The spacious concourse of Ashford International station in Kent is something of a get-away-from-it-all destination. The ticket offices slumber in a deep reverie, the staff at the Bureau de Change look around desperately in search of someone to serve, and there is less than a handful of passengers huddled over their coffees and phones at the café. It’s a far cry from the hustle and bustle at St Pancras International, two stops up the line on Eurostar’s cross-Channel network.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But then again, Ashford International tried its absolute hardest not to be a railway station at all.
On first approach to Ashford International things look rather promising. When walking from the nearby McArthur Glen Designer Outlet (now you know what I get up to on my research visits) the station’s main building looks like this:
Long-time readers might be experiencing a frisson of recognition, because it is arrestingly like a larger take on Charles Holden’s classic 1930s Underground station at Southgate in north London. As a reminder:
It’s such an extraordinary similarity that it must be to some extent a deliberate homage. It’s a bit tricksy though, because while Southgate is genuinely circular, Ashford International’s main building is long, but with rounded ends, which give the appearance of a circular building when seen end-on.
It’s inside that main building, however, that Ashford International seems rather less like a railway station. In fact, weary air travellers to and from some of England’s smaller cities will recognise their surroundings straight away. Ashford International is, you see, a regional airport terminal. And not a very busy one, either. Not convinced? Okay then:
So why build a railway station that looks and feels like a regional airport? Well, that’s the story of the end of the end of rail travel in Britain.
Ashford International was planned in the late 1980s, at a time when, with absolute certainty, the consensus view recognised that the British rail industry faced a future of gentle but inexorable decline. Any rail project worth its salt at the time would, in essence, have to deny it was anything to do with railways at all. And in the late 1980s there was one such gigantic rail project.
The agreement committing the British and French governments to construction of the Channel Tunnel linking Britain and France was reached in 1986. It would clearly be a massive undertaking, and yet it would somehow still manage to be even more massive, difficult and costly than anyone responsible for it ever suspected.
While construction continued on the tunnel itself, attention turned to the international train service which would operate between London, Paris and Brussels. Although the trains would eventually emerge as stretched variants of the TGVs which had been operating successfully in France for many years, the service would be operated under a new brand identity, acceptable to all three countries. The whole thing was a bit of a leap in the dark, not so much for Belgium and France, but much more so for Britain. Although sectorisation of British Rail in 1986 had helped InterCity generate a slightly better image of long distance British train travel, the reputation of British Rail still loomed large over the industry. Fairly or unfairly, it wasn’t a very good one. Few people took the British rail industry seriously as a travel mode of choice. It’s not surprising given the patronage figures.
In 1985/86, there were 686 million passenger journeys on the railways. It sounds a lot, but it was a long way off the 1 billion-plus journeys made in the 1950s, and even the over-800 million annual journeys made in the early 1970s.
Once you have that as context, you understand how it was that following the passing of the Channel Tunnel Act (1987), the French immediately got busy building their dedicated high speed LGV Nord railway to link the Channel Tunnel to Paris, while the British government decided it was an acceptable solution to let the new international trains pootle along British Rail’s existing tracks to London, slotted between slow-moving commuter services.
The next question was how to brand those international train services. The Belgians and French might have little difficulty getting on board with such international train services (pardon the pun) but the railway-sceptical British were a different matter. The answer was Eurostar, the train operator that was determined to be a low flying airline. Everything about the brand identity had as little to do with rail travel as possible. There was no mention of trains or railways in its name. The different classes of on-train accommodation had names which sounded airline, not railway. At the London end of Eurostar’s services, Waterloo International Terminal was called just that; a terminal rather than a station. It had arrivals and departures, just like an airport. And, just like many of the low-cost airlines which have sprung up since the creation of Eurostar (and which destroyed the business case for the Nightstar sleeper services) its customer care in the event of major disruption was – and actually still is – absolutely rubbish. Every time there’s a major blockage on Eurostar’s routes, passengers turn up at its stations, queue for hours, and Eurostar’s staff stand around looking completely bemused, awaiting a plan of action from management that never comes. That might not have been an intentional part of the brand though.
