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Indian Railways @ 170

The folly of 5-star railway stations in India

Is imitative glassification the only design option available to the world’s largest rail network?

April 14, 2023 01:00 pm | Updated April 25, 2023 09:35 am IST

The 4,200 sq.m. Sir M. Visvesvaraya Train Terminal in Bengaluru which opened last year

The 4,200 sq.m. Sir M. Visvesvaraya Train Terminal in Bengaluru which opened last year | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K.

If you travel regularly on Indian trains you would be hard pressed to figure what makes first class travel first class. Is it the red nylon carpet that smells of urine, or is it the frilly curtains that give off a stench of sweat?

Could it be the gold-plated curtain rod that falls each time you pull the curtains across, or the cloth pouch near the armrest meant for your valuables, often filled with a banana peel or egg shells.

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Maybe it is the mirror encased in imitation wood, or the plastic wastebin. Or the scratched and tinted windows with moisture between the double glass that cuts out the view. Perhaps these valuable appendages are only meant to contribute to passenger well-being, who knows. In the arena of public design, the railways have left their mark in more ways than one.

Railway architecture has for long been in competition with airport architecture for its design inspiration. More often than not, airports have been winning. While air terminals are often in rural locations outside city limits, train terminals are generally in crowded town centres.

The countryside location of airports allows them to evolve their own sprawling layouts; by contrast, the primary architectural objective of railway terminal design has always been a truthful adherence to the expression of its neighbourhood.

Since most stations are based in crowded city centres, their architecture rigorously follows locational imperatives.

Delhi’s main railway station, for instance, derives its aesthetics from the Paharganj neighbourhood, where it is set, using many available planning devices such as overcrowding, mixed land use and multi-functional space to its own advantage. Like the old, long-established city area where home, commerce, restaurant and slow-moving traffic grew organically, the railways have similarly promoted an egalitarian approach to platform design, allowing tea, toilet, butter toast, luggage and waiting area, to all occur in one contiguous, borderless space.

The platform floors

All had been going well even in the 75th year since Independence, with families dining comfortably on railway tracks and catering staff assembling food trays directly on platform floors, till some minister suddenly got it into his head that Indian stations should be ‘world-class’, which in bureaucratic parlance only means a minor touch up.

The chaotic assembly of tracks, wayward passengers, and sundry tea stalls needed desperately to be encased in plate glass and stylish chrome, so people would mistake it for a Scandinavian rather than a third-world terminal. It doesn’t matter that most of the daily passengers are illiterate and willingly sit waiting on the ground, even sleeping soundly on benches when a noisy intercom announces in all seriousness, “Those passengers waiting for the Jhansi Passenger should not board the Kathgodam Shatabdi.”

Though the minister did not specify whether world-class meant Berlin’s main train terminal, the Hauptbahnhof, or the Kumasi Railway Station in Ghana, it is presumed that northern Europe is his likely inspiration.

Hauptbahnhof in Berlin

Hauptbahnhof in Berlin | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Of the more than 110 major city stations ear-marked for upgrade in the next decade, each of their glass facades will take on vastly varying forms. Plans oscillate from the eclectic to the bizarre, from the colonial to the futuristic, from shoe-box to spaceship and satellite docking station.

Redeveloped by the Indian Railway Stations Development Corporation, the primary thrust is beautification: to make the station building palatable to the eyes of the international tourist. In most cases, the architecture proposed is successful eyewash, buildings that are Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof from a distance, but Delhi’s Paharganj from inside. The amalgam is to be achieved without major re-organisation, but merely brightened by glass fabrication, drop lights, graphic displays, escalator movement, all within impressive long steel roof spans. The insertion of a concourse in the New Delhi revamp, a 5-star hotel at Gandhinagar Station, food plazas in Surat, and a lotus fountain landscape in Amritsar, are all carefully added distractions that attempt in the long run to make the future railway experience as far removed from the current one as possible.

No-frills travel

Is such imitative glassification the only design option available to the world’s largest rail network, and one with such a rich history of train engineering and terminal types? Moreover, how does the Indian Railways remain so utterly clueless about its majority clientele: India’s poorest? Why do the new terminals proposed all look and behave like second-rate shopping malls; why indeed should train interiors be made to resemble an airplane. Is this the only possible path to redevelopment and upgrade?

The railways complete 170 years today. April 16, 1853 was when India’s first train travelled 34 km from Bori Bunder to Thane in Bombay. It may be a good idea for the railways to evaluate its approaches and test entirely new norms for design: station sizes, terminals, waiting areas, hotel attachments and commerce, in tune with the passengers it serves. Perhaps it is time to look beyond 5-star culture as the only form of future redevelopment, and to seek instead inspiration in the ideal of clean, efficient, inexpensive, classless and no-frills travel.

For the more than 16 million passengers who travel every day, moving at slow speeds through small villages, mandi towns and agrarian landscapes, the train is a permanent and only lifeline. The cold, hard truth of the matter is that for a long time to come, Indian trains and terminals will retain their affinity to African and central American travel modes and standards than to European ones. Transport models in Bogotá and Abuja may then be more relevant than Copenhagen and Berlin.

The writer is an architect and sculptor, and the author of Blueprint.

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