The railway station, a modern public space, urban edifice and transport junction in the heart of a city, was borne out of the industrial revolution. For the public, they primarily represented technical objects of necessity, but their design and construction also subtly resonated and still resonates to social phenomena and urban development, as well as symbolic historical events.


The modern city is synonymous with the eruption of movement. For thousands of years for most people the world existed in an almost entirely static state. Then, within just a few decades at the dawn of the 19th century, new mechanical forms of transport appeared which gradually became able to criss-cross a city in all directions. As transport became a daily habit, homo sapiens transformed into homo mobilis. The most important infrastructural challenge for the nineteenth-century metropolis thereafter was the integration of trains and railway stations into the urban fabric. In the 1840s and 1850s, private investment was the “engine” behind the development of the railways, although it took time for cities to absorb and adjust to the new phenomenon. In the middle of the 19th century, thanks to technical developments, trains gradually became more and more interwoven into urban landscapes. Constructing lines was initially relatively easy, as sparsely inhabited suburban areas offered sufficient space. Station location was largely accidental rather than part of any complex urban planning project. Their development was mostly determined by the individual interests of the private railway companies. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that new station concepts emerged, with stations becoming both transport and urban centres at the same time. The train station became a specific entity within urban society, and also a meeting point. It emerged as a veritable microcosm of industrial society, a public place where all social classes rubbed shoulders. It also became a gateway between the city and the country, as the railway opened up horizons for nineteenth-century citizens for whom travelling had became part of everyday life. In the paintings of Édouard Manet and Claude Monet the station’s significance was symbolic as well as technical, it represented modernity. Stations also increasingly served as literary and cinematic backdrops for romance, adventure, solitude, tragedy and crime.

The integrated approach of social sciences to the phenomenon of the railway station not only provides valuable sources for social history and urban studies, but can also help in understanding and rethinking urban spaces. On the other hand, the analysis and interpretation of symbolic uses of the railway station also adds an important aspect to its historical perspective. What follows is a short sketch of the symbolic and representative uses of the train station, first through international examples, then through the case of Budapest’s Keleti (Eastern) Station.


The railway station, being a representative space, is also a reflection of political, historical and social public thinking. The building itself, with its decorative elements, reflects the mentality of its period and the message railway builders and city planners wanted to communicate to people. Initially, a trainstation was a relatively insignificant building that sat modestly beside other city buildings. But from an early stage, station-builders began to envision and erect ever more grandiose and eventually magnificent palaces – sometimes described as “modern cathedrals” by contemporaries –, which incorporated cutting-edge technology and architectural design of the time. However, up to the middle of the 19th century the big city station architects were still paying homage to past eras, recreating Tudor fortresses for example, or medieval cathedrals or renaissance castles. In the second half of the century, the station building itself came to represent new styles in architecture, combining technical innovations (the vast roofed platform with its arching rib-cage of iron supporting a covering of glass) with grand passenger halls recalling city palaces. As time progressed architectural masters of neo-Classicism, Art Nouveau, Modernism, Futurism and, after a long caesura, of contemporary architecture, designed and redesign the great stations, making them emblematic features of the urban landscape.

Station buildings were typically decorated with various artistic elements – murals, friezes, rows of sculptures –, which conveyed the designer’s ideas and messages to the public. Inside, representations of travel and landscape were portrayed on decorative murals, which also served as advertisements for the railway company. Sculpted features on the façades meanwhile of ten depicted allegories of destinations, cities or technical innovations. Practically every element of the railway station carried a significant message.

In addition to hosting scenes of everyday travel, the station also, naturally, became a venue for various eminent departures and arrivals. Sometimes by chance but more often by dint of well-planned choreography train stations right up to the second half of the 20th century provided a stage for all sorts of important public representative events. Its representative role also lent a sort of guarantee to social status quo and order, and made it an integral part of national histories, often featuring on commemorative photographs, stamps and other such memorabilia. As an excellent backdrop for theatrical effects, a grand station also offered itself as a natural venue to impress, thrill and sometimes even manipulate the public with displays of lavish decoration, drapery and red carpet.

Until the end of the 1930s and the sudden advance of air transport, railway stations were the pre-eminent public space for sometimes ceremonious, sometimes spontaneous gestures of greetings and farewells.

Occasionally, they played host to a political entrée of high historical importance. In April 1917 for instance, after observing the February Revolution from exile abroad, Lenin returned to Russia by rail. When his train arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd, he was greeted by a crowd bearing aloft red flags to the sound of the Marseillaise, and was accompanied to the Tsar’s pavilion where he delivered his revolutionary speech. To commemorate the event, the steam engine that pulled Lenin’s special train that day – donated by Finland to the Soviet Union in 1957 – was installed as a permanent exhibit at the station.

