Glasgow’s Central Station: ‘A world within a world’

Glasgow's grand Victorian Central Station is the start or end point of trips for 40 million people every year. Picture: Robert Perry
Glasgow's grand Victorian Central Station is the start or end point of trips for 40 million people every year. Picture: Robert Perry
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WALK this way,” says Paul Lyons, “and I’ll tell you another tale.” Lyons is 48, lives in “the people’s republic of Clydebank” and has been a railwayman for the past 15 years.

It is a job that defines him. He works as a customer services assistant at Glasgow Central, one of those bland modern titles that tells you very little about the man doing the job. What Lyons does, in fact, is help elderly and disabled passengers to and from the trains, but he is also an evangelist for the station, its unofficial historian and occasional tour guide. He carries with him at all times a heavy freight of collective memory dating back to the station’s opening, on 1 August 1879, and continuing to the present day.

Glasgow Central Station. Picture: Robert Perry

Glasgow Central Station. Picture: Robert Perry

He can tell you about the time, in 1932, when Laurel and Hardy arrived at Central and were met by a crowd of 40,000 whistling the stars’ famous theme tune; or he can tell you how, recently, he himself gave a lift on the mobility assistance buggy to David Soul, of Starsky and Hutch fame, and they ended up singing Silver Lady together as they arrived in first class. More importantly, he can express very well what this grand Victorian station means to the city and the people who use it. “It’s not just a railway station,” he says. “It’s part of the fabric of Glaswegians’ lives. It’s a microcosm of the city and the country. People die in here. People have given birth in here. You get wee snapshots of people’s lives, and then you never see them again.

“I feel that somebody owes it to the guys who built this place to keep their memory alive. I feel such a debt to them. I walk about and tell stories about the famous folk that have come in here, but I can’t tell you a single name of any of the 14,000 Irishmen and Scotsmen that built this place. Nothing at all. But look at this magnificent building they gave us.”

Well, look at it. Central is beautiful. Blonde sandstone; dark wood; girders and glass. Honeyed evening light slanting in through tall arched windows. The lit bridges over the dark river as you slide gently into the station at night. Beautiful, and beautifully functional. This is Scotland’s largest and busiest railway station. It is the starting point for the west coast mainline, as well as the hub of the biggest suburban network outside London. The station covers more than two square miles, and seen from above resembles a pair of skyscrapers fallen amid the spires and rooftops of the city. Central has the largest glass roof in the world, some 48,000 panes; maintaining and replacing these is a ceaseless job – the Glaswegian equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge.

Central is a starting point or destination for some 40 million people each year, and there are approximately 1,300 train movements each day. From the moment the grand Victorian gates – restored recently to their gold and green pomp after years in glossy mourning for the death of Prince Albert – open at 4am to when they shut at half-past midnight, there is always something going on. The first train of the day is the 0428 to Euston and the last (on a Friday) is the 0020 Cathcart Circle. Between these two services, one national, one local, lies a universe of intricacy, stress and pride. “Every minute there’s a train coming in or a train going out,” says Ross Moran, the station manager. “That poses an exceptionally complex environment to work in.”

Moran is just 36; young to be in overall control of such a place. Yet it’s clear that he loves it, is undaunted and regards himself as a privileged guardian of the station that was here before him and will be here after he is gone. His office overlooks the concourse and he has a grand view of the famous Glasgow Central clock, a landmark that has served as a rendezvous for generations of couples, its mechanism no doubt outpaced by the fast-beating hearts of those waiting below. Moran rose through Network Rail’s graduate trainee scheme. He had intended to become a writer, and thought of the railway only after funding was pulled for his PhD in baroque poetry. Yet for anyone with an appreciation of plot and character, Glasgow Central is more rewarding than any literature course.

Before becoming station manager, Moran worked for a time as a mobile operations manager, “the eyes and ears of the railway”, usually the first person on the scene at any accident. “It’s a good way to blood you,” he says. “You go from being a student reading artsy books to scraping up things off the track. You’re dealing with people getting hit, animals getting hit. Really difficult and complex situations that you have to manage – derailments, multiple fatalities, incursions on the line, points failures, bridge strikes, flooding, overhead lines down, trains on fire. It teaches you a lot about yourself.”

There is constant pressure at the station. The weather can play havoc. Those working here last summer remember the day when flooding and landslides cut Scotland off from England. First the east coast mainline was closed, meaning everyone at Edinburgh Waverley travelled west to Glasgow, hoping to make the journey south from Central. But by the time they arrived, the west coast had been blocked too. Bus services were provided. There were queues right around the station, passengers angry and tired and upset, the very air wringing with stress.

Though that was an extreme scenario, you get a taste of it whenever anything begins to run late. I watch as Sammy McGhee, a 56-year-old train dispatcher who has worked in the railway since his early 20s, is frustrated in his efforts to get the 1218 to Edinburgh away on time. Standing on platform one at the far end of the train, he gives two sharp blasts on his whistle and ... nothing happens. The conductor isn’t on board. He has been held up on the late-running train from Kilmarnock. McGhee is annoyed. He’s straight on to the walkie-talkie, shaking his head, asking for a replacement conductor – a “step-up” – and when the train departs finally, at 1225, his relief is palpable. This is about meeting performance targets, of course. On some lofty corporate level it’s about time being money. But down here on platform one it’s more simply to do with having pride in your work, which means getting passengers where they want to go and not making them late. A timetable is a sort of promise. There’s honour in it. Folk who work on the railway will tell you it’s about keeping their word.

