THE DAZZLING ice-white beams and sweeping 200m-long arch roof of Liège Guillemins station exude a confidence about the future of rail travel and the changing role major stations play in our cities. Designed by renowned architect Mr Santiago Calatrava, Guillemins' broad open frontage symbolises accessibility from the outside while making the city appear close from the inside.
Guillemins also exemplifies a broader trend in the development of major stations. The dismal, unwelcoming spaces passengers used to hurry through are increasingly being superseded by stations that are destinations in themselves, bright congenial meeting places with shops, restaurants and an ever-greater range of services. With careful planning and management, such stations can be a steady source of revenue for rail operators.

Belgium's major stations came under the spotlight in March at the third Next Station conference, which was hosted in Brussels by the International Union of Railways and SNCB Holding. Deep in the Square Brussels Meeting Centre, architectural models reflected the company's grand plans for stations such as Mons, Ghent, and Mechelen. "Architecture needs to be cutting-edge - the station has to be a nice place to visit, this is important commercially and from a security point of view," explains SNCB Holding CEO Mr Jannie Haek. "The potential of our city centre locations is enormous but we need more professionalism and partnerships to achieve a better balance between station costs and profits."

In Liège SNCB worked closely with the municipal authorities and other stakeholders from an early stage to develop the specification for the new station, and it is replicating this approach on other station modernisation schemes.

"Good governance is vital to these projects right from the outset, not just within the railway companies but all the other parties involved," says Haek. "These are very complex projects, so we've copied the successful elements from Liège and Antwerp and applied them throughout the country. This is why our investments succeed - the authorities look at what has been done before and they can be sure we'll carry that quality into other stations."

SNCB's station management philosophy is based on three pillars. "These pillars are the product of a well-thought-out choice, and I think they are broadly relevant to most railways," says Haek. "First, today's stations are far more than places where people go to catch a train, the range of services and shops allows the customer to combine a number of useful tasks. It saves unnecessary travelling because everything is in one place. The second pillar is based on the idea that stations have become attractive, cosy places where something is always going on. Finally, the station needs to be a well-organised environment where you can catch your train and the transit to other modes is smooth and quick."

These characteristics are amply demonstrated in Liège and the equally-impressive modernisation of Antwerp Central where the opportunity has been taken during redevelopment to rethink the way rail interacts with other forms of transport. "Our strategy is clear - stations must develop as multimodal hubs," says Haek. "We each have different mobility needs so railways need to give the traveller the tools to organise his or her own personal mobility. The station can make an enormous contribution by bringing together diverse modes of transport."

Many European cities went through a long period of depopulation in central districts, a movement that has only recently begun to reverse. Haek argues that rail is a key driver of this shift in attitudes, and stations stand to benefit from it.

"It's important to create density of development around stations that attracts people to live and work in these areas," he says. "These are key factors for quality of life and sustainable mobility. It might be difficult for railways to admit, but sometimes reducing the need for mobility is clever mobility."

Around the world, city stations are genuinely witnessing a renaissance as investment and new management techniques transform once-neglected spaces into secure and attractive public buildings, diverse in their accessibility and functionality. The modern station occupies a unique commercial position between the city and its surroundings, offering myriad opportunities for new revenue streams and enhanced services.