Lenin wasn’t the only figure to give a theatrical historic speech in a railway station. Plenty of politicians have recognised the value of “spontaneously” mingling there with “the people”. From the second half of the 19th century up until the early 20th century, many notable political speeches were delivered from carriage doors or platforms. American politicians especially had a penchant for campaigning at countryside railway stations, rousing their audiences from the back of trains decked with flags. In 1916 in Washington, President Wilson signed the new Adamson Act, introducing the eight-hour day, in his private carriage in Union Station. Later, Harry Truman announced his 1948 victory not from the foyer of some elegant hotel as his predecessors did, but from the arcade of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Charles de Gaulle had a predilection for making important announcements in the banquet hall of the former railway station, the Gare d’Orsay; interestingly contrasted with the preferred meeting place of the anti-government masses during the events of 1968, the hall of the Gare de Lyon. After his victory over France in 1940, Adolf Hitler staged a triumphant return to Berlin at a railway station draped in swastikas and festooned with German eagles.

Stations have also long been popular venues for military parades, receiving distinguished visitors, or during wartime, for the send-off of troops heading to the front. As part of a display of German military might, Hitler greeted and saw off Mussolini in September 1938 with an enormous parade at the Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin. Later, the receptions of Soviet leaders or those of “friendly countries” at the railway station had a similar military importance in communist countries during the Cold War.

The symbolism of the train station has also encompassed displays of official mourning and sorrow. Stations have formed focal points of funeral processions and illustrious “exits”, and been the site of public catafalques. In 1865, the ashes of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln were carried from Washington through several American towns and cities to his place of interment in Springfield, Illinois. During the nearly two-week-long funeral journey, people at stopping points along the route gathered by the train tracks to pay their respects or form guards of honour, while in bigger cities, funeral services were held at railway stations. Nearly a century later, in 1945, the ashes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt were brought with great military pomp from Warm Springs, Georgia, on a flag-draped funeral train to Washington, where a cortege carried the casket from Union Station to the Capitol. The British royal family, after laying-in-state of deceased monarchs in London, often transported the remains from Paddington Station to Windsor Castle, for example in 1901 and 1952 after the deaths of Queen Victoria and King George VI respectively.


Baross Square, home to Keleti Railway Station, to this day is one of Budapest’s biggest public spaces. Originally intended as a new city centre and residential district as part of the nineteenth-century urban development programme, the square evolved as a major travel junction and gateway to the city after the construction of Keleti Railway Station, one of the defining buildings of its time. From its completion in 1884, according to the plans of Gyula Rochlitz and János Feketeházy, until after the end of the Second World War, it played host to many a spectacular parade, social event, reception and send-off. The terminal and square would be draped in magnificent décors, bedecked with symbols, while the station was transformed into a triumphal arch where the victorious general, visiting chief of state or ecclesiarch would arrive in style to receive the cheers from the waiting crowd.

Architecturally, Keleti was on a par with the new palaces springing up around the capital at the time. The stately forefront, interior and passenger hall of the station were all equipped, quite exceptionally at the time, with modern electric lighting, which impressively enhanced the station’s beauty in the evening dusk. The façade and inner passenger halls abounded with works of art, much of which has since been unfortunately lost.

The main façade displays on three levels symbols of transport and an industrialising society. The ledge is adorned with allegoric figures of Agriculture, Mining, Commerce and Industry – the works of Gyula Bezerédy. The figures were severely damaged during the Second World War and were later removed for safety reasons and also because the timing of the renovation of the terminal was uncertain. The statues, which were re-sculpted during the renovation process, were finally returned to their original place in 2003. In the two niches on either side of the forefront can be seen the statues of the two pioneers of steam engine railways, George Stephenson and James Watt. Crowning the group of statues on the façade is another allegoric group – restored at the end of the 1990s – representing the birth of Steam above the triumphal arch, made by Ede Mayer and Béla Brestyánszky according to the plans of Leó Fessler.

Keleti’s builders were tasked with designing rooms and spaces worthy of the monarch, the country and the capital. A royal waiting-hall in neo-Baroque style was designed to host official royal delegations – and later, up to the 1970s, governmental delegations –, who mostly departed from and arrived at Keleti. The station’s showpiece room was the royal pavilion, which was finished in December 1884 several months after the inauguration. The furniture and floral compositions all reflected the rulers’ colour preferences, in particular those of the female royals. The walls were decorated with intricate tapestry-work, while the windows were draped with expensive curtains.

Receptions of foreign dignitaries required thorough preparations at Keleti, like the visit of the King of Italy in 1937, when the station received a lavish temporary makeover:

The Hungarian capital is preparing itself with all solemnity for the reception of Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy, all the more so because after the end of the Great War, this is the first instance when a foreign head of state is to be greeted within its walls. The great passenger hall of Keleti Railway Station, where the train of the royal guests arrives, is transformed into a royal reception hall. The columns are decorated with fascist symbols and the star of the House of Savoy on an azure basis. Two statues of Roman emperors, normally kept in the National Museum of Budapest, are on display on two stands in front of the station. The guests will be greeted upon their arrival by Regent Miklós Horthy and his wife.

(Az Est [The Evening], 16 May 1937.)

The passenger hall was given a complete overhaul; all the platforms were covered in red carpet, except for the central one, where the special train would arrive. The red carpet brought the guests of honour to the reception room decorated with Italian and Hungarian symbols where the members of the government were officially presented.

