On the right track

The journey to get to them may be hell, but Britain's railway stations remain majestic sites. Matthe

John Betjeman was unequivocal when it came to trains: "What masterpiece arose on the site of the old station? No masterpiece. Instead there is a place where nobody can sit: an underground taxi-entrance so full of fumes that drivers, passengers and porters alike hate it." Betjeman wrote his condemnation of the new Euston station 30 years ago and there's no doubt that the fumes, dearth of seating and sense of masterpieces gone to waste in Britain's railway stations have only worsened since then.

Strangely, then, despite the reality of current British rail travel, many of the country's stations remain sites of imaginative power and aesthetic aspiration - as Betjeman believed them to be. Their grandeur can seem like an absurdity in today's conditions - they are often palatial entrances to decrepit arteries. But, stubbornly, they remain places filled with potential and presence.

Last month, the not-for-profit Network Rail officially took charge of 2,500 railway stations. And while much was made in the following week of the scaling down of proposals for the upgrading of the West Coast mainline, less has been publicly discussed about Network Rail's new architectural portfolio.

Perhaps that's because the main train station has become part of our civic landscape, rather than just a portal to a transport network. They are no longer the parish churches and cathedrals that Betjeman considered them but intrinsic none the less. So that while the rail chaos stumbles on, cities from Cardiff to Norwich to Leeds have refurbished their stations as part of urban renewal programmes.

In London, the hotbed of Victorian mania for terminal construction, the past and present of train stations have cruelly collided in the area around King's Cross. A daily battle currently rages between rail and road, frustrating taxi drivers and commuters alike. On one side of the tracks, the renovation of King's Cross and St Pancras stations resounds to the sound of diggers and construction workers. On the other, motorists on the Euston Road are condemned to crawl at a snail's pace through this major artery until the work is finished. The traffic jams have been known to last until the early hours.

It is no accident that King's Cross and St Pancras stations find themselves at the heart of upheaval. They have been on the front line of change since the mid-19th century, when the Euston Road was the borderland of London's station boom. Parliamentary legislation at the height of the railway expansion restricted private companies from any more building in the capital south of this thoroughfare. Since then, these two edifices - which stand alongside one another and carry out the same engineering function but look so utterly different - have acted as a kind of barometer of the fate of the station.

Both were the showpieces of regional railway companies eager to impress citizens of the capital. Plain, puritan King's Cross was built by Great Northern Eastern Railway in 1852 as a cost-effective finale to its cash-draining achievement of bringing the track to London. Ornate, Gothic St Pancras next door was the Midlands Railway's riposte in 1868 to its commercial competitor.

Almost every aspect seemed to underline their rivalry. King's Cross had two arched sheds - one for arrivals, the other for departures - at the time a piece of ingenious practicality. For a brief period, it was the biggest station in England. St Pancras, by contrast, built just one shed - but this had the distinction of possessing the largest station roof in the world without internal supports. Both stations' engineers faced the problem of bringing their tracks across the Regent's Canal at their rears - King's Cross chose tunnelling under it, St Pancras bridging over - which gave the station concourse the excuse to be raised off the ground, and lifted above its neighbour. King's Cross employed an early version of functionalism to create a station that was shaped by its passengers' needs. At St Pancras, Midlands Railways topped that by employing the fashionable Gothic revival visionary Gilbert Scott to place a massive, state-of-the-art hotel on the front of the shed. Its clock tower loomed far above the more modest timepiece of King's Cross station.

Betjeman tried to be even-handed in his appraisal of the two: "The romance of Gothic and the romance of engineering are here side-by-side." Other observers of the station were not so fair. "Meretricious in detail," screeched the Gentleman's Quarterly of St Pancras. But most fashionable opinion praised Scott's work in the way that is familiar to our own age of "superarchitects".

But in the 20th century, as the taste for Victorian Gothic crumbled, the enormity of St Pancras was a sitting duck for critics. It became the ugly, overdressed sister of its minimalist neighbour. Disciples of modernism in the 1930s such as Albert Richardson called for the simple, angular King's Cross to be handed over to the National Trust as a building of historic importance. Richardson even wanted it painted white like some Bauhaus creation. In the 1960s, technocrats went further - they argued that British Rail should demolish St Pancras and merge the two stations: Gilbert Scott's work was judged excessively pretentious and impractical. The building survived, but looking through rail-way publications of the 1970s and early 1980s, it is hard to avoid most authors' implications that this was some sort of baroque antique.

Today, by contrast, received opinion has apparently turned round. King's Cross suffers from guilt-by-association with its former modernist defenders, while St Pancras seems gloriously neo-classical. Many visitors find it difficult to believe that King's Cross is the older station, since by its plainness it seems to symbolise a later, less confident age.

The current building work could be construed as the final victory of St Pancras over its neighbour. It is preparing the station for its new role as Eurostar terminal. Engineers might explain that this is due to the greater flexibility offered by its enormous rear shed. But travellers know that aesthetics count, too. The Gothic hotel, which seemed excessively pompous to 20th-century eyes, now, in our reduced transport conditions, seems instead to offer some hope that railway stations may once again herald glory - rather than just more delayed arrivals.

Until that time, the rivalry in north-east London will continue. Empty St Pancras in its portentous, cavernous glory has played host to performance art, experimental theatre and installation artists, including Tracey Emin and Martin Maloney. By contrast (but perhaps only an unintentional riposte), Richard Wentworth's current work next door maps out all the strengths of King's Cross and declares the station and its environs "an area of outstanding unnatural beauty".

That phrase would probably have appealed to Betjeman. After all, the station that typified his own age was another occupant of London's railway border country: Euston station itself. A concrete and glass building took the place of the original station in 1968. The failure of conservationists to save that station was an early lesson for the fledgling Victorian Society.

In the same way, one can't help feeling that the imagery of a different railway station - a few miles north of King's Cross - has come to represent our present predicament more accurately. A picture more deathly surreal than any artistic installation within the bowels of St Pancras: the upended carriage lodged between the roof and platform of Potters Bar.

Matthew Dodd is a producer for BBC Radio 3's Night Waves