Wouldn't it be glorious if London could have a rail terminus to rival New York's Grand Central?
In all honesty, most passengers would settle for a pleasant concourse and platforms with some shelter from winter winds. But it would be nice to think that the Strategic Rail Authority could create a generation of architectural wonders to rival those of our Victorian forebears (pages 26-27). At least Will Alsop's appointment to refurbish Birmingham's ghastly New Street shows that the SRA and Network Rail are thinking along the right lines.

However, anyone who has followed rail's recent history will be wary of grand predictions. As the SRA's Jim Steer admits, the prevailing attitude has been "keep it cheap" – that is, deny that the buildings have any civic identity. Not the kind of attitude to get CABE commissioners purring.

But a bad station is better than no station, and more often than not, rail work suffers the same delays and cancellations as the trains. Think West Coast Main Line, think Thameslink 2000, think the "£60bn" of rail investment forecast in Labour's 10-year transport plan. Steer might be excited about the Underground's East London Line, and Ken Livingstone might drool over CrossRail (pages 30-31). But how long have they been on the drawing board?

Equally, it seems odd to be overhauling stations when the track is in such a wretched state.

Steer points out that better facilities will be needed to cope with an anticipated 30% growth in passenger numbers by 2010, but it will be a nonsense if trains sweep away from an Alsop station, only to shudder to a halt 30 seconds later because of British Rail points. And will passenger numbers really rise? If not, it won't just be because – as one psychologist claimed this week – youngsters are traumatised by the crashes they witness on Thomas The Tank Engine.

Anyone hoping to contribute to a new golden age of station-building would be well advised to stay abreast of the unfolding drama over maintenance contracts. Network Rail wants to cut contractors' margins, partly to reduce its £1.5bn debt, and partly because it suspects contractors are having a party at its expense. Will its attitude to builders be any different? At the same time, Network Rail's own competence as a client is in question. It's only 12 months since it was disclosed that Railtrack spent £225m on consultants in a year. The name's changed, but have the practices?

What has improved is the quality of senior management. John Armitt, shortlisted this week for our construction personality award (see news), is proving an astute and no-nonsense chief executive of Network Rail – witness his decision to find out what his contractors are up to by taking over Amey's £50m maintenance contract. The SRA's Steer also talks sense. But they're up against Railtrack's legacy of terminal confusion. They must be clear about what projects are going ahead when, and on what basis. For example, Steer will use property deals to fund the redevelopment of stations such as Reading, and architectural competitions to find inspirational designs. Fine: property millions helped rebuild Charing Cross in the 1980s, and, more recently, Paddington and Liverpool Street. But now the commercial market is foundering, architects cannot justify investing in a competition until funding is in place. In the meantime, they – like the passengers – would be advised to keep an eye on the departure boards and listen for announcements.