Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Zen and the Art of Platform Numbering

When I was rather younger, I was very impressed to discover that Grand Central Terminal, New York had a Track 117 (I never fathomed why we number the platform alongside the track whilst the Americans number the track itself. I suspect it's because we British know how to build a proper, high-level platform to allow passengers to step conveniently from platform to train. In contrast, our American cousins content themselves with an apology of a platform, only raised a few inches above rail level, necessitating steps inside each car up to floor level and, additionally at some locations, the use of a footstool to assist in boarding and alighting).

Knowing the American delight in superlatives, I fondly imagined that there was a track for each integer from 1 to 117. I later discovered that this is not the case. Grand Central is a double-deck station, because of the site limitations. When they had finished numbering the tracks on one level consecutively, they started numbering the second level at track 100, leaving plenty of spare numbers for possible future expansion which did not occur.

When I finally visited the station, I forgave the builders the slight deceit in track numbering because of the grandeur of the 'Belles Artes' architecture. Following the recent refurbishment, the station ranks amongst the most impressive I have seen. The picture below shows the decorated marble portico to tracks 116-117, together with the destination indicator for track 116. Is this not a fitting invitation to travel by train? It has to be admitted that, having passed through the archway, one is led via a ramp onto an undistinguished and narrow platform where the predominent motif is reinforced concrete but I suppose one cannot have everything.

In Britain, we've only managed to get our platform numbers into the low twenties. I think Clapham Junction held the record but the present state of this station is too depressing to dwell upon. Integers did not prove adequate at all sites and letter suffixes were sometimes used. Historically, upper case 'A', 'B', 'C' and so on were used. However, modernisation of our railways has now been achieved by stripping away these old-fashioned designations and replacing them with lower case 'a', 'b', 'c' and so on. Where this technique appears insufficiently drastic for a 21st century railway, at some locations the sequence has been reversed so that, for instance, platforms 1 to 12 are now plattforms 12 to 1. Brave New World!

In response to an initiative by the popular children's author J.K. Rowling, an experimental fractional platform number (9-3/4) has been introduced at Kings Cross. Our photograph below suggests that this interesting experiment is not without teething problems - the distressed passenger (sorry - we must now call him 'customer' for reasons which are not completely clear to me but I believe are related to the removal of any expectation of travel from place to place and the substitution of various over-priced 'retail opportunities') appears to have his luggage trolley stuck in the entrance to the platform.

A brave attempt by Britain, which has been described as "magical" but I confess that we have been trounced by the orientals from Japan. The rebuilt Kyoto station has been widely hailed as a masterpiece of modern design. The soaring atrium is certainly impressive but, alas, not to my rather old-fashioned taste. However, in the matter of platform numbering they have transcended the use of big numbers in America and fractional numbers in Britain. As shown in the picture below, the modern shuttle trains to the new airport now leave from 'Platform 0'. The practice of Zen has allowed the designers to effortlessly summon up the mysteries of the infinite with a simple yet breathtaking numbering plan. And the trains run on time!

More on Platform 0.