Can British Rail Regain its Grandeur?

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Mike Hewitt / Getty

An aerial view of the new Eurostar passenger terminal at St Pancras Station on April 20, 2007 in London, England.

As any tourist traveling on dilapidated trains to and from London would quickly discover, Britain's domestic railway system has been in a state of slow decline ever since the sun set on the British empire after World War II. But after being maligned for years as overpriced, cramped and uncomfortable, rail travel in Britain is about to make a comeback — in the glorious shape of London's revamped St. Pancras station.

Billed as a return to the golden era of railways, workmen are putting the finishing touches to a $1.6 billion refurbishing of the Victorian station once hailed as the greatest of its kind, but almost lost to the developers' bulldozers during the 1960s.

The object of the makeover is restore a golden age of rail travel, in which the train station is "a place to be seen," says Ben Ruse, a spokesman for the redevelopment. Not only that, St. Pancras International, which opens on November 14, will consecrate the integration of Britain's lumbering railways into Europe's high-speed network, cutting travel time from London to Paris, under the British Channel, to 135 minutes.

For passengers, both visitors and natives alike, whose recent experience has been standing armpit to armpit in overcrowded carriages before plodding in and out of drab stations, St. Pancras will attempt to restore the romance to rail travel. Although less well-known abroad than the nearby Kings Cross station popularized in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, St. Pancras still had the last laugh: Its grand gothic interior was the location for the scene in the movie version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone when the boy wizard departs from the mythical platform 9 3/4.

First opened in 1868, the brief of its architect, William Henry Barlow, had been to build the world's fastest and grandest railway station to reflect Britain's international pre-eminence. "St Pancras was symbolic of the history of rail travel in the U.K.," says Ruse. "It was a bygone era of success in rail — both in engineering achievement and architectural brilliance."

The centerpiece of this monument to imperial grandeur was Barlow's famous spider-like "train shed" — at 243 feet, still the biggest single span of cast ironwork in the world. Beneath it lies the concourse, supported by nearly 1,000 cast-iron pillars in a vast basement. Once used as a warehouse for Northern bitters to quench Victorian London's insatiable thirst for beer — each pillar is said to stand two ale barrels apart — this muscular 19th century vision will be complimented with a 21st century sleekness: shops, bars, restaurants, a farmers' market and the longest champagne bar in Europe.

Despite its history, in 1966 the government announced it would merge St. Pancras with Kings Cross, demolishing the former in favour of a sports center and social housing. But a campaign led by the then poet laureate Sir John Betjeman galvanized public opinion already stung by the demolition of the nearby old Euston station a few years earlier.

Letters to the London Times, sit-ins and the pleas of Betjeman eventually persuaded the bureaucrats to stop the bulldozers a mere 10 days before demolition day, but that didn't halt the area's decline. For the last three decades, the area surrounding St. Pancras has become infamous as a haven for the homeless, prostitutes and drug dealers. Anyone unfortunate enough to have to walk through its streets tended to quicken their step. The inspiration for its redemption came from the across the Atlantic.

"Grand Central Station boasts unnerving parallels: another station on the verge of closure, an area in decline before regeneration," explained Ruse. "Now [it's] the second most visited tourist attraction in New York — we can get the same here."

As well as re-establishing the "cathedral" of British railway stations, St. Pancras wants to introduce the idea of rail travel as part of a holiday experience in itself. Instead of touching down at clogged airports in the unkempt outskirts of a destination city, trains can deliver passengers right into the heart of Europe's urban centers. With seasonal direct routes to the Alps in winter and southern Europe's beaches in summer, it also hopes to wean Britons off their addiction to low-cost airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet.

Indeed, such will be the new inter-connectedness between the continent and the U.K. that some optimists predict it might herald a change in Britons' notorious island mentality. Says Ruse, "We could even see ourselves becoming more a part of Europe."