Rail Renaissance

25 October 2007 (Last Updated October 25th, 2007 18:30)

London's St Pancras International has spectacularly reinvigorated rail travel. Christopher Kanal takes an exclusive look at the station, ahead of its public opening on 14 November.

Rail Renaissance

The final touches are being made to Europe's most ambitious civil engineering project: the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL). On 6 November, St Pancras International was opened by the Queen and the first Eurostar service was welcomed to the station in lead up to its 14 November public opening. Eurostar will then transfer operations entirely from Waterloo to its new permanent home in North London. For the first time it will be quicker to travel to the centre of Paris by train than by air with a journey taking two hours and 15 minutes.

CTRL – HIGH SPEED 1

The Channel Tunnel Rail Link is the impressive culmination of 11 years' work that cost £800m for St Pancras International alone, and an additional £5bn for CTRL – now given the slicker nickname, 'High Speed 1'.

The construction has been a rare success story delivered on time and within budget. The station itself is magnificent to behold, immaculately restored and intelligently rebuilt – a Victorian classic reborn for a new age. St Pancras International will undoubtedly rank alongside the other great railway stations of the world such as Grand Central and Milano Centrale.

The completion of the project on Eurostar's 13th anniversary marks another extension of Europe's high-speed network, which now stretches to 2,330 miles allowing trains to glide between Italy, Spain, France and Germany.

VICTORIAN DESIGN

St Pancras was designed by William Barlow, the Victorian engineer with a vision that embraced scale in a way that reflected the Great Britain of the day with its empire, ambition and accompanying pomp. What defines St Pancras is the sense of space, achieved through its incredible iron roof made up of 18,000 glass panes that vaults 105ft high, spans 243ft and is 690ft wide. St Pancras was completed in 1868.

In 2004, rail chiefs decided to move Eurostar to St Pancras. The new station is on a different plane to Waterloo with its elegant shopping and dining and extensive arrival and departure facilities.

"St Pancras was originally designed by William Barlow, the Victorian engineer with a vision."

Today I am guided around the site by Ben Ruse from London & Continental Railways, the company behind High Speed 1, who leads me up to a platform with a grandstand view of the station. "The new St Pancras will redefine what it is to use a station." he says. "It is the greatest station this country has ever had."

The view takes your breath away as you look across the platform above the undercroft and over to the front of the station dominated by a clock designed by Dent, who supplied chronometers for the Royal Navy.

THE REDEVELOPMENT

The roof has been painstakingly reglazed while the ironwork has been cleaned of century-old soot to reveal a surprise – blue paint. Now known as Barlow Blue after the station's architect, the paint has been retained and gives the impression of the roof being open to the sky above. It is this and other examples of attention to detail including gothic door handles, timber floors and even the bricks fired from a specially made kiln in Nottingham, that has made St Pancras International such an outstanding project.

"The project has been a labour of love," says Alastair Lansley, a director of Arup, who has been the architect in charge of the St Pancras project for the past 11 years. Arup are one of the four engineering companies that form Rail Link Engineering, the consortium who have built the high-speed railway.

"In 2004, rail chiefs decided to move Eurostar to St Pancras."

Lansley has an impressive background as a railway architect. With Nick Derbyshire, Lansley was responsible for the redesign of Liverpool Street in the 1990s – a similar Victorian station which escaped being demolished and replaced. Lansley believes the sense of history at St Pancras is something which complements the new extension to the train shed.

"The play between the old and the new is what I really love about St Pancras," says Lansley. "The more constraints you have the better the design that comes out of it. Without the backdrop of the old, the new cannot come out. As a client we said there was a functionality that needed to be developed in the building."

Lansley was handed the mantle of the project by Sir Norman Foster, who was originally behind the design for the redevelopment of St Pancras and the building of the additional train shed here. "I made a pledge that I would make it look like Norman had never left it," says Lansley.

Despite following Foster's interpretation closely – "I'm so Foster I'm almost adopted," – he did add unique touches to the design and made some very bold decisions. These included breaking open and exposing the undercroft to link the basement with the restored glass iron roof stretching high above it. In Victorian times the undercroft was used to store barrels of beer destined for the taverns of London and brought down by train from Burton-on-Trent.

