It is the busiest railway station in the United Kingdom outside London. According to Network Rail, over 34 million people depart from, or arrive at, Glasgow Central each year. Glasgow Central serves all of the Greater Glasgow conurbation's southern towns and suburbs, the Ayrshire and Clyde coasts, as well as being the terminus for all inter-city services from Glasgow to destinations south of the border.
The original station, opened on 1 August 1879 on the north bank of the River Clyde, had eight platforms and was linked to Bridge Street station by a railway bridge over Argyle Street and a four-track railway bridge, built by Sir William Arrol, which crossed the Clyde to the south.
The station was soon found to be too congested. In 1890, a temporary solution of widening the bridge over Argyle Street and inserting a ninth platform on Argyle Street bridge was completed. It was also initially intended to increase Bridge Street station to eight through lines and to increase Central Station to 15 platforms.
The low-level platforms, in what was originally a separate station, were added to serve the underground Glasgow Central Railway, which was authorised on 10 August 1888 and opened on 10 August 1896. The Glasgow Central Railway was taken over by the Caledonian Railway in 1890. Services ran from Maryhill Central and from the Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire Railway in the west through to Rutherglen and via Tollcross through to Carmyle, Newton and other Caledonian Railway destinations to the east of Glasgow.
By 1900 the station was again found to be too small: passenger numbers per annum on the high level station having increased by 5.156 million since the first extension was completed in 1890. The 1899 passenger usage per annum being 16.841 million on the high level station and 6.416 million on the low level station, a total of 23.257 million. The station is on two levels: the High Level station at the same level as Gordon Street, which bridges over Argyle Street; and the underground Low Level station.
Between 1901 and 1905 the original station was rebuilt. The station was extended over the top of Argyle Street and thirteen platforms were built. An additional eight-track bridge was built over the Clyde, and the original bridge was raised by 30 inches (0.75 m). Bridge Street station was then closed.
The High Level station now has 14 platforms covered by a large steel ridge/furrow roof. These platforms are numbered 1–11, 11a and 12–13. Platform 11a was created during the 1901–1905 rebuild but was not originally for passenger use—it was known as the Fish, Fruit and Milk platform.
Central Station has a spacious concourse containing a variety of shops, catering outlets, ticket offices and a travel centre. The station is fronted by the Central Hotel on Gordon Street, designed by Robert Rowand Anderson. The world's first long-distance television pictures were transmitted to the Central Hotel in the station, on 24 May 1927 by John Logie Baird. The station building also houses a long line of shops and bars down the Union Street side. The undercroft of the station is not open to the general public - housing private car parking and utility functions for both the station itself and the adjoining Central Hotel.
The station's famous architectural features are the large glass-walled bridge that takes the station building over Argyle Street, nicknamed as the "Heilanman's (or Hellaman's) Umbrella" by locals because it was used as a gathering place for visiting Highlanders; and the former ticket offices / platform and train-destination information building. This was a large oval building, with the booking office on the ground floor and the train information display for passengers on large printed cloth destination boards placed behind large windows on the first floor by a team of two men. Underneath the "Umbrella" is a bustling array of shops and bars, as well as the "Arches" nightclub, theatre, gallery and restaurant complex.
The original 1889 signal box was replaced with an electro-pneumatic power-operated signal box based on the Westinghouse system. Work started in October 1907 and it opened on 5 April 1908. It was built directly over the River Clyde, sitting suspended between the two river bridges, well above the level of the tracks. Inside was a frame of 374 miniature levers, making it the longest power frame ever built in Great Britain.
The present Glasgow Central Signalling Centre, located in the "vee" of Bridge Street Junction, opened on 2 January 1961. It replaced signal boxes at Central Station, Bridge Street Junction, Eglinton Street Junction and Eglinton Street Station. When initially opened it was capable of handling 1,000 routes.
The new signalling centre was needed for three reasons:
Plans are in hand to install new signalling at Glasgow Central, which is to be controlled from a new signalling centre at Cowlairs.
Overhead power lines began to appear on the high-level platforms by the mid-1960s. Firstly, 6.25 kV AC Overhead power lines from the Cathcart Circle Line electrification scheme, which started on 29 May 1962. During this period, the old 1879 bridge over the River Clyde was removed and the railway lines were rearranged.
This was followed by the 25 kV AC overhead-power-lines electrification of the Glasgow and Paisley Joint Railway and the Inverclyde Line to Gourock and Wemyss Bay, completed in 1967; and the WCML northern electrification scheme in 1974. Part of the Cathcart Circle was upgraded to 25 kV AC supply in 1974, to provide a diversionary route; the whole of the Cathcart Circle route was later upgraded to that supply.
Plans exist to electrify other routes, such as the Whifflet Line, as part of a scheme to improve rail services in Scotland.
Services through the Low Level station were withdrawn on 3 October 1964, said to be due to competition with the tram. However, the trams had been withdrawn by 1962, so this may be a contradiction of the "Beeching Axe".
In 1979 part of the low level line was electrified and the Low Level station was re-opened as the Argyle Line of the Glasgow suburban railway network. It consists of a single island platform, numbered as platforms 14 & 15.
Initially services were provided by Class 303 and Class 314 units. The latter units were built specifically for this service. Following the withdrawal of the Class 303 units, the service is, as of 2007, provided by Class 318 and Class 334 "Juniper" units.
Class 320 units were intended to be used on the route, but the narrow tunnels made this proposal impossible, and these units are restricted to the North Clyde Line.
Over the Christmas festive period of 1994, on 11 December, torrential rain caused the River Kelvin to burst its banks at the closed Kelvinbridge station, with the water making its way through the disused tunnels to Exhibition Centre and the Low Level station, which was completely submerged by the resultant flash flood. It was closed for many months while repairs were made.
In August 2002, torrential rain flooded out the low-level stations from Dalmarnock through to Exhibition Centre for a number of weeks. Most services were routed to the High Level platforms, or to Queen Street station. Incidentally, the 2002 Glasgow floods had a number of other effects, infamously causing a cryptospiridium outbreak in Glasgow's water supply.
The high-level station's facilities were substantially redeveloped in the mid 1980s. The old ticket office / train information building was replaced by an all-new Travel Centre in 1985 adjacent to the Gordon Street entrance, and by 1986 a massive electro-mechanical destination board at the end of the platforms, with a smaller repeater board at the western side of the concourse, had replaced the archaic manually operated train-information boards. The old booking office / train information building was retained and redeveloped into shops, eateries and an upstairs bar/restaurant, and the station was re-floored in marble.
In 1998, a five-year renovation programme was initiated by Railtrack, which saw the station completely re-roofed and internally refurbished. The 1980s vintage mechanical destination boards were replaced with modern LED-style information signage. The final improvement, the upgrading of the upstairs restaurant area, was completed in 2005.
Five train-operating companies operate trains to and from this station: