As the third Future of Sustainable Design conference draws closer, Mike Goggin considers the contribution that station design can make to the UK.

Stations are gateways to cities. It’s no wonder then that cities, and even countries, around the world take great pride in designing their stations – they are a grand way of making a statement about the ambition, success and importance of the cities and communities they serve. The recent completion of the Kings Cross western concourse and the earlier St Pancras redevelopment are helping to re-launch a new future for the Euston Road area. Whilst the rejuvenation of Manchester Piccadilly and Sheffield stations have helped to bring life to otherwise relatively depressed areas. However, at its heart, the function of every station is to contribute to the overall success of the railway – operationally and financially – and there are several ways that the modern station can achieve this.

The station represents a key point in the passenger’s journey experience, a key interface between rolling stock and infrastructure and, ultimately, the point of interchange between transport modes. The role of good design is to facilitate the station’s functional performance in the multiple contributions that a station can make. At the Future of Station Design conference (FOSD), we will seek to explore how sustainable design can contribute to the railway and the communities they serve through considering a station as a hub – a focus of commercially and operational activity centred around the passenger experience but one with the potential to impact on the local community.

As a tremendous renewal of the UK’s rolling stock has been taking place – including air conditioned trains, real-time passenger information, at-seat catering and WiFi on board trains – and passengers have rightly come to expect consistently high levels of comfort and cleanliness on their train journeys. How then has the passenger expectation and experience of stations evolved?

Passengers’ expectations are shaped by their exposure to other environments and experiences. The quality of their local coffee shop, the redesign of McDonalds, the free WiFi in the hotel and the passionate service of Pret a Manger all help to shape our expectations for service and everyday experiences. “Why should I get less when I am in a railway station?” might shout the disgruntled. And the good news is that increasingly they do not.

The standard of retailing at most stations has progressed significantly – many retailers have introduced team incentives to encourage a better experience and better sales. Long gone are the days of Casey Jones cardboard burgers and most jokes about British Railways catering fall on the deaf ears of the iPod generation as a bygone era not recognised today. Most train operators have invested in customer service training with the aim of developing a service culture (though recent confidential research for an industry working group indicated that there is more that could be done to drive through the training more consistently over time and across the industry).

Good retail not only creates a better experience, it makes good sense. The experience leads to a more attractive rail offer and ultimately to more passengers and/or trips and therefore more farebox revenue. However, more than that, the retail offer is a means of supporting rail services financially. The return from many retailers helps contribute to franchise premiums or lowers the level of financial support to the franchise.

The rail network and stations also represent valuable commercial real-estate for both advertising and e-commerce via the internet. High footfall locations and a typical demography focussed on the working population provide a great opportunity that can be exploited by train companies and Network Rail to support their businesses. When I was at Network Rail, we had multiple approaches to develop new internet facilities at the Managed Stations (which already had WiFi) that demonstrated the value of accessing and obtaining the passenger market.

Beyond the discretionary consumerism of passengers, stations offer further commercial opportunities. While car parks and their charges are a bone of contention to transport planners and passengers alike, they represent a significant contributor of income to the rail system. Obviously the charges can have significant implications on the passenger demand at a specific station or for the mode overall so optimising car parking usage and income while accommodating the passengers on often-crowded trains remains the perennial challenge for operators.

Beyond the immediate financial transactions, what then is the role of good station design?

Both the Whitehall and Scottish Governments are preparing their High Level Output Specifications and related funding statement for publication by the end of July which will describe the outcomes and projects that they wish to purchase from Network Rail and the rest of the industry in the next Network Rail regulatory control period (2014-19). Both governments are linked in their objective of improving the value for money of the industry at this regulatory point and through the significant refranchising that is occurring over the next few years. Beyond the economic imperatives of the current time both Governments continue to press for the industry to continue to improve passenger satisfaction and the network’s accessibility and inclusivity for all people in our society.

Ultimately those of us involved in the design, operation and management of stations need to meet those challenges and respond to some key questions:

  • How do we cost effectively evolve the 2,500+ stations to improve their accessibility and inclusivity?
  • How do we continue to develop stations as hubs of economic and social activity that provide additional income to the railway?
  • How do we develop and exploit the virtual station estate though harnessing information technology and the continuing trend to e-commerce?
  • How do we improve the long-term sustainability of the station estate – minimising its costs and impacts on the communities they serve?

At FOSD I hope we can explore just those questions. In my second article, in the next issue of Passenger Transport (May 4), I will consider the value and impact stations can have on the communities they serve – not just the urban landscape but the impacts on the people in the community.

About FOSD
The third FOSD conference takes place at London’s international conference centre Excel on Friday, May 25. This year the conference focusses on the theme of transport hubs and will again an interactive set of key note speeches as well as interactive panel sessions that are a signature piece of FOSD’s informal, creative and challenging environment. Speakers include transport minister Norman Baker, Stuart Wingate CEO of Gatwick Airport and David Biggs, Director Property for Network Rail.

Passenger Transport readers can claim a 10% discount on delegate fees. When calling the booking hotline (01273 204200) quote our special promo-code: FOSD.PT2012

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