The 1941 return to Hungary from the Soviet Union of 1848–49 Revolution and War of Independence banners that had been taken to Russia by the Tsarist troops after the 1849 capitulation at Világos was another hugely significant event both diplomatically and symbolically. The valuable treasures, which included the colours of the Hungarian army with the Blessed Virgin at the centre, had been kept as trophies by the Soviets until then. These “cherished relics of the national piety” were handed over to a Hungarian military delegation at a lavish ceremony at a Russian station. The 56 revolutionary banners were then brought by special train to Budapest. Lieutenant General István Schweitzer, the leader of the Hungarian delegation, and Colonel Nikolai Grigoryevich Lyachterov, the Soviet military attaché in Budapest, received the flags at Keleti. The event was one of the few instances when the Soviet Union made a positive diplomatic step towards Hungary until the end of the Second World War.

Keleti was also an important stop on funeral journeys. It played a central role when bodies of distinguished figures who died abroad were returned for burial in home soil. In 1936, the funeral ceremony of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, who had died in Munich, began at Keleti where a temporary catafalque was set up. Befitting the sombre nature of the event, part of the station was completely covered in black. A huge crowd watched in silence as the special train pulled in to Keleti. The coffin was draped in the national flag and lit by long funeral candles. Political, military and church leaders lined up on one side; the onlooking public on the other behind a cordon of gendarmes. After the ceremony, the coffin was brought to the Parliament building in a funeral procession, where a catafalque was set up, before it reached its final resting place.

Although Hungary’s political circumstances changed greatly after the Second World War, Keleti remained an important ceremonial site for another few decades. Mátyás Rákosi greeted the visiting Marshal Voroshilov here on 4 April 1952, as an expression of gratitude for “maintaining world peace”, and asked him to “celebrate the day with us when, with the help of the Soviet people, Hungary got the opportunity to build up socialism” – according to the newsreel commentator of the time.

On 2 April 1958, the Soviet First Secretary Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev arrived in Budapest to a whipped-up media interest suggesting friendly Hungarian–Soviet relations one and a half year after the unutterable spectre of the Hungarian Revolution appeared. This visit, unlike previous ones by Soviet leaders, targeted the masses, with the topoi of the leader mingling with the people, travelling about, talking to the man on the street, and holding public rallies – accompanied by invisible but hysterical top security precautions. A large crowd of people was organised to greet him at Keleti, with whom Khrushchev, conforming to his image as an informal and cheerful leader, shook hands and conversed. He also visited Miskolc, where a crowd could only glimpse him from afar, across a tight ring of workers’ militia at Tiszai railway station.

In the second half of the 20th century, Keleti and its surroundings lost most of their earlier splendour, and grand representative events became the exception rather than the norm. By the end of the 1960s, the modernisation of the city’s transport network, especially the underground system, transformed both Keleti and the square outside. The first modern Metroline was – partially – finished by 1970, the opening ceremony timed for the 25th anniversary of the “liberation of Hungary” by the Soviets. On 2 April, István Sarlós, president of the executive committee of the Council of Budapest, opened the formal inauguration with the following words: “What a noble present the Metro is for the capital to commemorate Hungary’s 25 years of freedom!”

Since 1990, the railway station appears on the radar of officialdom or the public for reasons other than travel only on very rare occasions. Any such ceremonial events, usually to do with some railway investment, perhaps a launch of a new service or train, or of restoration work at the station, usually take place before a narrow circle of officials and press, on occasion someone from the EU, and receive little if any media coverage, passing off barely noticed by the general public.

Only one room of the old railway station has preserved something of the flavour of the old days: the elaborately decorated restaurant in the north wing, which was renovated at the end of the 1990s. The space conveys something of the magnificence of the royal waiting-hall and the station’s first class milieu of bygone days. This no doubt explains why events not normally associated with railway stations, like wedding parties, are held here – although in a less deliberate and consistent fashion than in other, more famous railway restaurants with an unbroken tradition like the legendary Train Bleu of the Gare de Lyon in Paris.

Although it does not belong directly to Keleti, the statue of Gábor Baross – the “iron minister” who modernised railway transport –, standing in the middle of the Square that bears his name, has always been an important symbol of the Station’s surroundings. The statue used to be the aesthetic and social centre of the Square, from its unveiling in 1898 up until the beginning of the extension of Metro 2 in 1970, when it was transferred to a peripheral location, where Verseny Street leads into the Square. In 2014, as a result of the Metro 4 construction, the statue of Baross returned to the forefront of the railway station, but found itself on a deserted safety island, again completely cut off from the life on the square.

The former role of the railway station as a venue for high-profile events has these days lost its lustre. On the one hand, the interest and taste of the public has shifted to different kinds of events compared to the previous two centuries. On the other hand, transport trends have completely changed, making the representative functions of railway stations superfluous. However, railways at present are enjoying something of a revival in Western Europe, and a redefined railway station, thanks to newly acquired functions – shopping mall, place of recreation, cultural centre, museum, etc. – invites city dwellers to actively participate in its space on a daily basis, and thanks to its variegated functions as a modern urban agora, stands for an entirely new mentality.

Translation by Orsolya Németh

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