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Transforming railway stations into new city centres

Mar 18, 2024 05:36 AM IST

India is transforming colonial-era railway stations into modern city centres under the Amrit Bharat Station Scheme, reshaping the city-station relationship.

Railway stations are integral to a city’s history and identity, serving as gateways through which visitors get their first impressions of a city. India boasts some of the grandest stations in the world, but many stations constructed during the British Raj have, over time, deteriorated into dirty, dilapidated, and chaotic places.

The Gandhinagar Capital railway station in Gujarat. (HT Photo)
The Gandhinagar Capital railway station in Gujarat. (HT Photo)

While several airports across the country have been modernised, railway stations remain caught in a time warp, lacking amenities that meet the requirements of contemporary travellers.

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Now, several colonial-era railway stations across the country are undergoing a major transformation into city centres under the Union government’s Amrit Bharat Station Scheme, reshaping the city-station relationship. Under this scheme, 1,318 railway stations nationwide are earmarked for development or redevelopment. These include stations in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) such as New Delhi, Delhi Cantonment, Anand Vihar, Gurugram, Ghaziabad, and Faridabad.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation for 554 stations and virtually inaugurated the first phase of the redeveloped Gomti Nagar station in Lucknow.

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Apart from Gomti Nagar, the stations that have already been redeveloped include Gandhinagar Capital, which boasts a luxurious five-star hotel atop it, and Rani Kamalapati railway station in Bhopal.

“The redevelopment work is currently underway at 65 major stations across the country and is at different stages of progress. Many of these stations, such as Chandigarh, are already over 50% complete. Most of these stations are being redeveloped under an engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) model,” said a senior railways official associated with the station redevelopment project. “Over the years, we have been upgrading stations under various schemes, but now we are fully redeveloping them. The aim is to provide a world-class experience to travellers and create new city centres at railway stations, integrated with the surrounding urban environments through place-making,” he added.

Tracks to terminals

The Amrit Bharat Station Scheme focuses on constructing station buildings, covering both sides of railway lines with modern facilities and designs, including separate arrival and departure areas at different levels. Redeveloped stations will boast amenities such as airport-like concourses, digital information systems, executive lounges, shopping areas, cafeterias, and spaces for business meetings, among others. Many, like the New Delhi railway station, will also serve as a massive multi-modal transit hub, with several luxury facilities.

“The concept of redeveloping railway stations as city centres stems from the idea of maximising their potential as dynamic urban hubs. This approach seeks to integrate transportation infrastructure with commercial, recreational, and residential amenities, creating a vibrant urban environment,” said Dikshu Kukreja, whose firm CP Kukreja Architects developed the master plans for the Gandhinagar Capital and Gomti Nagar stations.

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The Gandhinagar Capital station, inaugurated in 2021, is India’s first redeveloped station. It features a modern facade, an interfaith prayer hall, a baby feeding room, a posh waiting lounge, a business centre, and an airport-like concourse. The concourse serves as the main congregation space, connecting all entry gates to platforms, lounges, toilets, cloakrooms, food courts, retail shops, and ticket vending machines.

Similarly, Gomti Nagar railway station in Lucknow, whose completed first phase covers around 1 million square feet, features two separate terminals, a concourse connecting them, elevated departure, ground floor arrival and various amenities, including hospitality and retail blocks.

The Gomti Nagar railway station in Lucknow. (Deepak Gupta/HT Photo)
The Gomti Nagar railway station in Lucknow. (Deepak Gupta/HT Photo)

“In India, railway stations over the years became the centres of chaos in a city. But mega stations in the world like the Grand Central in New York or the King’s Cross Station in London do not choke the traffic movement, and so inspired by them we introduced separate departure and arrival points at Gomti Nagar station, a first in India. The redevelopment of Gandhinagar Capital and Gomti Nagar railway stations aim to transform them into bustling urban districts that cater to diverse needs and activities,” says Kukreja.

The proposed redevelopment plans for stations in Delhi-NCR, also aim for grandeur and modernization. The nondescript Gurgaon station, constructed in 1950 is set for a nine-story makeover. With three floors dedicated to railway operations, one for passenger amenities, and four for commercial ventures, including cafes, it promises a whole new look.

