Back tracking

The days when railway stations were pleasant environments are over. A new book transports Matthew Valentine back to the golden age of railway travel.

The real problem with Station to Station, a hefty new tome by Steven Parissien, is that it brings to mind a golden age of rail travel, with stunning stations, graphic design which adds pleasure to a journey as well as supplying information, and clean, comfortable trains.

And that in turn makes the journey home via Victoria even more depressing. The Art Deco grandeur of Union stations in Cincinnati and Los Angeles, handsomely photographed in deserted splendour, just make London stations look grimier and more crowded. Even the double-stacked retail outlets at Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, which look like a cross between Blade Runner and a Third World market, somehow have more appeal than the Sock Shop next to Victoria’s Platform 10.

But the famous stations of the US and Europe are not the only appealing feature of the book. There are attractions from closer to home, including impressive images from around the UK. These range from archetypal railway posters by the likes of Terence Cuneo to photographs conveying a real sense of recovery from the austerity of the Second World War. And, yes, Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter make an appearance too.

In images from around the world the stations themselves, often designed to show the prosperity of a country or railroad company, appear to become characters in their own right. And as well as the obvious contribution architects made to rail networks worldwide, the book pays tribute to graphic design.

Alongside the usual posters of streamlined locomotives there are more unexpected images – one of the more sinister being a giant wartime photomural by Raymond Loewy at New York’s spectacular Penn Station, featuring giant images of Pennsylvania Railroad staff who were directly or indirectly helping the war effort. They gaze earnestly down at travellers from a vast height. While it may have created patriotic feeling at the time, it now brings to mind the giant posters of Saddam Hussein or other leaders we are used to seeing on the television news. Those in Penn Station, however, are not peppered with bullet holes.

The stunning visuals in the book have one other negative effect – they are so good to look at there is a temptation to ignore the words. This is a shame as they provide a detailed history of the use of design and architecture in rail travel and, therefore, the lives of a large proportion of the world’s population. They also include interesting trivia – the architect responsible for Cincinnati Union Station, for example, was “the unfortunately named Roland Wank”.

Running to more than 200 pages, Station to Station might keep even the most committed non-trainspotters diverted for hours. While they are waiting for their delayed train at Victoria, perhaps.

Station to Station is published on 2 October by Phaidon Press, priced 39.99

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