Glasgow's main train station

This is the kind of place you can pass through every day without realising how grand the building is, or how important it is to the infrastructure of the city.

Built in 1900 by the Caledonian Railway, with the intention of putting nearby St Enoch's Station out of business (it worked), Central is a huge building. It takes up about four blocks on the North of the river, hemmed in by Jamaica Street, Union Street, Gordon Street and the Broomielaw. It crosses over Argyle Street, at the Heilannman's Umbrella. Most of it is built out of blonde sandstone, with impressive arches everywhere. Space in and around it is occupied by shops, offices, hotels, clubs (such as The Arches), railway works and car parks.

Railtrack own it, and have the job of coordinating the hundreds of train services carrying thousands of people in and out daily, from all around the UK. It's the hub of the local suburban passenger rail network - the biggest outside of London. Rush hour is very rushed. but it usually seems to run smoothly.

Random facts:

  • There are 15 platforms, 13 of them leading south of the Clyde, and two east-west tracks on the lower level. (the latter are owned by ScotRail, just to confuse everyone.) The longest stretches halfway across the river, and is a regular haunt of trainspotters.
  • During the week, you can usually get a freebie newspaper, the Metro, which is a toned-down, opinion-less version of the Daily Express - but still a good read.
  • There are two ticket offices, one for long distance journeys, operated by Virgin. There are self service machines here where you can collect tickets ordered online at thetrainline.com or the Virgin Trains website. There is also a ScotRail ticket office, for tickets to stations in Scotland.
  • The furtherst place you can catch a direct train to is Penzance.
  • The surly ticket inspectors can be paid up to £7 an hour, you know..
  • Despite it's grandeur, it pales in comparison to New York City's Grand Central Terminal.

I'll maybe add more later...

Saturday was gray and windy, and my headphones had broken. I was using a slightly damaged pair of Dad's earphones which kept falling out of my ears as I walked down to the station. Platform 1 was shut, trains arriving and departing from 2. So I bought my ticket and listened to Radiohead's Kid A in the Plat 2 shelter. Saw a couple of people whom I knew, but not well enough to talk to them. Continued listening to Radiohead as I rode the train into Central Station.

I was early, so I went to WH Smith and bought a phone card to top up my mobile's balance, which was down to 9p. Bought a bottle of water, then called my friend to arrange a meeting place - in front of the big WH Smith in Central. She was taking the bus in. Put on my 'electronika' compilation cd as I waited.

Ever notice the fact that people just don't look up? You're walking around and you notice what's in front of you, and to a certain extent (ie, that which is required in order to not be squished by oncoming traffic or trip on uneven pavement) stuff below and to the sides of you. But danger doesn't usually come from the sky, so unless there's a loud sound overhead or something, you don't look up. You don't notice.

I looked up. Central Station is a strange place - the architecture is a cross of the indoors and the outdoors. The wall above the main entrance is classic Glasgow sandstone pocked with many windows. Cables run up and across it, there is a row of filled-in holes above the massive entrance arches. "E II R" is scrawled above the main arch by way of a slight lightening of the sandstone. Perhaps a crest was fixed there at one point? Elizabeth Regina II.

The station is in the form of a giant U made from tall sandstone buildings that support the roof. The windows on the left wall (facing away from the entrance) of the station are dark and brooding, some with small air conditioning units bolted to their outsides. For some reason, a long wire mesh covers the entire row. At the foot of the side walls, there is a row of shorter buildings. The inside of the U is covered by the station's roof and contains the busy concourse with its benches and timetables, as well as the platforms. The open end of the U is where most of the platforms end, and where the tracks exit the station.

The buildings around the station's edge are of dark-stained wood with gold lettering above the shop signs. Various shops, but mostly cafes and restaurants. A couple of pubs are built on an upper level, above the shops. HVAC equipment protrudes from the top of them, incongruous in its dark, industrial, cable-strewn presence. A section of building roof over in the corner of the station is screened off by an odd fence of horizontal wooden slats, supported from behind, that I suppose must hide more HVAC equipment or some such thing. The edges of the roofs and ledges above the signs are spiked with anti-pigeon devices. I suppose they must get pigeons in here.

The roof itself is white-painted steel beams supporting glass. A clock hangs down in the middle of the concourse, bolted securely to a horizontal beam. Massive billboards and the giant Arrivals/Departures sign block most of the view towards the station's far end, where the tracks exit.

I switch from looking up to looking down. The floor is clean, white; some sort of polished stone with little coloured chips in it. A crack runs from one side of the concourse to the other. It's a floor with character - a billion feet have walked here on their way to their destinations.

That's the thing about stations as opposed to, say, airports. Big airports have no soul. Regardless of how they're designed - dramatic, sweeping architecture, beautiful mini-landscapes, fountains - they all have the same blank, white-faced anonymity. And unless you're a frequent traveller, it's hard to get attached to an airport like you can with a station. They're too big, too impersonal, too... modern.

I start watching people. It's an interesting pastime. At 11:45am on a Saturday, the station is filled with people - sitting, standing, strolling, hurrying, with or without luggage. Each one is immersed in their own little reality - just off the train from a commuter town not far from the city's borders, walking to work; surrounded by bags and waiting for an inter-city train down to some far-off city; smiling at a significant other. I had my own little story - nervously waiting for a girl I knew from work to show up. We had planned to go to the cinema together. Watching the minutes tick away on the big clock, and on the digital readout on the Arrivals/Departures board. Perhaps her bus had been caught in traffic. Maybe she had decided not to come. I told myself not to be so paranoid - hadn't she just told me she was on the bus? I sighed, waited, listened, watched.

I'm more familiar with Central at night, when it's quieter and filled with people going home, including us two, tired from waiting tables for functions at the Thistle Hotel, a few streets and a ten minute walk away. I would see her to her train then step on the escalator and watch her for a few seconds before she disappeared from view. Another escalator and I was on the Low Level.

The corridor to the low level platforms is low and dimly-lit, with a ceiling of criss-crossed, white-painted metal beams studded with enormous rivets. The walls and floor are red tile. On one wall, a small notice informs passengers that it is forbidden to cause any other passenger annoyance by singing, whistling or use of a radio or any other portable wireless apparatus.

The low level platform itself never really changes. Over the past few years they've improved the lighting, installed information screens and improved the decor slightly, but the basic platform probably hasn't changed very much for many years - massive columns painted a pale custard colour, with yet more rivets; yellow and terracotta red tiles; bright yellow plastic walls with "Glasgow Central" in black letters on a strip of white running the length of the platform. Muddy rails with scattered debris - bottles, old takeaway containers, random litter. There are no bins anywhere inside the station, probably for fear of bombs, so rubbish piles up in discreet and not-so-discreet places - on top of telephones, behind plants, underneath seats or just scattered on the floor.

There are only nine proper seats to serve two platforms, so I would sit on the tiled concrete rings built around the bottom of the columns, feeling the cold seep through my coat and trousers and chill my behind, waiting for the rumble and howl of the arriving train to Milngavie and, usually, thinking of her.

Back above ground, it's approaching twelve o'clock. I fumble my phone out of the pocket of my trousers and dial her number, seconds before she walks up to me and smiles shyly. After an exchange of small talk we manage to decide to leave the station (both so indecisive, it's a miracle that we ever get anywhere...) We exit through one of the grand arches onto a street whose name I really should know, but don't, and leave Central Station behind.

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