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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for September 1st, 2006

New Liege Thalys (High Speed Train) Station

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A lovely piece of flash animated architectural renderings of the new station, with a nice soundtrack of Cesar Franck’s music. Highly recommended.

But it does raise a few questions – the most obvious being where do the trains get their power from? The Overhead Line Electrification (OLE) is omitted – presumably because such fussy detail would spoil the pretty pictures. Just as the streets have no furniture, or painted lines.

First, the positive. It is very encouraging that Europe is investing in high speed rail, and this station looks like a significant architectural contribution to Liege. It is not a city I have ever visited, but clearly urban planning on this scale is something that is done very much better there than here. Compare and contrast the cheap and nasty SkyTrain Expo Line (done twenty years ago and extended a couple of times in equally prosaic style) and the slightly better (but not much) Millenium Line. The Canada Line looks like it will be cutting corners too, and certainly there is absolutely no consideration of how it is going to fit in let alone enhance the centre of Richmond the way this station does. Yeah, yeah, I know this is intercity, SkyTrain is transit, but the same principles of enhancing the urban fabric apply.

The negative. Do they really think that those sheets of water are the best use of the station forecourt? Surely this should be a piazza for sitting and watching the world go by, preferably with the opportunity to do that over a cup of coffee or a Belgian beer. Trappiste for preference. I suppose there are no vandals in Belgium. Fountains were used in Trafalgar Square deliberately to reduce the size of the crowds who could gather and disturb the peace. Jumping in them has become a feature of many drunken revels.

The bus stop looks like an afterthought – tucked away at the side, while cars have the ability to sweep up and drop off at those magnificent stairs. I see elevator housings on all the platforms so presumably those with mobility issues will have a tunnel to access them.

What happens in those buildings I wonder? Maybe I should explore the web page a bit more and read the proposals. But really, the architects do seem to consider the awe they want to generate (just like Washington DC is supposed to do) rather than how this will actually work.

The station roof is a clear homage to traditional major stations from the age of steam, when huge enclosed spaces were need to allow space for the smoke and steam to clear. And it is far better than the train sheds built in recent years in the UK (Birmingham New Street – which is even now going to be replaced after a remarkably short life – or Euston). The US seems to ignore long distance passenger trains as much as possible, though some of the refurbishments of major city centre terminals have drawn praise.

Unlike Ottawa where they moved the trains to the edge of town, and converted the old station to a rather scruffy meeting space for civil servants. The whole point of a station is to be at the centre, within walking distance of offices, hotels, monuments, facilities. That way high speed trains will attract people away from both cars and planes. Internal airlines in France are now largely a thing of the past, thanks to TGV, and bode well for a sustainable future for France. So Union Station in Toronto is at least in the right place. Vancouver seems half hearted. Waterfront is a good building serving commuters, but Amtrak and VIA are banished to one of the most run down and seedy parts of town – alongside the Greyhound buses who used to have their own station in front of the Sandman.

Of course Government is at the heart of all of this. SNCB is a nationalised industry which means that profit is not the only consideration. Belgium has its political issues – of which only the language one seems to get to the outside world – but it would seem that the City fathers seem to be able to get something of value from their national government. That’s something of a novelty item here, and usually wasted on sideshows like the Olympics and the aforementioned Expo.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 1, 2006 at 5:12 pm