European trains? I’d rather have their stations.

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Saturday, July 29, 2017

Travelers pause to take in the decorations at Stockholm City Station.

In surmising our inauguratory experience with European railroads, I will spare the well-worn but valid observations about how much better that part of the world does intercity rail service. By now, we in the United States have thrown our weight behind a system that favors road and freight rail traffic. Instead, I’ll take the space of this blog to present a different observation. Traveling through Sweden and Norway by train made it clear that train stations can still be important centers of community.

To Americans, calling the train station the heart of its community tugs on deep-seated historical roots. It calls up images of far-flung prairie towns that only manage to hang on because the trains bring them essential supplies, or the outposts that sprang up specifically to serve the railroad's needs. The imposing Grand Central Stations in larger cities became a door to the wider world for an increasingly mobile population. All of these, though, are somewhat difficult to imagine or replicate when travel by air and by road means that trains are no longer the dominant form of transportation.

The Marsta airport train between Stockholm and Arlanda Airport.

The first train we boarded was the airport train that shuttles passengers between Stockholm and the Marsta station near Arlanda Airport. This in itself isn’t a groundbreaking experience. Most major airports in the United States now have train service to their airports, and I often take advantage of the routes to D/FW and Love Field when my flights don’t fall outside the train’s service hours

What stands out about this, though, is how crowded the train is. Almost every seat is full, and when we get to Stockholm City, the hub for the local trains, there's another crowd of people waiting to board and go to the airport.

This particular train station stands out as one of the more interesting train stations I've come across in all my travels. Stockholm City is a knotted collection of rock tunnels that appears to be almost completely natural, except for the tiled platforms and tracks. It is the underground version of high mountain railroad that seems to have evolved channels and ledges specifically for the benefit of the train.

The rock tunnels are generously decorated with paintings, colored lights, and statues depicting religious figures and important Swedish individuals. My husband and I are not the only travelers who spare a few moments from their schedules to give these public artworks a close inspection and appreciation. They trick us into taking a few moments to relax, destress, to simply breath. The place feels more like a museum or a religious grotto than it does a train station. The design is efficient in creating a space that distracts from the anxiety and rapidity of modern travel.

Stockholm City is a short tram ride away from Stockholms Centralstation, the point where regional and international trains converge. It is our point of entrance into the city and, a few days later when we board a train to Norway, our exit as well.

Both stations that we visit on this transfer, Stockholms Centralstation and Oslo Sentralstasjon, are crowded with travelers, though not so crowded that they feel stressed past their capacity. There are individuals with bulging through-hike style backpacks in the midst of a tour of Europe, families herding young children from one track to another, entire sports teams in matching jerseys that have circled the waggons around a pile of luggage and equipment.

Travelers and patrons at Stockholms Centralstation.

At both stations there is, though, quite a significant segment of the crowd that seems untroubled by the arrival and departure board.They have shopping bags in hand instead of suitcases, relax with friends at the restaurants, or access the services at cell phone stores or banks. Imagine a shopping mall that at the height of their economic viability, one that just happens to have trains running through it, and that's coming close to the atmosphere.

The usefulness of these stations, in other words, isn’t exclusive to travelers. There is real community here, and one would imagine that the economic generated by stations like these is substantial.

Fortunately, this blog doesn’t need to be written entirely with the attitude of describing something that we should do in this country. To a limited extent, local and regional passenger rail service is undergoing a revival, and some developers are well aware of the ways in which a large train station can benefit an entire community.

Take the Denver Union Station, which currently services Amtrak’s California Zephyr and the local RTD light rail. A recent renovation updated the platforms with a yawning roof that at first seems to clash with the original station building but, eventually, starts to grow on you. The inside of the station is far more important. The developers brought hotels, restaurants, bars, and other amenities to the space and marketed it well enough to ensure that the clientele is not limited to travelers. The space in the great hall can also be rented out for private events--the last time I visited, the employees were in the process of setting up for a wedding reception.

I'd also offer up the Tower City Center in Cleveland as another station that has managed to establish a presence that goes beyond trains. The somewhat atypically construction of this station places the RTA trains on the bottom level of a large building that includes a shopping mall, restaurants, a casino, and office space. The place has undergone numerous renovations in its almost 100 years history, but its geographic placement on the border of downtown Cleveland and its surprisingly walkable residential neighborhoods has helped to keep it commercially and culturally viable, independent of the railroad infrastructure. The building is iconic enough that it has even earned a place in cinematic history: The mall scenes in A Christmas Story were filmed in the now-defunct Higbee’s store that once took up large portions of the building.

A group enjoys lunch at Denver Union Station.

For examples of art worked into train stations I will point locally, though unfortunately there is nothing on that Dallas Area Rapid transit line that matches Stockholm City Station. The designers of our local stations, most of which were constructed in the last twenty years, took care to match their design to the culture or major attraction of the area the neighborhood that they service. To give a few examples, Love Field station builds in a timeline of the development of airplane technology. The Dallas Zoo station is decorated with mosaics that depict different animal fur patterns. The Walnut Hill station nods to the Korean population dominating that area. Many commuter rail stations are unimaginative and indistinguishable these make the train stations feel far more integrated into their surroundings.

A high-speed, national network of the kind that we experienced on our trip may not be feasible or advisable in the United States, but the construction and revitalization of train stations can still be constructed in such a way to benefit local communities and economies. That is a far more attainable goal for American developers to strive towards.

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