London wasn’t terribly convenient for many potential passengers to the south of the capital, so an additional station was added in to the Eurostar network. Ashford was the logical choice, at the junction of several railway lines, allowing a wide rail market to reach it. The Eurostars were already trundling through it anyway and at their snail’s pace, the time penalty for making a stop there was marginal.
However, in order to accommodate Eurostar passengers, a complete rebuild of the station was required. Because of border control issues, the Eurostars required dedicated platforms inaccessible by domestic train passengers. These platforms were placed in the heart of the station (actually a rebuild of an existing island platform), while domestic trains used platforms on either side. The domestic platforms were to be made accessible via a subway from both from Ashford International’s new international building at the south-east side of the station, and a ‘domestic’ entrance on the north-west side. The Eurostar platforms would be accessible only from the international building, via a departure lounge (airport-style, naturally) on the upper level, and thence along a dedicated footbridge.
While architecture practice Grimshaw worked on Waterloo International Terminal, the design of Ashford International was awarded to Architecture and Design Group, a British Rail arm’s-length company which had to compete with the private sector for such work. Architecture and Design Group had already designed a new station building for Woolwich Dockyard, to some degree of acclaim (see here). Well, more like abject surprise given the prevailing opinion of British Rail. It opened in 1993. Here it is:
Although Alastair Lansley (one of Architecture and Design Group’s architects, and the one who led the design work on Ashford International) was reported as saying you couldn’t just enlarge Woolwich Arsenal many times to make Ashford International, it’s fair to say that the similarities between the two buildings are strong and that Ashford International superficially resembles… Woolwich Arsenal enlarged many times.
Lansley said that one of the key inspirations for Ashford International was the Maison de Verre building in Paris, which featured glass bricks and an exposed steel structure, just as Ashford International would, and Woolwich Arsenal already had.
Ashford’s long international building is topped off at either end with a circular lantern made of glass bricks, a motif repeated on the building on the international platforms where a lozenge-shaped lantern tops off the lift shaft, and these details are redolent of Holden’s London Underground stations. In form the lanterns reference Southgate’s decorative finial, and in the use of glass, the large windows at many of Holden’s stations.
With its references to 1930s ancestors, Ashford International is a favourite of mine, despite its airport terminal leanings. And its lines also lend themselves to very effective artistic treatment in the style of inter-war poster art. Andy Tuohy’s brilliant rendition of Ashford captures that part of Ashford International’s soul that looks back to Holden, as well as the station’s place in the heart of the modern railway network:
Because Ashford International was built as an airport, rather than a railway station, it also simply had to have that airport staple, a long-stay car park. You’ll find it on the other side of the A2042 from the main railway station, linked via a footbridge to the internation building. It is finished in a similar style to the rest of the station, complete with glass brick lanterns.
Ashford International opened in 1996, a little over a year after Eurostar services commenced. Not every Eurostar stopped there, but the station had 12 departures a day, divided between Paris and Brussels. So far, so good.
By this point, if for no better reason than national pride, it had already become clear that the use of existing commuter tracks by Eurostar trains in Britain was unsustainable. We were actually going to have to bite the bullet and, in the country that had given the world the railways in the first place, catch up with the rest of the world by building our very own high speed railway, albeit not a very long one. We even managed to muddle that up. British Rail wanted to build a direct route between the Channel Tunnel and London Waterloo, but political imperatives dictated the alternative of sending the line to St Pancras via north Kent and east London to kick-start regeneration programmes. Which might have been fine, if circuitous, but it rendered redundant the expensive and nearly-new Waterloo International Terminal. Despite the fact that the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) was now an instrument of public policy, the government was determined that it should be delivered by the private sector, a move which eventually caused the line to be built in two sections, as projects of a slightly more digestible size for the private sector.
