What California HSR Can Learn from Europe

Feb. 1, 2017
A look at how rail stations can bring new life to a region and strengthen local community identity.

Traveling by train in Europe is an experience within itself. It is not only enjoyable, it’s also an opportunity to engage with the urban environment in a very distinctive way. At a time when the new administration is promising huge investments in infrastructure, tech companies are constantly evolving the mobility scenario and California moves ahead with its contested $64 billion plan for high-speed rail (HSR), what are the lessons we can learn from the European experience?

I visited some of Europe’s best rail stations to study the aspects of their success and understand what role such infrastructure can play in American cities. Throughout my visit, three fundamental aspects emerged: context, mobility and experience.


Context is a fundamental factor for the success of any train stations. Historic rail stations across Europe are often supported by well-established urban environments able to deliver a memorable experience, but in less consolidated areas HSR services can drive significant redevelopment efforts. King’s Cross is a mixed-use, urban regeneration project for an area of 67-acres that was a once gritty part of London. The site now is undergoing a radical transformation and becoming a lively and diverse new district thanks to the decision to move Britain’s first high-speed railway to St. Pancras. In addition to six underground lines and national train lines, there are HSR connections to Lille, Brussels and Paris. This level of connectivity has allowed the development team to strategically capture the increased land value and initiate a redevelopment effort that adds residential, retail, cultural and commercial uses to the area, attracting tenants such as Google, BNP Paribas Group and the London University of the Arts.

Another example of urban redevelopment around high-speed stations can be found in Lyon, France. Two hours south of Paris by TGV (France’s high speed rail), La Part-Dieu is a former military base that has now become France’s second largest business district after La Défense in Paris. The station, Gare de Lyon Part-Dieu, is strategically paired with one of Europe’s largest inner-city shopping centers, which is located just few steps away from the station’s main plaza. The shopping center serves as an important anchor, attracting millions of visitors per year that combined with rail travelers and commuters using local transit lines make this area a vibrant district for the city of Lyon. Due to its success La Part-Dieu is now undergoing a second phase of transformation that will add additional office space, residential units, open space, leisure and hospitality facilities.

While ideal location for train station is within a city’s’ central area, that may not always be the case in California. For example, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is evaluating downtown regeneration potential as well as alignment options that may include multi-modal hubs outside the downtown cores. Understanding how to successfully capitalize on the newly established connectivity and add value for the local community will be critical to the success of this station.


High-speed rail stations provide travelers with much more than just a means of transportation. The better integrated a station is into the mobility infrastructure, the more options it offers to travelers. Whether connecting to the nearby airport, linking to the local transit system or providing first and last mile solutions, European examples serve as multimodal hubs.

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof is one of the city’s beloved landmarks. The station’s cruciform configuration clearly follows the east-west and north-south rail alignment providing access to high-speed rail, conventional rail and local transit. The station hall is flanked by two office towers while retail spaces are distributed on three floors. Once inside the station, passengers are immediately aware of the building’s organization. An ample glass roof and central core allows daylight to reach all the way through to lower platforms, while an intuitive design allows passengers stress-free access to multiple transit services.

But mobility doesn’t stop at the station’s front door. At Berlin Südkreuz station, the national railway company Deutsche Bahn has also provided alternative modes of transportation with specific regard to the first and last mile. In addition to a bus station and taxi stands, visitors have access to an Intelligent Mobility Station where renewable sources provide energy for a fleet of electric bicycles and electric cars.

Multimodality is a fundamental aspect of today’s mobility. With the United States spearheading the innovation in mobility with mobility-on-demand (MOD) services and autonomous vehicles, and integration of these innovative modes of transportation is key to the success of future HSR stations.


High-speed rail competes directly with other means of transportation, some of which are well loved particularly in an auto-oriented culture like the United States. To attract users, rail infrastructure must be designed and developed with the user in mind. From booking a ticket to the arrival at the final destination, the service must be perceived as convenient and attractive.

In the tradition of grand rail station architecture, the vaulted glass and steel canopy of Liège Guillemins station is a distinctive landmark for the Belgian city. The generous roof structure covers the station’s five platforms, which have a clear functional layout, while the indoor/outdoor permeability of the building allows visitors to experience the station as an urban space. Liège Guillemins can often be found filled with travelers and locals alike, enjoying the urban terrace overlooking the large main plaza or casually gathering on the station’s front steps.

Architectural quality plays a fundamental role in delivering a memorable transit experience. Many rail stations today are in need of major upgrades to become vibrant civic destinations that are engaging and attractive to all users. Today’s transit customers, here and abroad, have higher expectations for mobility services. They are seeking an engaging, holistic experience. Successful stations must respond to their context while establishing a distinctive landmark for the city, enabling social gatherings that will enrich the experience of business travelers, tourists, and locals alike.

Lessons Learned

Successful stations around Europe are a destination in themselves, and that is one last lesson that California must take to heart. These stations have become an integral part of city centers: places for locals and visitors to gather and enjoy. Leveraging their central role in the mobility system, HSR stations elevate their status to true urban destinations by deploying well programmed cultural and commercial offerings, as in London’s Saint Pancras Station, where the ample open concourse connecting the Eurostar, regional trains and subway lines is full of life, featuring shops, cafés and restaurants accessible throughout the day while music, art and tourist attractions keep visitors entertained.

With HSR, stations in California have the opportunity to not only to better connect the state, but also to bring new life and strengthen local community identity.

Luca Giaramidaro is an urban designer with Perkins+Will in San Francisco, California.

Perkins Will Logo 11309500


Feb. 11, 2014