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Chugging along on a boat in Hong Kong harbour is an odd place to get intrigued by the architecture of a train station in Melbourne, but it happened. The weather was miserable. Neil, an old friend from our days in Hong Kong, had seized on the excuse of visitors to gather a few friends, drink some gin and tonics, and gab.

One of Neil’s British buddies had slipped away that afternoon from a high pressure job as managing director of a substantial HK based corporation.  His company had just purchased the business that supplied the roof of Southern Cross Station. He talked of the architecture in awe inspiring terms. “The station is the roof,” he said.

The original train station was called Batman’s Hill (after John Batman, one of founders of Melbourne). It was later changed to Spencer Street Station. In 1856 it became the Melbourne terminus of Victorian railways, linking the City to Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. The great international Exhibition of 1888 put Melbourne and Spencer Street on the map. At that time, the Railway Administrative Building was the largest office building in Melbourne.

Construction began on replacement for Spencer Street Station in October 2002. It was finished in time for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Not without major headaches, of course. It fell far behind schedule and went way over budget. It was branded by one politician as a “world class mess.” The construction did take place around an operational rail interchange of some magnitude, handling 60,000 commuters every single day.

The distinctive, giant wave-shaped roof was designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, who has had his hand in some other interesting structures- The Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, the National Space Center, the Eden Project. Inside Spencer, now called Southern Cross, you look down at a maze of tracks. The trains are over-sized versions of the electric train sets of childhood, mechanical puppets in mesmerizing motion.

Flinders Street Station offers a homey contrast to the spectacle of Southern Cross. It is a well-loved landmark, built in glowing yellow stone, adorned with clocks indicating the departure times on each line. It was the result of a world-wide design competition held in 1899. First prize went to two railway employees, whose design included a giant dome and clock tower. Despite its mammoth size, it has a cozy appeal. Very Victorian.

It is the central railway station of the suburban rail network, right in the heart of the City. Each day, over 100,000 people thread their way through the turnstiles and descend to the platforms. Outside, friends meet up “under the clocks” to coordinate their plans for the evening. The building has a ballroom tucked away somewhere.  Unfortunately, it is no longer in use.

Needless to say, the weather and years of heavy use have taken a toll and it has recently undergone significant and costly redevelopment, cleaning and repair. Worth every penny. Despite the increasing numbers of cars on the road and increasing frustration with the overcrowded conditions on commuter lines, Melburnians love their trains.

They make extended suburban living possible, the little house with the roses in the backyard miles (kilometers) away from the centre of the city. The place to putter, the place to call home.

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