ENSURING passenger satisfaction should be a primary objective for railway operators. That is why Network Rail (NR) has put the needs of passengers, staff and pedestrians at the heart of the planning process for the London Bridge station redevelopment which will see an increase in capacity from 50 million to 90 million passengers when it is finished in 2018.
London Bridge is already Britain's fourth busiest station, and also one of the most complex as the interchange hub for Thameslink, mainline services to southeast England, London Underground, buses, taxis, bicycles, river-taxis and local pedestrians. The new design provides more space for passengers through a new concourse at street level and a reconfigured track with nine through and six terminating platforms.
To accommodate this growth, NR is adopting a wayfinding strategy ahead of the detailed station design. NR hopes that this will help minimise bottlenecks and overcrowding, particularly during high peak passenger flows and unexpected disruptions. The objective is to achieve an effective wayfinding system which will help create a positive experience for railway passengers at the first and last point of contact with the railway. This will reduce stress for inexperienced passengers who fear the unknown, experienced commuters who worry about delays, or international travellers who have to cope with a different culture, a foreign language and an unfamiliar environment.
To be clear, wayfinding encompasses far more than signage which is usually considered as a design exercise towards the end of the process. It is in fact the process by which a navigation strategy evolves from identifying how people will pass through and interact with an environment. While the station building might be designed with people in mind, support is required to help people find their way.
The three key components of wayfinding are: orientation, direction giving, and decision making. Passengers need to make sense of the station space as they enter it and then be given the information they need as they pass through. This is a particular challenge in spaces that have evolved over time or have complex layouts. Even when London Bridge is finished it will remain a complicated space with one new main concourse, plus the original concourse at the base of The Shard - currently Europe's tallest building - for terminating trains. The re-engineering of the space means that for the first time passengers will have direct access to all platforms from a main central concourse.
By creating the wayfinding strategy early in the development, NR aims to achieve a number of benefits :
• getting it right first time to avoid retrofitting which is often a messy solution that could ruin the architecture and result in poor wayfinding
• cost saving - early consideration should result in fewer signs, and
• an integrated solution with ground rules for all elements of a station - whether at the platforms, concourse, or retail areas.
There are some major wayfinding challenges at the new London Bridge station. The main concourse is at a different level from the platforms, while the station has multiple entrances, a separate concourse for terminating platforms and a layout that puts columns and supporting structures in the way of sight lines. At such a complex hub, it is important to establish passenger orientation from the outset, and then to maintain this as they pass through different areas of the station.
To overcome the challenges, research is being undertaken by CCD, NR's Ergonomics team, architects Grimshaw and designers Maynard about passengers, their behaviour and journey needs. These studies demonstrate how passengers will interact with the architecture and spaces within the station; for example, what information they might need to reach the Underground network from a train arriving from Gatwick Airport.
The data has subsequently been used to map all the decision points throughout the station enabling the team to define passenger information requirements and information hierarchy at each point. The aim is to provide passengers, whether regular commuters, infrequent rail users or passengers with reduced mobility, with the smoothest and easiest guided route from point to point.
One of the main features of the new station will be the new, larger central concourse which will change the appearance and dynamics of the station. The original arches are being removed, with the tracks now being supported by structural pillars, and the space will also contain lifts and escalators to take passengers to and from the platforms. While these do obstruct sight lines, they are also noticeable elements of the concourse, so will become part of the wayfinding helping to guide passengers through the space.
The complexity of the station layout has also led CCD to consider how best to build passengers' visual awareness and to understand where they are within the station. Throughout the station the aim is that at key nodes such as junctions or changes in level, wayfinding should help the passenger make the right decision at the right time and with confidence. By taking this approach, passenger confidence can be increased, and they are better able to move to where they need to get to - whether that's a platform, or out to the local streets. Another element is the concept of 'concise signs' which give passengers the information they need at any particular point, rather than their final destination. For example, to avoid having passengers dwell on a platform on arrival, they will be guided off the platform to a more open area where they can be provided with the information they need to the next point in their journey.
The aim is to make the wayfinding system unobtrusive - interchanges will be intuitive, improving passenger flow through the station without the need to make conscious decisions. For example, it should be simple for someone to enter the station from Tooley Street, look at the customer information system to find the next train to Bedford, buy a ticket, then a coffee, before passing through the ticket barriers to reach the correct platform.
The wayfinding system at London Bridge, conceived at the outset of the station planning process and which places the needs of the station users at its core, will be a substantial leap forward for the railway industry.
The station architecture, wayfinding system and needs of the travelling public are being integrated as never before. The irony is that if it works as well as expected, few of the passengers, wherever they are coming from or going to, will even notice it. Importantly it forms part of the industry's strategy to look at passengers' entire journey as a way of gauging customer satisfaction.