Railway Station


This is what I call the place where I catch the train both to and from London. Increasingly, what I’ve always considered to be an Americanism – train station – is being used, even by friends of my own generation. Until about 15 years ago, I had the feeling that ‘train station’ was current only among British people born since about 1965, but it is now seeping up the generations, and last week-end, I heard it on the lips of a 70 year old. Interestingly, the first line of Paul Simon’s song Homeward Bound is “I’m sittin’ in the railway station”. I know he wrote it in Britain (actual location disputed), but since when do Americans use British phrases simply because that’s where they are? Of course, “I’m sittin’ in a train station” wouldn’t scan.

Anyway, the OED inevitably has a section on the phrase. The first references are to the Morning Chronicle, March 1845 and the Daily News November 1856, both British, but then there is a long gap to 1955 (US) and then 1981 (New York Times Magazine) which is, like me, commenting on the usage: “When was the last time you heard a young, rich-affluent-wealthy type use the phrase railroad station? Upper-class use is now train station.”

I mention this now because I’ve just caught up with the first episode of the new series of “Mr Selfridge” on ITV, in which the (fictional) female owner of a dubious ‘gentlemen’s club’ gives a reading from her autobiography, and uses ‘train station’. Even though she had supposedly recently returned from the US, I don’t think that would have been right in 1914, especially given the circles she is supposed to move in, and the 1981 quotation given above. Film makers, whether for the big screen or TV, go to great lengths to get costume and set dressing correct. Why can’t they pay the same attention to the language their characters use?


  1. Oh you railway station!
    Oh you Pullman Train!
    There’s my reservation
    For my destination,
    Far beyond the western plains

    from Pasadena (sung by Al Jolson, sometime before 1950)

    Probably because of the scansion too.

  2. ‘I know he wrote it in Britain (actual location disputed)’

    Well Widnes has the plaque. Does that not count for anything?

  3. Alec – Yes, I know about the plaque, but in an interview in 1990, Art Garfunkel said it was a station “around Manchester”, and in a Playboy interview in 1984, Paul Simon said it was “in Liverpool”, which would probably fit fo Widnes as well. I was hedging my bets.

    John – perhaps what is most interesting is that both songs have “railway station” rather than “railroad station”. The scansion wouldn’t be affected by “railroad”, and on this side of the Atlantic we ‘all’ think that all Americans talk about the “railroad” rather than “railway”.

    By the way, even though I don’t vocalise all postvocalic /l/s, in “railway” and “railroad” I do. Does anybody not?

  4. I usu say ‘railway station’ but I suggest that, now bus station is much more common an expression than it used to be, the bus/train contrast makes the use of ‘train station’ feel much less unusual than it once was here in Britain.
    As to the vocalising of the /l/ of ‘railway’, I suspect it might be much more usual among people who, like so many Londoners etc, eg Michael Portillo, have very dark ells. Having only a slightly dark ell, I dont all that often vocalise it but I do at times and praps more often elide it altogether.

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