Recycling railways

With space at a premium, the need to redevelop disused and unloved corners of our towns and cities is great.

The challenge for urban regenerators is that it’s usually much easier to start from scratch than to try and make an old space do something new. Planners have to consider not only the physical transformation of an area, but the social and economic opportunities it should create.

Railways in the UK and around the rest of the world have a rich heritage. Over the years, stations have been abandoned and sections of track closed because of a lack of demand and investment.

Like our dilapidated Victorian textile mills and churches, therer are people who want to try and revive these pieces of neglected railway heritage before they fall to pieces.

Some of these projects look to reintroduce crumbling stations and depots back onto the network, in the way Birmingham is pushing to incorporate the 19th century entrance to Curzon Street station into plans for the city’s HS2 interchange or how Crossrail is reusing the Victorian-built Connaught Tunnel.

Other projects aim to reinvent the structures entirely.

The stories behind these abandoned stations and railways are fascinating. Although now cut off from the railway it served following a bridge collapse, Canfranc International Railway Station in the Spanish Pyrenees was apparently used by the Nazis to transport gold from Switzerland during the Second World War. Seventy-years later, the station now sits above an astroparticle physics laboratory.

Post Office Railway - train in a tunnel.

Photo: Royal Mail Ltd, courtesy of British Postal Museum & Archive.

Mail Rail concept design [online]

Photo: Royal Mail Ltd, courtesy of British Postal Museum & Archive.

In London, the British Postal Museum has been promoting its plans to open up a series of railway tunnels that were built beneath the city at the beginning of the 20th century to transport letters and parcels around central London and turn them into a new exhibit.

There are also ambitious plans to open London’s 26 abandoned Tube stations, or ‘ghost stations’, as bars and tourist attractions – stations that during World War Two doubled up as bomb shelters.

In the lead up to Paris’ mayoral elections, candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (NKM) published a series of images showing several of the city’s ‘ghost’ metro stations transformed, with designs including a bar, a theatre and an underground swimming pool. Unfortunately for NKM, it wasn’t enough to win her the election.

Manchester’s Mayfield Depot, located next to Piccadilly station, hasn’t seen a train for decades. Opened in 1910, the station has been closed to the public for almost half of that time and closed completely in the 1980s. Since then, there have been several attempts to reopen it. In November, a company was granted a premises license that could allow it to host a variety of leisure and cultural events at the derelict station. The station was temporarily transformed last year for a concert as part of the Manchester International Festival.

MayfieldDepot_Jan_Cheblik_01 [online]

Manchester Mayfield. Photo: Jan Cheblik.

Mayfield_concert [online]

These kind of ambitious redevelopment projects are fairly common but few make it to completion. Many falter because of a lack of support and a lack of investment.

For the last 15 years, a community in New York have worked to protect an historic elevated freight line in Manhattan. In 2009, the first section of a new public park, called the High Line, opened along the line, which the City of New York took ownership of after services stopped in 1980.

Joshua David and Robert Hammond have led the railway’s regeneration. Since opening five years ago, the team has been approached by organisations as far away as Dubai that want to use the High Line as a model for their own schemes.

‘We were just two guys from the neighbourhood that read a New York Times’ article about the High Line’s proposed demolition and wanted to get involved,’ says Joshua.

‘We raised the flag and the community rallied with us.’

Historic High Line photograph from 1934. Photographer unknown.

Historic High Line photograph from 1934. Photographer unknown.

High_Line_wildflower_field_3 [online]

High Line’s Wildflower Field. Photo: Iwan Baan.

The High Line is a good example of how the private and public sectors can find common goals and deliver successful projects.

Joshua added: ‘Robert and I surrounded ourselves with smart people who knew a great deal about city politics, urban planning, and zoning. Collectively we developed a strategy to win people over.’

Another pair of entrepreneurs are hoping to replicate the success of the High Line below the streets of New York. The appropriately named Lowline project aims to create a new subterranean park, lit by a clever system of solar lights which collect natural sunlight and beam it into the caverns of an abandoned tram terminal on the Lower East Side of New York City.

The High Line is a rare success story. Investors see these projects as artistic flights of fancy rather than a real business opportunity with a sizeable return. When these historic structures are identified for redevelopment, practical needs, such as housing, shops and offices, take priority, but communities shouldn’t be denied access to their transport heritage.