of the next trains date back to the 1860s.
Flinders Street is the busiest suburban railway station in the southern hemisphere, with over 1500 trains and 110,000 commuters passing through each day. Its 708-metre main platform is the fourth longest railway platform in the world. Free wi-fi is available throughout the station.
Hua Hin, Thailand
Hua Hin’s railway station and adjacent royal waiting room (top image) are undeniably attractive. The brightly painted wooden buildings that are Thai in concept and design somehow manage to have a ‘Victorian’ feel to them. Its quaint, East-meets-West architectural style stands in stark contrast to the modern hotel buildings and outdoor malls that are part of Hua Hin today.
The building itself is complemented by a well-maintained garden and a peaceful tree-lined location a short distance from the seafront. Trains from Hua Hin to Bangkok run throughout the day. The fastest service completes the journey in 3 hours 33 minutes.
Sirkeci Terminal, Istanbul, Turkey
The first Orient Express train arrived at this station in October 1883, having left Paris’ Gare de l’Est with farewell music from Mozart’s Turkish March. The grand journey took 80 hours. Unfortunately, this service no longer runs and the station today seems rather cold and deserted.
Its location, however, places it at the forefront of stations which must be visited. It has a prime waterfront location on the Golden Horn, and there is a new underground station with trains waiting to take you under the Bosphorus to Asia. I suggest you stop off at the small museum and grab a coffee and snack at the Orient Express cafe.
Estacion de Atocha, Madrid, Spain
A lush tropical garden grows in the main concourse of Madrid’s first and largest train station, originally inaugurated in 1851. When a fire destroyed the first building, the present glorious, wrought iron station replaced it.
This was superseded in 1992 when a more modern terminal was built adjacent to it. Passengers travelling through the new terminal can still pass through the old Atocha Station, which contains shops, cafés, and a nightclub as well as the attractive garden.
Central Station, Helsinki, Finland
This widely recognized landmark is also the most visited building in Finland. Opened in 1919, Helsinki’s main terminus is best-known internationally for its distinctive clock tower and its much-parodied gigantic statues holding spherical lamps. The original design was very Scandinavian, but locals pushed for a more modern style and eventually, the design was reworked.
Less well known is the station’s private waiting lounge, originally built in 1911 for use by the Russian Tsar on journeys to and from St Petersburg. But the Russian Revolution of 1917 meant it never served its original purpose. The lounge is now used exclusively by the President of Finland and guests.
Check out more of Len’s travel musings at LenRutledge.com