Railway stations could be set for a renaissance thanks to their recognised role in making cities more attractive places to work and live. But only if the engineering and design is right.
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Phrases like “human-centred” and “people-centred” design have crept into use seemingly to remind civil engineers what the profession’s core objectives are. And in station design, a renewed emphasis on “wayfinding” appears to be operating on the notion that the skill of delivering coherent schemes is also in need of mastering.
The UK faces a major challenge to upgrade tired and ageing stations on its network and finding examples of recent best practice might be difficult.
“With a few isolated exceptions – which are some very big station projects – nothing much has changed [in 10 years], it’s very depressing,” says Lord Adonis, who served as Labour’s last transport secretary from 2009 to 2010 and who in 2017 was chair of the National Infrastructure Commission. “Our stations haven’t improved; they’ve got notably worse. We’ve had a few good big projects. But there are just as many continuing disaster areas as there are successes.”
Nothing looks set to change until the structure behind how our stations projects are delivered changes, he adds. “The development of stations as social and retail centres shouldn’t be the responsibility of Network Rail, they should be given to a freestanding organisation.”
The reasons why are evident in recent major station projects, he suggests. The successful revival of St Pancras station in London alongside the arrival of Eurostar trains is now iconic. The impressive overhaul – helped by the follow-on project by Network Rail to the adjacent and connected King’s Cross station around the London 2012 Olympics – has completely gentrified a large swathe of central London.
Birmingham’s New Street station, meanwhile, has reconnected two divided parts of the city following a vast overhaul.
Network Rail learned from St Pancras – developed by London & Continental Railways – that potential recompense for station upgrades via enhanced retail was key to reviving King’s Cross, New Street and other unloved stations on its network.
But arguably what it did perhaps not learn so well is how to marry the new shopping and socialising spaces with their primary function.
“A prime offender is St Pancras, which is brilliant as a social space but terrible as a transport interchange,” says Adonis, citing the depressing reality familiar to all who use it that prior to redevelopment the interchange at what was King’s Cross St Pancras between Thameslink and the Victoria line took “10 minutes less than it often takes now”.
Our stations haven’t improved, they’ve got notably worse
There are too few great modern examples of UK stations working well as interchanges. Adonis asserts that you have to go back 50 years to when the Victoria line came into being to find a truly integrated and well thought out rail system. It simply put users at its heart by placing likely platform changes just a few steps away via cross passages.
Now the penchant is more for vast cavernous station boxes that may have had engineers thinking that they are future proof for likely passenger growths but which have arguably forgotten today’s users’ needs.
Crossrail, when it finally opens, looks set to be a repeat offender for sending users along great underground walks to get to where they are going
And once above ground, there is still much to be done to integrate with other transport modes such as bus and bicycles.
Bike hire must improve
While the flexible bike hire schemes across London encourage greater uptake of public transport, it is notable that no major station in the capital has an on-site station for them. Waterloo comes the closest but long queues and poor planning means few can rely on depositing or collecting bikes without major delays.
The imperfections in the transport network are being cleverly worked around and solved not by engineers so much as private app developers.
A quick glance around the app stores and transport users can find out the best combination of transport modes and live issue reporting with the likes of Citymapper; and while Transport for London, Network Rail and Crossrail upgrade and build London stations with 15 minute walkway interchanges, apps are springing up helping users to avoid them with alternative “wayfinding” options that more often than not instruct users to ignore signage for routes the station designers and managers wish users to take.
Considering these points, and more, is a project team gathering together right now to tackle the upgrade and redevelopment of perhaps one of, if not the, most difficult stations on the entire network – Clapham Junction in south London. The fourth largest station in the UK is also Britain’s busiest interchange. It has witnessed 60% passenger growth in 10 years and is one of the most unpleasant places to negotiate as a passenger. All platforms are accessed via dingy tunnels beneath the tracks or narrow and unyielding overbridges. The station is also a great offender in dividing swathes of the local community.
The challenge will be bringing the right people forward to deliver new stations and upgrades more effectively
A team comprising consultant Mott MacDonald, contractor Laing O’Rourke and architect Hawkins Brown recently unveiled its vision for a major regeneration of the whole area with an upgraded station at its heart.
And, while some work needs to be done to straighten and make the tracks coherent with the station, the project is not hugely civils oriented. “We’re not seeking to carry out any massive civil engineering changes to the rail lines,” says Hawkins Brown partner Roger Hawkins.
What is included is a deck which will cost approximately £450M and a plan to create a vast 14,000m2 concourse below the tracks. New connections to the proposed Crossrail 2 and the desire to create major residential developments are all incentives to find a workable upgrade.
Green walkways, improved air quality and reconnecting split areas are all priorities for the team.
For Adonis, this approach, which is developer-led, is a good way forward in general – taking responsibility for idea generation away from the rail infrastructure owners and operators in the first instance.
But there remains work to do to ensure the wider benefits of station upgrades at places like Clapham Junction are really felt.
“We haven’t got any systematic plan for upgrading our stations,” Adonis warns. “We still have a big problem that it’s no one’s prime responsibility.”