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Infrastructure in 2014: Stations offer a new branch of business

Rail travel is set to be transformed over the decade - a transformation that applies just as much to the stations as it does to the network.

The next 12 months are crucial in setting the agenda for rail travel in the UK for the foreseeable future. Not only will 2014 see the start of the parliamentary process for the ambitious High Speed 2 line between London and Birmingham, but it will also herald the next five year investment period for Network Rail.

In October the Office of the Rail Regulator published its final determination for the period from 2014 to 2019, telling Network Rail that it can spend £38.3bn over that five year period. It is slightly less than the operator asked for, but industry experts believe it is a reasonable deal.

“I think that is a good result,” says Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) client manager for transport infrastructure Simon Collins. “Network Rail made a good case for continuing investment in rail based in part on the ongoing growth in ridership. Journeys are at record levels and are predicted to continue growing, with another 400M journeys anticipated by 2020.”

Network Rail is currently considering the regulator’s final determination, and has until 7 February to decide if it can achieve everything it has planned within this slightly reduced budget. That plan contains significant upgrades of major routes, including the electrification of the Great Western route between London and South Wales, electrification of the Midland Main Line and important network upgrades such as Northern Hub.

While much of the emphasis in the rail sector is on the tracks themselves, Collins says it is important not to forget the significance of the stations on the network and their potential role in urban regeneration.

Network Rail manages just 18 of Britain’s 2,500 rail stations, but has a £150M programme to fund the improvements of smaller stations managed by franchised operators such as local authorities, train operating companies and local and regional transport authorities.

The main driver for station improvements is to make sure they can cope with the anticipated increase in passengers, but other issues are also contributing to a reappraisal of station development, according to Collins. “Clearly stations are crucial as a means of accessing the network,” he says. “There is pressure on stations in terms of capacity, so the key driver for developing stations is capacity upgrade. But there are other drivers like revenue protection, compliance - for example with disability access regulations, accessibility, aesthetics, security and safety.”

“Something that’s gained momentum over the past 15 to 20 years is that stations are increasingly being integrated into the urban environment”

Simon Collins, SKM

Increasingly, stations are also being looked at in terms of their commercial potential, and also for the role they can play in developing hubs.

“Something that’s gained momentum over the past 15 to 20 years is that stations are increasingly being integrated into the urban environment,” Collins explains. “A lot of different things - like government pressure, environmental and planning issues, and changes in people’s way of life and habits - are all coming together to make the 1960s or 1970s idea of a railway station very archaic.”

His colleague, SKM technical director Nick Ling, adds: “We see stations not as something that’s tagged on to the railway, but something that crosses over from the transport side to the planning side. The design of the station should include masterplanning, demand, forecasting and economic modelling.”

Ling thinks we may be seeing a resurgence of the 19th century approach to rail travel and station building. “In those days it was quite an experience to go on a railway, but perhaps that got lost somewhere through the 20th century, and the rail station became a bit of a backwater and less important as part of the urban fabric of a town,” he says.

SKM head of urban design Martina Juvara agrees. “Fifteen years ago the idea of designing stations as pieces of the city was not common currency - it was all about the technology, and the servicing of the station and the car park next to it,” she says, citing a job the firm was involved in a few years ago in which the brief specifically excluded looking at how people move outside the station. “We challenged and changed that because we felt there was a need to understand the way the station related to the area around it.” That change led to the inclusion of a public square and shops in the station upgrade.

Collins says London’s St Pancras station embodies both the 19th century attitude to rail travel and the new approach that sees stations offering a wider range of facilities and being much more exciting and inviting places. “That is partly because it is an international station,” he says, “but the design thinking behind it is spilling over into much more moderate sized stations.”

He cites the example of the new station currently being built in Northampton, a development being undertaken jointly by Network Rail and West Northamptonshire Development Corporation, with Buckingham Group as the contractor and SKM as designer. The new station will be twice the size of the existing building, and is being championed by the town as a crucial element of its ambitious regeneration programme.

“It has all the conventional drivers - increasing capacity, meeting disability access legislation etc - but it is a whole new station that is far more integrated into the town plan of Northampton,” Collins explains. “What started at St Pancras is now being seen on a smaller scale.”

Juvara believes things have moved on even since the redevelopment of St Pancras, which she says is “inward looking” in that you have to go into the station to experience its attractions. “I think the station of the future will be outward - it will be difficult to tell where the station stops and the city starts,” she says.

Integrating stations more directly with city or town centres will inevitably involve cooperation between the predominantly public bodies that own and operate the stations and private investors and developers interested in the commercial opportunities they offer. “The mould is being broken in terms of the economics and funding of station developments, because people are recognising that stations are revenue generators,” says Collins.

“The developers and promoters of stations can tap into that,” he adds, citing the example of London’s new Crossrail link. “The business case for Crossrail was very much about the wider economic benefits, and that’s certainly relevant for larger and more important stations, where there is some innovative thinking in terms of harnessing the commercialisation of the station environment. That can provide funding for the complete station rebuild.”

“I think the station of the future will be outward - it will be difficult to tell where the station stops and the city starts”

Martina Juvara, SKM

Developments in technology are also set to significantly change the way stations are used, from automation of ticket sales to driverless cars. Just this month London mayor Boris Johnson announced that all ticket offices at London Underground stations will close in the next two years, thanks in part to the success of the Oyster card automatic payment systems and developments in contactless payment technology. Similar technologies are also being introduced on mainline services. All these changes have a significant impact on the way stations are designed and laid out.

SKM believes driverless cars - predicted to be operational in the UK in around 10 or 15 years’ time - will also affect station development. If a commuter arrives at the station in a driverless car, they can simply send it home when they arrive, so there will be no need for car parking provision at commuter stations as there is now.

Collins admits that some of these developments are some way off yet, but says: “We are on a journey, and the trends will continue - we will see more retail, more integration and more technology.”


Readers' comments (1)

  • In fact part of the reason stations lost their identities is precisely because the public no longer had any idea where the station front door was. St Pancras is successful as a piece of place-making because it is under a weather protected roof and the entrances and high quality station public realm are super important. We shouldn't lose focus of this in our haste to blur boundaries between town and concourse or crowd our station entrances with retail.

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