Update September 2009
A recent trip to France just confirmed my view that the Gare du Nord needs a serious makeover inside. The queues for the Eurostar home were incredible, and incredibly badly organised (not really organised at all, actually), and signage is still poor. The contrast with St Pancras is painfully acute.
In the Eurostar terminal, there were long queues for the women’s toilets, and only two of the three urinals in the gents’ toilet was in service, and only one of the three washbasins. Not great when you have 800+ passengers waiting.
The metro station has been spruced up a little but, with only two ticket machines, queues for metro tickets after a Eurostar has arrived can be very long, not helped by the beggars working the queues.
After the other reviews, I’m a bit torn by the Gare du Nord. I’ve experienced some of the practical problems others have, but it’s also undeniably impressive as a building.
Including the RER tracks below, it is claimed to be Europe’s busiest station, with 180 million passengers a year going through its 44 platforms. It has all the facilities you’d expect for such a large station.
The station was originally opened in 1846, and served the Chemin de Fer du Nord railway, to Amiens and Lille. It rapidly became too small for the growth of traffic, and so was rebuilt to the present design 1861-65. The architect was J I Hittorff, better known for the fountains he designed in the Place de la Concord, and the houses in the Place d’Etoile around the Arc de Triomphe.
The classically-inspired main façade is one of the best railway stations in Europe, in my book, with a large central pavilion flanked by a matching pair of pavilions, connected by long wings. Long rows of Doric pillars are set off by larger Ionic pilasters, although the overall effect is rather spoiled by the iron canopy running the length of the building, which cuts through the lower tier of pillars. The whole thing is set off by such copious statuary that we could only be in France. The design is not quite as attractive inside in my view - I prefer arched glass roofs to pitched ones, but it’s still impressive enough.
Unfortunately, I too have encountered the haphazard service and long queues in the Eurostar terminal, which really does seem to have been designed as an afterthought. It’s OK once you are past check-in, but the facilities are not spectacular, and the food is mediocre - a poor advert for the one of the world’s gastronomic capitals. I’ve always found the toilets in the main station slightly seedy too - lots of shifty looking types hanging around. It felt like that when I was Inter-Railing in 1984 and still feels like it now. Signage is also poor, and it’s not easy to find your way around.
The cavernous RER station below can have the same slightly intimidating feel too - for a modern construction it’s quite dark and, although it is undoubtedly spacious (the UK could take notes on that), it’s not that easy to navigate. It has always felt distinctly unpleasant late at night, although security has improved of late.
As well as the Eurostar to the UK, it is the terminus of Thalys services to Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam, and domestic services to Lille, Amiens, Arras, Calais and Boulogne. The RER (lines B and D) serves the northern suburbs, the Stade de France and the airport at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle.