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Rail disaster

25/07/2017

I’ve passed through Brussels Central Station very often in the past half-century, and I’ve meant to say something about it for most of that time. Now this blog gives me the perfect opportunity to do so.

Quite simply, the place seems hardly to have been refurbished in all those years – and most probably ever since it was first built. It turns out to be a latecomer in Belgium’s extensive railway system, having been opened in the year I was born: 1952. Until then the Belgian capital had already been served for over 100 years by two outlying stations, Brussels North and Brussels South; but it seems there was a need for a new one right in the city centre, which would probably have been a better idea in the first place.

It is important in what follows to remember that Brussels Central was originally designed by the famous Belgian architect and Art Nouveau designer Victor Horta, and completed by someone else shortly after Horta died in the late 1940s.

When I say ‘hardly refurbished’, I’m not talking about the technological accretions that have gone some way towards making up for the station’s many failings. There are now electronic platform signs that announce train departures in alternating French and Dutch versions, to take account of the fact that Brussels is officially bilingual. And the spoken announcements – in French and Dutch for local trains, plus German and English for international ones, all in mellifluous, invariably female native voices – are some of the clearest I’ve ever heard in a railway station, and are only drowned out when a departing or arriving train screeches and thumps its way over the points (might a drop of oil help?).

There are now also modern (though frankly rather inconspicuous) black-and-white signs directing you to the various platforms and station services, using the now familiar international pictograms for ‘exit’, ‘entrance’ and so on. All well and good; but this is not enough to compensate for the fact that Horta designed a modernist architect’s pipe dream, rather than an efficient transport hub for what is now not only Belgium’s but also the European Union’s capital city. Too many architects – and Horta was evidently no exception – seem to see it as their sacred duty to ‘educate’ the rest of us by riding roughshod over such mundane concerns as being able to find your way quickly in a vast structure that is in constant use by tens of thousands of complete strangers.

Brussels Central Station is nothing short of a rail disaster. To start with, it is full of staircases, some of which are now at last also flanked by escalators; but the escalators (like some of the staircases) are very narrow, and at rush hour – which in a place like Brussels is most of the time – become dangerously crowded with people hurrying to get somewhere else. Another big drawback of staircases and escalators is that the differing levels make most of the station invisible to passengers – a problem made worse by Horta’s original heavy marble walls and pillars, which are all in one pale-ochre colour that must have looked very pretty on his drawing board, but in the practical environment of a railway station blend into an indistinct, untransparent mass. In this labyrinth passengers simply don’t know which way to look, or which way to turn – hardly ideal when you’re trying to catch a train, which is after all what stations are for.

Horta’s pale-ochre marble has not – as the euphemism goes – ‘aged well’. Perhaps the small cracks in the surface were there to begin with, but perhaps they have developed over time. In any case, in a place where the air was bound to be laden with fine particulates and other pollutants, the cracks in the marble and everything else soon became clogged with black gunk; and much of the station has always looked (and smelled) grimy, for it seems little has been done over the years to clean it. Litter and bird shit have of course been removed, but Horta’s monumental acres of stone have been left largely untouched.

I can only suspect that the Belgian government was reluctant to tamper with a ‘work of art’ by the illustrious Horta. But a railway station, like an airport or a harbour, is more than just a work of art – it’s a public service.

Horta’s name has survived in the title of a small shopping precinct that obstructs and obscures access to Brussels Central from the city’s most central area, round the beautiful square known in French and Dutch as the Grand-Place/Grote Markt. If you arrive on foot from that direction, there is no indication whatever that this is the entrance to Belgium’s main station – just an uninviting grey-and-white void with still largely unoccupied commercial premises, and again a labyrinth of corridors that provide little sense of direction. Half the time the handful of escalators are out of order, forcing passengers to struggle up flights of stairs (again!), or else a ramp that is presumably designed for wheelchair users but is so steep that many of them might be scared to launch themselves down the scary slope or try to climb it without electrical power, and is twice as long as necessary because it curves ‘elegantly’ round the edge. There is a lift, but this too has been out of order for as long as I can remember (and I’m talking here about several years). Yesterday I saw a middle-aged woman helping an older one hobble painfully up the ramp; the ascent was clearly going to take them at least half an hour, and even then they would only just be entering the station.

Ramp just happens to be the Dutch word for ‘disaster’; but of course this is pure coincidence (?).

Yesterday I also saw that the central area of the to my mind totally useless Horta ‘centre’ was taped off with red-and-white plastic and all the glass doors were locked, forcing everyone (including the two hapless women) to use the ramp. Presumably the area is about to be redesigned – not that there any signs to tell you. But why not tackle the whole station while they’re about it?

Symptomatic of the whole muddle are the makeshift paper signs with arrows and the English words ‘Central Station’ (nothing in the two local languages) that are now taped to every door handle. People entering the area evidently need such guidance because they have no idea where the station actually is; and the only obvious way in – the main staircase (yes, another one) – is now taped off, even assuming you can find it.

Anyone arriving in the EU’s capital city by train must surely be embarrassed to see all this, year after year, decade after decade. Belgium is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and cannot possibly lack the financial means to do something about this – especially as so little has been done about it for the past 65 years, so that the large amounts of money saved could now finally be put to good use.

Of course, one might argue that it would be an unconscionable waste of public funds to rebuild from scratch a huge railway station that, despite all its manifest visual and practical failings, continues to function without bringing the whole of Belgium’s railway system to a grinding halt – and that there are far too many costly ‘prestige projects’ as it is, at a time when more and more people can hardly make ends meet. But why then have the authorities poured so much money into smartening up the city’s South Station and improving its efficiency?

The answer can only be that the South station is the Belgian hub for three high-speed international rail networks that are mainly patronised by better-off Europeans and wealthy foreign tourists: the Eurostar routes between London, Paris, Brussels and Lille; the French-based Thalys routes serving Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne; and the high-speed TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse) services that now not only span the whole of France but also extend into Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium. Were there no smart, comfortable, efficient facilities, these routes would surely lose passengers who could as easily afford to fly or simply drive their cars (and pollute the environment at their leisure).

Brussels’s three stations neatly reflect a sadly predictable hierarchy in national and international transport. Serving the up-market Eurostar, Thalys and TGV, the South Station is at the ‘high end’ of the hierarchy. The North Station effectively only caters to local people (including many poor immigrants) and is located in one of the city’s less salubrious districts, which tourists seldom see; so it has long been the most neglected of the three stations. In between these two extremes is the Central Station, originally designed to give both Belgian and international passengers a convenient point of access to the city’s most attractive and prestigious districts, sights and shops.

Had the station not been designed within living memory by the country’s most famous architect and urban designer, its unmistakable problems might have been tackled by now. Instead, it seems the Belgian government has continued to put its funding into the station whose users could easily travel by another means, has withheld funding from the one whose users have little choice in the matter, and has hedged its bets about the semi-international one whose users fit into both categories.

Bad planning, bad social policy – and, in an age when money calls the tune more than ever, something we will not soon see the back of.

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