BRITAIN’s railway stations are coming under increasing pressure. Train journeys reached a record high of 1.7 billion between April 2015 and March 2016, a staggering 60 million more than the previous year. With urban populations projected to continue rising sharply – London, for example, is expected to surpass the 10 million mark by 2030 - demand looks only set to grow.
Britain is investing heavily to boost the capacity of urban and main line networks, refurbishing or constructing a number of new stations to cope with these surging passenger numbers. London’s new east-west railway, Crossrail, involves the construction of 10 new stations and upgrading of 30 more. Meanwhile plans for HS2, Britain’s second high-speed line from London to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, are likely to result in further comprehensive station works.
Increasing capacity is one thing, but Britain’s stations are also having to adapt to meet changing passenger needs and expectations, which are dramatically different from even just a few years ago. Passengers increasingly expect their station environments to offer more than just a place to catch a train. For many communities, stations are now important social hubs. They offer a wide mix of retail and restaurant space, and are designed to reflect the identity of their local area. This is pushing the boundaries of what a modern station should look like and offer its passengers.
These pressures will be familiar to railways around the world, but the challenges in Britain are perhaps particularly acute. Its population density compared with other European nations, for example, makes it especially difficult to source sites for new stations, while the historic nature of its network means upgrade works are not always straightforward. Despite this, there are examples of true best practice in Britain. For other railways seeking insights into how to deliver and manage successful stations, Britain’s example provides a useful starting place.
Station designers have seized Britain’s station renewal programme as a unique chance to rethink modern station design. The new Crossrail station at Canary Wharf in London, for example, is a striking glass structure topped by a 310m-long lattice roof, which appears to float by the quayside. Looking beyond the capital, early design concepts for the new Cambridge North station depict a dramatic angular building, clad in a sparkling glass facade.
These impressive structures reflect the resurgence of stations as focal points for local communities, delivering crucial economic and social benefits for their surrounding areas. For many local residents and businesses they are easily recognisable barometers for an area’s transformation, and station designs need to reflect these feelings of civic pride.
However, for others looking to imitate Britain’s approach, there are a number of caveats that need to be kept in mind. For one, the lifetime costs of these architecturally impressive buildings can quickly spiral if not carefully managed.
Adding 12m-high skylight pavilions to a station building will no doubt add to its visual appeal and help to create a light, airy environment for passengers. However, the long-term maintenance of these design elements needs to be considered from the very start of a station upgrade or construction programme. For example, it is necessary to consider how those who will be responsible for cleaning and maintaining the glass panels will access them. Will there be access via the roof or vertical lift machinery? Will special equipment be needed? How might this maintenance work disrupt passengers?
We are often brought in by our transport customers at an early stage to advise them on long-term maintenance requirements. This early engagement means the visual and practical aspect of the design can be considered in tandem, negating the risk of additional costs and challenges at a later date.
Station designers and management teams also need to bear in mind the maintenance needs and costs of different materials. At St Pancras London, the wood used for the station flooring can only be cleaned using a special oil and has to be buffed and polished every night before the station reopens to the public.
In this instance, the station is a key entry point for a huge number of visitors to the capital so there is a commercial imperative to create a visually impressive environment. However, station teams need to carefully balance aesthetic benefits against practical considerations. Where visual impact is not vital for commerce and tourism, sourcing alternative materials, which are easier to maintain, may be a more cost-effective option in the long term.
Britain’s stations are changing, as is the way in which passengers use them. Passengers want their stations to be multi-use destinations in their own right, offering a vibrant mix of shops, cafes and bars. The array of high-end retail and restaurant units at St Pancras, for example, is one of the key factors behind its reputation as one of the country’s most popular stations.
This approach is being replicated across the network. The recently renovated Birmingham New Street station boasts facilities that would rival many shopping centres, with around 60 retailers, restaurants and cafes. British customers have responded incredibly well to these new environments, while station owners have also benefitted from the additional revenue that they generate.
It is one thing to turn stations into high-end retail centres, but passengers also expect higher standards from a property and facilities management perspective, making it important to ensure the environment lives up to these expectations. The whole look and feel of a station needs to create a positive consumer experience – and that means keeping environments clean, tidy and appealing.
Station security teams also need to be able to operate efficiently in these more complex environments. Identifying threats and maintaining a line-of-sight in a crowded station is challenging enough, but with retail outlets and restaurants encouraging passengers to linger this becomes harder still. One answer is to increase the number of security employees, but with many train operators in Britain and elsewhere struggling to reconcile their budgets this is not always a viable option.
In Britain, the answer for operators has often been to draw on the resources of their supply chain partners. At the stations where we provide cleaning and maintenance services, our operatives are now trained to provide additional security support for station teams. Working closely with the operators and the British Transport Police, they are trained to deploy the ‘Hot protocol’ – a system for evaluating potential threats based on three criteria: is the item hidden, i.e, deliberately concealed from employees and the public; is the item obvious, for example in its physical appearance or placement; and finally is it typical of what one would expect to find in that environment.
Railways and their supply chain partners looking to adopt this approach will need to ensure they have rigorous training protocols in place. However, the benefits of this collaborative approach are substantial. By working together, we can ensure that passengers stay safe without any significant additional expenditure.
There is no one right answer to station design and management. Railways around the world will no doubt have their own concerns and considerations which need to be factored into their approach. However, there is much that others can learn from Britain’s example. Faced with a dramatic surge in passenger numbers and a radically different set of customer drivers, the industry has redefined what a modern station should be.
However, it is one thing to create these new awe-inspiring stations. They also need to be carefully managed to ensure that the customer experience remains the best that it can be – whether that means thinking about the functional needs of a station environment from the start or working with partners to keep passengers safe. By balancing ambitious station design with a practical approach, operators can have the best of both worlds: creating visually stunning, vibrant environments that draw in customers while ensuring that they remain cost-effective and profitable in the long term.