Ashford Borough Council was keen to ensure that Ashford retained its presence on the international rail network, and lobbied successfully to ensure the CTRL passed right through Ashford, rather than bypassing it (you can see the CTRL viaduct in the background of Andy Tuohy’s print, above). It was an interesting analogue of an earlier campaign which ensured that LGV Nord in France was routed via Lille.
Other factors would yet threaten Ashford’s status. For the same regeneration reasons which had prompted the revised route of the CTRL, a new station at Ebbsfleet in north Kent was decided on. And then, at a late stage, yet another station was added, this time at Stratford. There was no way that Eurostar was going to serve all three intermediate stations. There’s no point in having 186mph-capable trains if they never reach that speed because they’re constantly stopping at and starting from lots of stations. Just to make the point, the domestic all-stations services on the CTRL today is provided by trains with a 140mph maximum speed, which is all you realistically need when you’re stopping and starting that frequently.
Eurostar plumped for Ebbsfleet as its intermediate station of choice, not least I suspect because it had space for a car park even bigger than Ashford’s, and was located more towards the middle of the CTRL. Despite howls of local protest, after section 2 of the CTRL and Ebbsfleet International along with it opened for business, Eurostar services at Ashford were reduced to just four a day (three to Paris, one to Disneyland Paris). After a couple of years, a token service to Brussels was reintroduced (one per day). Then there are the odd several-times-per-week services to Marseille and Bourg-Saint-Maurice (in the winter, for the skiing) which also call.
No wonder then, that Ashford International today is a shadow of its former self, and of its potential. It’s a station that has been overtaken by history, and a monument to the time when trains had to pretend to be planes if they wanted to be taken seriously. It still looks great though, with its glass bricks, curved trusses above the concourse, and circular details on the inside and out. One day I suspect it will be more widely recognised as a classic of 1990s railway architecture.
While the CTRL – now known as HS1 – was being built, the British rediscovered rail travel. Patronage has climbed steadily since privatisation in the late 1990s, although there are endless arguments over whether that was a cause or a coincidence (and anyone who tells you that they have the definitive answer is talking nonsense, you can be sure). From 686 million in 1985-86, passenger journeys in 2015-16 have now reached 1.72 billion. That’s quite some turnaround for an industry once considered to be in long-term, inevitable decline. It was thought so irreversible that the first round of train operating franchises under the privatised regime were let on that very assumption.
When HS1 was finally completed in 2007 (at which time annual rail journeys had reached 1.22 billion), it did so with a terminus at St Pancras International station. Not a terminal in name, nor in feel, nor in architecture, but a proper railway station. And who was the lead architect? The glass bricks along the walls of the new extension to St Pancras’s trainshed are the clue. It was Alastair Lansley again.
By 2009 there was no shame in new HS1-routed domestic services between Kent and London being operated by things called bullet ‘trains’, slashing journey times between Ashford and the capital, and arguably being a lot more useful to most local people than trains to Paris or Brussels. The passengers using the Javelin service (as it’s called) tend to use the domestic entrance at Ashford station though, rather than the big international building. Lansley’s airport terminal slumbers on, serving the few passengers who hop on or off Eurostar trains at the station, and the occasional domestic travellers making their way to or from the designer outlet, which is about the only place you can sensibly get to from that side of the station.
Eurostar is these days a proud train operator. Its website cheerfully notes that you can take two bags on its services, with no weight restrictions (unlike on an aircraft), and that you can save time and money by avoiding airport transfers. In other words, it’s no longer pretending to be an airline. Now it’s beating them at their own game.
We got there in the end.
Special thanks to Andy Tuohy for permission to use his artwork of Ashford International. His gallery of prints is here: www.andytuohy.co.uk and is well worth your time. For the avoidance of doubt, I asked Andy’s permission to use the image as a long-time admirer of his work, and the article hasn’t been sponsored in any way.
Bibliography and Further Reading
All the patronage figures quoted above come from the Office of Rail and Road, here
…and anything linked to in the text above