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New Train Shed Offers Travelers Aesthetic Send-Off

15 million passengers on Channel Tunnel route will pass through London's Waterloo Terminal

By Christopher AndreaeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 1994


A BICYCLE shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.'' This is how the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner began his classic book ``Outline of European Architecture'' (still in print 50 years after first publication).

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But what about a rail shed?

Rail sheds can quite definitely be architecture. Pevsner himself considered some of the great iron structures constructed by the Victorians over their major rail terminals to be much more than mere buildings or just engineering.

What he would have thought of the stimulating new International Terminal at Waterloo Station, London, can, of course, only be guessed. But surely it would have been approval. The critic for Architectural Review, Peter Davey, is, at any rate, far from being alone in his enthusiasm for this sinuous - indeed twisting - 1,312-foot arched tunnel of steel and glass. The shed covers five tracks that lead to and from the recently completed Channel Tunnel 70 miles away.

From this point south of the River Thames but close to the center of London, passengers will be three hours' ride from Paris. The first limited services are expected to begin in July. Eventually trains will arrive and depart every 10 minutes, and there will also be another high-speed train link to and from the Chunnel that will terminate at St. Pancras Station in the north part of London. From St. Pancras, they say, it will take under 2-1/2 hours to reach Paris.

But that is at least four or five years away. In the meantime, the Waterloo Terminal, which has all the feel of an airport in competition with real airports, is the impressive launching pad for a new kind of London-to-Paris (and London-to-Brussels) travel. It is designed to handle up to 15 million passengers a year.

Mr. Davey describes the Waterloo Terminal (architects: Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners) in glowing terms: ``a walk down the shed, with the fine pattern of the faceted skin on its light steel lattices gently curving in three dimensions overhead, is one of the most moving and dramatic experiences in the history of glass and metal buildings.''

It is the sort of heroically exciting project that few architects have the opportunity to design, and then only once in a lifetime. Quite consciously, it is a 1990s concept to vie with the kind of rail stations built when trains represented all that was advanced in public transport. Ironically, it magnificently ignores the fact that rail services in Britain are today as ailing and inefficient as anyone can remember because the government shows more concern for road than rail. Opened by Queen Elizabeth, however, and admired on all sides, the Waterloo Terminal looks to have an optimistic future.

The attention of passengers leaving London is drawn immediately toward the complex roof structure, which - long before they will be entering the tunnel under the ocean channel between England and France - is a tunnel experience in itself. It is made even more dramatic by the way it curves so that its furthest point is hidden from view, and by the fact that the tracks and platforms grow narrower and closer as the trains depart. Visually this exaggerated perspective intensifies the sense of recession and directional force that is such a compelling part of rail lines anyway. Travelers are not only about to leave on a journey, they have an aesthetic send-off.

The roof of this train-shed-tunnel at Waterloo is not under ground or ocean, but under sky. It is light in both senses of the word, illuminating the curving platforms beneath it and emphasizing with exultation the poetry of departure and arrival, of momentum and streamlined grace that once, in a less cynical time, made people feel that travel on earth was not far from travel to the moon.