The decision to open up the undercroft was a triumph of aesthetics. Passengers will now seamlessly move between the undercroft, where the check-in area and shops are, and the raised train platforms, which sit on huge iron pillars, all the while surrounded by grand views of the station and light streaming down from the glazed roof above.

"At the project's height, over 2,500 people were working on the site."

Lansley stresses that the scale of commitment to the project was a key factor in it running so smoothly and within budget.

At the project's height, over 2,500 people were working on the site. Some of the engineers on it had been involved with High Speed 1 for nearly 20 years.

Lansley also had to work very closely with English Heritage given the Grade 1 nature of the building. "We decided to integrate English Heritage from the start," he says. "They had an incredible sense of vision. The four cut-outs into the undercroft are all down to the trust English Heritage had in us."

HIGH SPEED 1

It is important not to forget that St Pancras International is part of a larger brief that has seen other projects being built simultaneously. These include the High Speed 1 rail link that stretches 62 miles, the majority of which is underground through one of the most congested areas on the planet both above and below earth.

The project required moving 13 listed buildings and relocating wildlife habitats. In all there are 150 new bridges and viaducts. There are also two new stations at Stratford and Ebbsfleet, an extension to the King's Cross St Pancras underground station, new platforms for regional trains as well as a new five-star hotel and flats in the old Midland Grand converted by the Manhattan Loft Corporation.

"The newly redeveloped St Pancras Station will include a farmers market and Europe's longest champagne bar."

Within the station itself, there will be a number of firsts including a farmers market and Europe's longest champagne bar running the length of the Barlow Shed. "What I love about railways is that they put towns and cities on the map," says Lansley.

"We wanted to create a railway renaissance," says Stephen Jordan, chief executive of London & Continental Railways, the company that built, and runs, the British end of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. "The big challenge on the high-speed rail link was the tunnelling," says Jordan. "There was a public perception that there were tunnelling problems and a lot of contamination."

The rail link includes one new tunnel under the Thames and another beneath the North Downs as well as a new high-speed Medway Bridge, which at three-quarters of a mile, is the longest of its type anywhere, and allows Eurostars to cross it at their top speed of 186mph. "Isambard Kingdom Brunel said that a good journey on train is if you have a cup of tea and it doesn't spill," says Jordan. "These trains will run along at 186 miles an hour and your drink will not spill. The quality of the ride they have is fantastic."

ST PANCRAS TERMINAL TRANSFORMATION

"The most fundamental problem was the conundrum of St Pancras," says Jordan. It's the most high profile bit of the rail link. We wanted to transform St Pancras into a destination and make it a grand station instead of some sort of airport arrangement of lounges and processes that you can't relate to."

Designing St Pancras meant going back to the original plans. "There was a reference design for St Pancras which we did not think worked very well and had limitations," says Jordan. "We did not like the way people moved up and down and the undercroft was not used at all."

Jordan identifies the effect that he hopes the project will have on the surrounding locale, "It's a domino effect," he says. Jordan explains that by making the passenger experience as comfortable as possible, St Pancras will also help transform opinions about railway stations and maybe even create a 'St Pancras effect'.

"The new St Pancras will redefine what it is to use a station."

"Stations used to be in dodgy parts of the cities," says Lansley. You often think "Is someone going to pick my pockets? Will I miss my train?" These detract from the pleasure of the journey." Jordan explains that passengers will arrive at St Pancras and walk into a safe environment. "Hopefully the anxiety level will come down," he says. "We want to make it a more pleasurable experience."

Elsewhere Jordan believes the impact the link will have on the areas running alongside to the Channel, such as the Thames Gateway, will be considerable. "There will be a big change in geography," says Jordan. "With the advent of the High Speed 1, suddenly places like Dartford and the West End are that much closer."

Jordan is confident that St Pancras will open a new, more successful chapter, for the UK's railways. "We don't celebrate success as much," he says. "It's partly that engineering does not capture people's attention as it once did. People like Brunel were heroes in their day." Looking out over the stunning renaissance that has been brought to St Pancras, it is impossible not to celebrate what a heroic achievement this has been.