Last week, the £18.7 billion Crossrail project finally opened to the public.
The new rail network – also known as the Elizabeth line – cuts across the capital and stretches for over 60 miles from Reading to Brentwood. As part of the work, 10 new stations were built while several others underwent structural renovations to provide step-free access for passengers with limited mobility.
The completion of what Crossrail’s CEO described as the “most technologically complex” transport engineering project outside of China should without question represent a moment of national pride. But it should also serve as reminder. Despite being the subject of much criticism, Britain’s stations and railway network still boasts some of the most cutting-edge and advanced infrastructure in the world.
British train stations on top
Britain’s comparative advantage jumps out when looking at European league tables. According to the 2021 European Railway Station Index, which ranks the 50 biggest stations in Europe according to various metrics, St Pancras comes out third best overall. And it was not the only British entry to have performed well, with Birmingham New Street ranked within the top 10 and a total of 6 London stations making the first 20 spots.
These results compare rather favourably to those of other European neighbours. France, for instance, ranks amongst the poorest performers, with only 4 of its stations – all of which are in the capital – making it into the top 20. The rankings were particularly unforgiving for the Parisian Gare du Nord that, despite detaining the accolade of Europe’s busiest stationprior to the pandemic, only managed 11th place, tied with London Victoria and far behind St Pancras.
Yet anyone who has ever taken the Eurostar, and is therefore familiar with the Gare du Nord, would hardly be surprised by its position in the rankings. For years, the station has carried a reputation for being dirty, overcrowded and a notorious hub for anti-social behaviour – even amongst Parisians. A 2019 survey run by the Institut Paris Region, for instance, revealed that nearly half of all respondents were fearful when going to the Gare du Nord due to the widespread presence of alcoholics and drug addicts.
Gare du Nord: The Parisian eyesore
The station’s poor upkeep and general neglect is such that the former John Lewis boss, Andy Street, once famously described it as “the squalor pit of Europe.” While the tongue in cheek comment caused widespread offence at the time, it still serves as a crude reminder of the reputational damage the Gare du Nord causes the entire city. After all, for thousands of visitors that come every day from around Europe –eager to experience the enchantment of the city of lights and high fashion – the unbecoming sight of the Gare du Nord represents a rather anti-climactic welcome.
Realising that it is impossible to get a second chance at making a good first impression, Paris has been hard at work to find a renovation plan that could transform the station. In 2020, an initial €1.5 billion (£1.2 billion) project, conceived by Ceetrus, a subsidiary of the French Auchan supermarket chain, and the SNCF, received the green light. The plans seemed to fit the bill when it comes to ambition: the Gare du Nord would triple in size and include new commercial spaces to provide passengers with improved services.
Aiming too low
After encountering political opposition, the plans were scrapped late last year. In their place, the SNCF approved this March a much smaller project worth around €55 million (£42 million), called “Horizon 2024”, that would concentrate on a limited set of renovations and improvement to services in the Gare du Nord.
But while the new Horizon 2024 project has been celebrated by the local political authorities as a more cost-effective solution, the downgrade seems to betray a lack of ambition. With Paris set to host both the 2023 Rugby World Cup and the 2024 Olympic games, the Gare du Nord is in desperate need of massive transformations and a sorely needed upgrade. It is therefore difficult to imagine how this mini-revamp project, set to start in the autumn of this year, will solve thestation’s structural problems, from its limited passenger services to its grotty reputation as a hotspot for crime and loitering.
Much like the Gare du Nord, however, St Pancras was deeply unloved until the early 2000s. The station was considered impractical, filthy and unattractive, as the characteristic red bricks were covered by layers of dirt and smoke. Within the complex, the St Pancras chambers – which were adjacent buildings that had served as railway offices – also fell into decline. For many, the only viable solution was to tear everything down and start from scratch.
Infrastructure pay off
But after an £800 million (just over a billion pounds in today’s money) refurbishment project was completed in 2007, St Pancras gained a new lease of life. Not only was the station kitted out with the latest technology, including public Wi-Fi, but also offered state of the art passenger service with over 60 retail shops and the chambers converted into a five-star hotel. The entire project was completed in 2009, three years ahead of the 2012 Olympics, which allowed St Pancras to become a crucial gateway into London.
The big lesson for Paris’ Gare du Nord is that ambitious projects pay dividends, not least by unleashing the true potential of neglected areas. It is a message that should also be repeated in Whitehall. In recent months, the government has rolled back some of its more ambitious railway projects, including HS2. With the recent success of Crossrail, however, ministers and officials will hopefully restart boldly investing in big infrastructure projects. Only this way can Britain continue to lead the pack in Europe.