The proposed blueprint for Andheri station in Mumbai includes east and west side station buildings, with an expansive concourse linking both. It will have five commercial towers on the east side. “While nighttime traffic at the station is low, it presents an opportunity for transformation into a bustling city centre for dining and shopping. The redevelopment plan is rooted in the idea that stations should be responsive to the city’s needs and contribute positively to its community,” said Harsh Varshneya, principal architect at Sthapati Associates, a firm that has developed master plans for stations such as Bangalore Cantonment and Andheri station in Mumbai.

Evolving role of the railway station

Railway stations have evolved since their inception in the mid-18th century. During the British Raj, the primary purpose of the first railway stations was to facilitate the transportation of goods — particularly raw materials such as cotton, jute, and coal, from the hinterlands to the ports for export to Britain. Initially, passenger travel played a secondary role, but it gradually gained importance as the railway network expanded and connected more regions across the country. The stations were designed to facilitate the movement of trains, passengers, and goods.

“Now, the main focus of design is on passengers, as goods movement is shifting to new freight corridors and stations,” said Goonmeet Singh Chauhan, co-founder, Design Forum International (DFI), which developed the master plan for the redevelopment of stations such as Amritsar, Delhi Cantonment and Thiruvananthapuram.

Railway stations in India were often built on the outskirts of cities, as transportation hubs to minimise disruptions caused by train traffic and to meet the extensive land requirements of railway infrastructure. But over the decades, cities grew around them, and today, many railway stations in India find themselves surrounded by densely populated urban areas.

“Historically, cities grew as administrative or commercial centres and railway stations typically saw wholesale trade centres grow around them, and therefore bound the neighbouring smaller towns in the region as one economic whole,” Chauhan said.

“In India, stations typically have the main buildings on one side, leading to an uneven development of the city with one side often neglected. The lack of proper foot-over bridges at the stations limited the cross-city movement. New stations we have been designed address this with wide foot over-bridges, facilitating movement between the two sides of the city without entering the stations,” he said.

The challenges of redevelopment

Architects say redeveloping stations without affecting railway operations is a herculean task involving maintaining platforms, ticketing systems, and other critical infrastructure. “We must carefully phase our approach, constructing new facilities before demolishing the old ones, all while contending with the existing spatial constraints. For example, a new booking office is constructed before demolishing the old one,” said Varshneya.

An artist’s impression for Andheri station in Mumbai includes east and west side buildings, with an expansive concourse linking both. (HT Photo)
An artist’s impression for Andheri station in Mumbai includes east and west side buildings, with an expansive concourse linking both. (HT Photo)

While prefabricated or modular construction techniques help as they allow faster assembly on-site and reduce the overall construction timeline, there are many other complexities to be taken care of. “We engage with multiple stakeholders — municipal authorities, traffic police, and other entities to align our station master plan with the broader city master plan,” said Varshneya.

However, the biggest architectural challenge lies in the redevelopment of heritage stations like Bangalore Cantonment. “It involves preserving historical features while introducing modern amenities and functionality, ensuring that every new addition harmonises with the existing architecture and environment,” said Varshneya.

Symbolising heritage

While laying the foundation stone for the development, the Prime Minister said that these stations will symbolise both Vikas (progress) and Virasat (heritage) showcasing local culture and architectural heritage. Ahmedabad station, for example, will be inspired by the Modhera Sun Temple, and the Dwarka station by the Dwarkadheesh temple.

“The British made all the stations in the colonial idiom. Now, we are prioritising local architecture and plan to use local materials in construction wherever feasible. The station’s design must represent the city, drawing from its cultural moorings, thereby instilling pride and a sense of belonging in people,” said Chauhan, adding that railway station designs are also an exercise in placemaking.

“A railway station, as a public space, should prioritise safety, inclusivity, and convenience while capturing the essence of the city — its cuisine, culture, and architectural heritage.”

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Some of the new station buildings have become architectural novelties. Stepping out of Gandhinagar Railway Station, visitors are surprised at the sight of a five-star hotel — The Leela — atop live-running train tracks. The hotel’s lobby sits approximately 77 feet above the ground level, while rooms start at about 150 feet.

“Staying in a hotel above the railway tracks is a one-of-a-kind, Instagram-worthy experience for guests. Many choose to plan their special occasions at the hotel for the sake of creating lasting memories. While people get great views of Gandhinagar’s lush green cityscape without any train noise in the rooms,” said Vikas Sood, general manager, The Leela, Gandhinagar station.

Kukreja said the redeveloped stations will help reshape the urban landscape. “They will help catalyse economic growth, revitalise neglected neighbourhoods, and boost overall liveability,” he said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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