The timetable that governs Glasgow Central is a thick sheaf of paper, known as “the docker”. It provides an overview of which trains coming into the station become which services leaving it. The docker is the bible of the comms room. Dominated by a large computer screen showing a representation of the station’s lines and platforms, with any problems appearing in red, the comms room keeps in contact with the signal box at Cowlairs Junction, in the north of the city. Information is then relayed to passengers via the electronic departure and arrival boards. A few keyboard strokes is all it takes to get vast numbers of people either trudging trainward or cursing in frustration at a delay or cancellation.

Karen Cunningham, who works in reception, is the voice of Glasgow Central. Two years ago, she went to a sound studio in Nottingham and recorded the name of every station on the network, together with a range of other information, and now it is Cunningham you hear in automated announcements, telling you about platforms and delays and so forth, advising you to stay with your bags lest they be destroyed. She has a pleasant Glaswegian accent, and it would be more than tolerable, if one had time, to tarry a while on the concourse and listen to her poetic incantations: Priesthill, Nitshill, Barhill, Carluke, Carstairs, Cardonald, Kilmaurs, Kilwinning, Kilmarnock. Although she is only 44, she is happy to consider the idea that her voice might still echo across the concourse after she herself is silent. “That wouldn’t bother me in the least. I could be dead and buried and people who knew me could come though the station, thinking, ‘God, there she is.’”

Despite the years of privatisation, there remains an esprit de corps on the railway, a fierce sense of family. It is similar to the military in many ways, and indeed a significant number of drivers are former members of the armed forces, with the various depots functioning as the equivalent of regiments – each inspiring devotion and rivalry. Drivers are regarded highly in the railway, and within and between the depots there is some unspoken competition to be seen as the best. Among drivers, and indeed within the whole rail culture, there is an argot of acronyms and slang. Trains are never referred to as trains; they are sets. The pedal that must be pressed down at all times to keep the train moving is the dead man’s handle. The Edinburgh-Glasgow service is E&Gs; the Dumfries line is South-Wester; the line through Kilmarnock is Ben Haar; down by Troon is the Barassie Loop.

Up in the comms room, the team also monitor CCTV. Before the 7 July bombings of the London Underground, Glasgow Central had seven cameras; now there are more than 200, and every inch of the station is monitored at every moment. This, of course, is very helpful when it comes to investigating and prosecuting crime, including football-related violence; following one post-match brawl last year, a man’s ear was found lying on the concourse. This makes the station sound like a dangerous place, which isn’t fair. Such incidents are simply a consequence of such enormous numbers of people, the near equivalent of Dundee, passing through each day. One veteran worker still shudders at the memory of the hordes of pink-stetsoned women on the ran-dan, travelling to and from Mount Florida when Take That played Hampden for three nights in 2011. “I’d rather have a football crowd,” he says.

Central functions as an emotional barometer of the city. Often, you can judge Glasgow’s mood from just a few minutes on the concourse – scunnered, heads down on dreich winter mornings; buzzing and boozy, full of reckless joy, on electric summer nights. The staff get to know familiar faces. The drag queens and druggies, commuters and cosplay kids, the guy wearing a sarong and rigger boots who keeps a cat in a harness on one shoulder. And always, always, daundering hunched among the crowds are the Glasgow Central pigeons. There are plans to bring in a hawk to scare away these birds, but the wildlife of Central is far more exotic than a few scabby doos. Swans have been known to land on the throat of the station – the name given to the area where the different lines narrow and bunch – mistaking it for water. There was once rumoured to be a penguin hiding underneath a train on platform nine, which subsequent investigation revealed to be a guillemot. On another occasion, an otter came on to the concourse, presumably from the Clyde, and staff pursued it as far as a Hope Street pub.

Rush hour in Central, another working day over for most, and the concourse throngs with Glaswegians on their way home. Would it be too fanciful to imagine, among them, the ghosts of travellers past? Benny Lynch in 1935, returning from London as the new world champion. The hundreds of men who, the following year, left from platform one to fight in the Spanish Civil War, fists held high, singing the Internationale. The wives and mothers and sisters who came here in 1919 to meet returning soldiers, and those unlucky ones who found their husbands, brothers and sons in the temporary mortuary downstairs; a room that, even now, feels uneasy and chill. Laurel and Hardy. Rudolf Hess. Queen Victoria. All the famous and infamous dead who once passed through this place, and all the millions of unknown passengers whose journeys – to work, to home, for drinks, fights, football, funerals, affairs – gave it life and purpose. “When I first started working here I thought it was just a railway station,” says Paul Lyons. “But this place is Glasgow’s best-kept secret. This is the city within the city. The stories of the city are the stories of Central. And here endeth the lesson.”

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss

• The final episode of The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track features Glasgow Central, Tuesday, BBC2, 9pm. For more information on the history of the station, visit travelingvoices.com