A station usually consists of at least one building for passengers (and possibly freight) plus other installations associated with the functioning of the railway or railroad. A small station with few facilities and/or limited use may be known as a "halt" in UK usage, or in US usage a "stop". In the United States, a station is technically distinguished from a depot in that a station is a designated stop, with or without a depot.
Early stations were sometimes built with both passenger and goods facilities; though a number of railway lines were goods only or passenger only, and if a line was dual purpose, there would often be a goods depot apart from the passenger station. Dual purpose stations can sometimes still be found today, though in many cases goods facilities are restricted to major stations. Stations are sited either adjacent to a railway line, or at the end of one (in which case they are said to form the terminus of the line). Usually raised platforms are present to allow passengers to access trains easily and safely. Platforms may be connected by subways, footbridges, or level crossings; passenger facilities such as shelter, ticket sales and benches can be found on the platforms or (at larger stations, where buildings exist) in the station's public buildings.
As well as providing services for passengers and loading facilities for goods, stations often had locomotive and rolling stock depots (which usually had facilities for storing and refuelling locomotives and rolling stock and carrying out minor repair jobs). In North America, a railway station that is jointly used by several rail transport companies is sometimes called a union station, or an interchange station. Stations co-located with other transport systems such as trams and buses may also be referred to as interchanges, as may stations offering both metro/subway and heavy-rail services.
The first stations had little in the way of buildings or amenities. The first stations in the modern sense were on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened in 1830. As of 2008, Manchester's Liverpool Road Station is preserved as part of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. It resembles a row of Georgian houses.
In rural and remote communities across Canada and the United States passengers wanting to board the train had to flag the train down in order for it to stop. Such stations were known as "Flag stops" or "Flag stations".
Many stations date from the 19th century and reflect the grand scale architecture of the time, lending prestige to the city as well as to railway operations. Countries where railways arrived later may still have such architecture, as later stations often imitated 19th century styles.
Various forms of architecture have been used in the construction of railway stations, from those boasting grand and intricate almost Baroque or Gothic-style edifices, to plainer utilitarian or modern styles. Stations in Europe followed British designs, and were in some countries, like Italy, financed by English railway companies.
Stations built more recently often have a similar feel to airports, with a simple abstract style. Examples of modern stations include those on newer high-speed rail networks, such as the Shinkansen in Japan, TGV lines in France, Berlin's new Hauptbahnhof station, or ICE lines in Germany.
A terminus (or terminal, in North American parlance) is a station at which, since it lies at the very end of a line of railway, all arriving trains must perforce terminate their journeys, and from which they can consequently depart only following a reversal. The principal advantage of such an arrangement is that it permits travellers to reach all of the platforms without the need to cross any tracks – all of the main reception facilities and the public entrance to the station being accommodated at the far inbound end of the platforms. In a few cases, however, stations situated at the end of lines (and thus termini as far as the transport of passengers is concerned) are operationally through stations – "terminating" trains proceeding empty following arrival to a point beyond the station at which they reverse direction prior to returning to pick up departing passengers.
A terminus is frequently, but not always, the final destination of all trains arriving at the station. Where, however, the terminus is an intermediate point on a train's itinerary, arrangements must be made to allow the train to leave in the reverse direction from that of its arrival. There are several ways in which this can be accomplished:
The largest and most famous rail terminus in the United States is Grand Central Terminal in New York City, USA. Often major cities, such as London, Boston, Paris, Tokyo, or Milan will have one or more termini, rather than routes straight through the city. Train journeys through such cities often require alternative transport (metro, bus or taxi) from one terminus to the other. Some cities, including New York, have both situations. Chicago has four major rail terminals presently in service, of which only one provides Amtrak intercity service (see Rail stations of Chicago).
Terminals that have competing rail lines using the station frequently set up a jointly owned terminal railroad to own and operate the station and its associated tracks, switching operations.
Railway stations usually include either ticket booths, or ticket machines. Ticket sales may also be combined with customer service desks or convenience stores. Many stations include some form of convenience store. Larger stations usually have fast-food or restaurant facilities. In some countries, such stations also have a bar, or pub. Other station facilities include: toilets, left-luggage, lost-and-found, departures and arrivals boards, luggage carts, waiting rooms, taxi ranks and bus bays. Larger or manned stations tend to have a greater range of facilities. A most basic station might only have platforms, though it would still be distinguished from a halt, a stopping or halting place that may not even have platforms. In many African and South American countries, stations are used as a place for public markets and other informal business. This is especially true on tourist routes or stations near tourist destinations as souvenirs can be made and sold to "wealthy" visitors to the county.
In addition to the basic configuration of a railway station, various features set certain types of station apart. The first is the level of the tracks. Stations are often sited where a road crosses the railway: unless the crossing is a level crossing, the road and railway will be at different levels. The platforms will often be raised or lowered relative to the station entrance: the station buildings may be on either level, or both. The other arrangement, where the station entrance and platforms are on the same level, is also common, but is perhaps rarer in urban areas, except when the station is a terminus. Elevated stations are more common, not including metro stations. Stations located at level crossings can be problematic if the train blocks the roadway while it stops, causing drivers to wait for an extended period of time.
An unusual configuration is where the station serves railway lines at differing levels. This may be due to the station's situation at a point where two lines cross (example: Berlin Hauptbahnhof), or may be to provide separate station capacity for two types of service, e.g. intercity and suburban (example: Paris Gare de Lyon or Philadelphia's 30th Street Station), or simply two different destinations.
Stations may also be classified on the layout of the platforms. Apart from single-track lines, the most basic arrangement is a pair of railway tracks for the two directions; but even there there is a basic choice of an island platform between, or two separate platforms outside, the tracks. With more tracks, the possibilities expand.
Some stations have unusual platform layouts, due to space constraints of the station location, or the alignment of the railway lines. Examples include staggered platforms, such as Tutbury and Hatton railway station on the Derby - Crewe line, and curved platforms, such as Cheadle Hulme railway station on the Macclesfield to Manchester Line. Triangular stations also exist where two lines form a three-way junction and platforms are built on all three sides.
During a journey, the term station stop may be used in announcements, to differentiate a halt during which passengers may alight, from a halt for another reason, such as a locomotive change.
While a junction or interlocking usually divides two or more railway lines or routes, and thus has remotely or locally operated signals, a station stop does not. A station stop usually does not have any other tracks than the main tracks, and no switches, although many exceptions exist where a station stop is within interlocking limits.
In the United Kingdom most, if still in existence, have had the word halt removed from their title in recent years. Historically, in many instances the spelling 'halte' was used, before the modern spelling became commonplace.
Where the description is still used (verbally, if not actually on the station signs) it is usually a station served by public services but not available for use by the general public, being accessible only by persons travelling to/from an associated factory (e.g. IBM Halt), military base (e.g. Lympstone Commando) or railway yard.