A view of the West Kowloon Station exterior by Paul Warchol.

Hong Kong Raises the Bar on Train Travel with the Soaring Grandeur of West Kowloon Station

On the other side of the world, trains have regained an allure missing in the US.

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Mar 15 2019, 1:50pm

A view of the West Kowloon Station exterior by Paul Warchol.

For almost a century, railroad stations played a symbolic role as portals to great cities and points of departure to distant places. Remember Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, with Cary Grant eluding his pursuers on the 20th Century Limited? You can recapture that sense of excitement in the concourse of Grand Central Terminal—until you descend to the murky platforms and laggardly commuter trains. As for the claustrophobic squalor that replaced the noble Pennsylvania Station of McKim, Mead, and White, the late Vincent Scully said it best: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

On the other side of the world, trains have regained their allure: Japan was first, with the creation of the Shinkansen in the 1960s; Europe is crisscrossed with high-speed lines; and China has bested them all in the past decade. That country now has 1700 miles of track linking 44 cities with trains that top speeds of 200 mph. The latest stop is West Kowloon station, which opened a few months ago. Designed by Andrew Bromberg at Aedas—a visionary architect working within a global firm—the station seamlessly links Hong Kong to mainland China, all the way to Beijing, as well as to Chek Lap Kok Airport and the gleaming MTR subway system. It has the grandeur of classic stations, the glamor of the best airport terminals, and the convenience of an urban interchange.

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Nighttime aerial photograph of West Kowloon station by Huang Suiron @JSRPIXEL.

Fifteen lines converge through tunnels on the waterfront site. Arriving passengers pass through immigration and emerge into a multilevel concourse that burrows deep into the ground and soars 150 feet from the lowest level. As travelers ascend, they discover a panoramic view of Hong Kong Island, with its serried towers framing Victoria Peak.

Bifurcated steel columns snake upward, supporting the three principal roof trusses, which curve around to express the pent-up energy within. It’s a triumph of engineering and a worthy heir to the iron and glass train sheds of the Industrial Revolution. Before the introduction of electric lighting, those wide-span canopies served to illuminate the platforms, and to mute the noise and disperse the fumes of steam locomotives. Now, the trains are as sleek as missiles, and they glide almost silently along the subterranean tracks. Like a low entry to a lofty hall, that builds anticipation for the excitement to come.

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A view of a West Kowloon station platform by Paul Warchol.
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A view of a West Kowloon concourse by Paul Warchol.

West Kowloon’s concourse has the drama of a Gothic cathedral, a civic space to dazzle visitors and delight locals, who badly need shaded gathering places as a retreat from the pervasive humidity and tropical downpours. Filtered light bathes the four million square feet of public space. The void makes it easy to navigate one’s way through the waiting areas, past shops, restaurants, and services to the entry plaza. Tunnels and footbridges link the concourse to the subway and bus station. Steps lead over the roof to a landscaped garden that doubles as a belvedere and a public park. It’s flanked by towers and a new arts district that includes a concert hall and the M+ Museum of Herzog & de Meuron.

No artwork could match the complex beauty of the station’s roof vault, with its folded planes and sensuous curves, supported on organic columns that branch and shift to support the load. In a city state where money rules and every square foot of urban development is contested, there’s a generosity of scale that recalls an earlier era. It’s a gift to the public realm that gains value from its rarity; a place to lift the spirits and breathe free.

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A detail of West Kowloon station’s roof vault by Virgile Simon Bertrand.
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A view of a West Kowloon roof terrace by Paul Warchol.

West Kowloon was commissioned by the MTR to demonstrate the importance of Hong Kong to the Chinese economy and to simplify the crossing. Before, one had to walk through two border posts, and then take a local subway train through the countryside of Kowloon. It could take over an hour from the neighboring city of Shenzhen; now, the travel time is down to 14 minutes. The station is also politically significant, binding a semi-autonomous province to the vast landmass of China and reinforcing their interdependence. Most important is the challenge high-speed rail presents to internal air travel, saving time and cutting carbon emissions. Though China has invested heavily in new airports, many of its major cities are tightly clustered, most notably in the Beijing region and the Pearl River Delta from Guangzhou to Hong Kong.

The lesson for the US is clear: A country that cared anything for the future of its economy and that of the planet would have already constructed a high-speed network linking Boston to Miami, Seattle to San Diego, and the principal cities of the Midwest and South. Instead, a first halting attempt to connect LA with San Francisco has been abandoned, leaving behind only the prospect of a hundred-mile link between Merced and Bakersfield—cities that no sane person would want to hurry to.