03 October 2023

York Railway Station
was ‘one of the
great cathedrals
of the Railway Age’

When York Railway Station was built in 1873-1877, it was the largest station in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We got back to Stony Stratford early this morning after a journey through the dark following our extended weekend in York. In recent months, it seems, this atation has become a very familiar place as a starting point and destination.

York Railway Station is one of the great buildings of Victorian England and the train-shed is regarded as ‘one of the great cathedrals of the Railway Age’. When it was built in 1873-1877, it was said to be the largest station in the world.

York Railway Station was designed by the architect Thomas Prosser and the engineer Thomas Elliot Harrison. This station was opened on 25 June 1877 by the North Eastern Railway Company to replace an earlier station built within the city walls in 1841.

York Railway Station, operated by London North Eastern Railway, is a key junction halfway between London and Edinburgh, and links the Cross Country and the TransPennine Express routes.

The first York railway station opened in 1839 and was a temporary wooden building on Queen Street outside the walls of the city. What is now York old railway station opened within the city walls in 1841. But trains needed to reverse out of the old station to continue their journeys, and this made it necessary to build a new station outside the walls.

York Railway Station at night … it was designed by Thomas Prosser, William Peachey and Thomas Elliot Harrison (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

York Railway Station was designed by the North Eastern Railway architects Thomas Prosser and William Peachey and the engineer Thomas Elliot Harrison and it was built by Lucas Brothers.

Thomas Prosser (1817–1888) was the first company architect of the North Eastern Railway Company. He began his training in the Durham office of Ignatius Bonomi (1787-1870), one of the designers of the Skerne Railway Bridge, one of the oldest railway bridges in the world and the oldest still in use. Later, Prosser did some of the preparatory architectural drawings for Newcastle Central Station, including the station portico.

York Railway Station is one of Prosser’s major works. He retired for health reasons in 1874, and died in Gateshead in 1888.

Prosser worked on the station in York in partnership with the engineer Thomas Elliot Harrison (1808-1888), who gained his engineering experience on the lines his father had helped to establish and in his early career he worked with George Stephenson and Robert Stephenson.

He was the chief engineer of the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway from 1850. He became North Eastern Railway’s first chief engineer at its formation in 1854, and remained in post until he died in 1888. His works include the Skelton viaduct on the Ouse, the Victoria Viaduct and Monkwearmouth railway bridge.

The architect William Peachey (1826-1912) was known for his work for the North Eastern Railway. As well as working on York Railway Station, he designed railway stations in Brotton, Darlington, Etherley, Middlesborough, Saltburn, Sunderland and Tow Law, and Baptist and Wesleyan chapels, including the Baptish church on Priory Street, York.

Colourful wrought iron work on the footbridge includes the White Rose of Yorkshire and the heraldic logo used by North Eastern Railway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

When York Railway Station opened on 25 June 1877, it had 13 platforms and at that time it was the largest train station in the world. New platforms were added in 1909, and the current footbridge was built in 1938, when the station was resignalled.

The station was heavily bombed during World War II. On one occasion, on 29 April 1942, 800 passengers were evacuated from a King’s Cross-Edinburgh train that arrived during a bombing raid. On the same night, two railway workers were killed. The station foreman William Milner died when he returned to his burning office to collect his first aid kit. A plaque in his memory has been erected at the station.

The station was extensively repaired in 1947. The track layout through and around the station was remodelled again in 1988. The station was renovated in 2009.The platforms at York have been renumbered several times, and over time the number of platforms has been reduced from 15 to 11.

All the platforms in York, except 9, 10 and 11, are under the large, curved, glass and iron roof. They are accessed by a long footbridge that also connects to the National Railway Museum, or by lifts and either of two pedestrian tunnels.

The fastest southbound services from York run non-stop to London, completing the 188-mile journey in 1 hour 52 minutes. TransPennine Express provides a number of express services across the north of England to Manchester Piccadilly, Liverpool Lime Street, Newcastle, Scarborough and Middlesbrough.

Very early this morning, it seemed, all trains to Manchester Piccadilly and serving Manchester Airport, had been cancelled. I was thankful I was not depending on trains to catch a flight, but also wondered how a government whose public transport policy constantly fails to deliver on TransPennine routes such as these can be expected to have a sensible approach to HS2 and continuing it from Birmingham to Mancester and Yorkshire.

New automated ticket gates were planned, but the City of York Council wished to avoid spoiling the historic nature of the station, and the plans were scrapped.

In Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations by Simon Jenkins, the station was one of only 10 to be awarded five stars. The station is now listed Grade II.

York Railway Station is one of only ten train stations to be awarded five stars by Simon Jenkins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A new station hotel, the Royal Station Hotel, was designed by William Peachey as an integral part of the new station. It was built by Lucas Brothers, and opened in 1878, a year after the station opened.

As the North Eastern Railway Company’s flagship hotel, it was managed directly by the railway company. It is a five-storey hotel built of yellow Scarborough brick. When it opened, it had elegant banqueting rooms with high-ceilings, and 100 large bedrooms.

Now the Principal York, the hotel recently underwent a refurbishment of the public areas, 164 rooms and suites and corridors and it is a Grade II listed building.

We caught the bus to Milton Keynes very early this morning outside the Principal York. It is curious how, in our comings and in our goings, life sometimes seems to go around in circles. Charlotte’s grandparents spent their honeymoon in the Royal Station Hotel, York, in 1940.

Most of the platforms in York are under the large, curved, glass and iron roof (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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