THE transformation of major stations that were often little more than down-at-heel, uninviting points of arrival and departure into profit centres has been one of the defining railway trends of the last 20 years. Today many of these stations are destinations in themselves and attractive spaces in which to linger.

But there is much more to this renaissance than simply refurbishing neglected stations and expanding retail space. In a survey of 5000 people by French National Railways' (SNCF) Stations & Connections subsidiary, respondents stated explicitly that they regard stations as public spaces, mixed-use sites where retail must be balanced with other services. "French people don't want their stations to be commercial malls, they want to find a good range of efficient services that mean they can use their time more effectively," explains Stations & Connections CEO Mrs Sophie Boissard.
In 2010 Stations & Connections began testing a range of new service concepts in Paris stations with the aim of eventually rolling them out to other stations on the network. These included parcel collection points for internet purchases at Montparnasse and Gare de l'Est, everyday services such as hairdressers and pharmacies, and a business centre at Gare de Lyon, where rooms can be hired for meetings. Stations & Connections has invited medical professionals to set up surgeries in stations, while Dreux station now hosts the town's job centre. Roanne station is piloting a day-care centre, where priority is given to the children of rail users.

Investment priorities at stations are determined under a set of five parameters, including comfort, security, services and retail, intermodality, and information. "We try to design the level of service for each station, based on the level of traffic," says Boissard. "This means that if you want to provide shops and services, you have to find an economic business model that fits the level of usage."

Stations & Connections is looking to enhance retail in medium-sized stations with a new concept based on SNCF research on passenger expectations. This involves the creation of a single space, open to the main hall of the station that brings together cafes, newsagents, and convenience stores. This will be applied at up to 80 stations, and various private businesses are involved in developing the concept.

Another key focus for Stations & Connections is enhancing the modal interface with the aim of making rail a more attractive choice for travellers through initiatives such as integrating passenger information.

"Regional authorities have invested heavily in public transport, so we must ensure these systems are properly linked into the rail network," says Boissard. "As station landlords we have the opportunity to harmonise public transport services."

An example of this can be found in Lyon, where real-time information about SNCF services is available on the Rhônexpress tram-train line, and vice-versa. "It took us six months of negotiation to get to this, but now we can tell other cities we have already done it," Boissard says. "Technology might make this sort of thing easier to achieve in future, and as the station manager we are the technological authority and we are there to help all the sides find common ground."

Multimodality is also influencing station improvement projects. "We have worked hard to establish how exactly people behave in stations and used this research to inform station design," Boissard explains. "This means we now dedicate different areas of the station to different modes. For example at Paris Est we have moved cars underground so the platform level is dedicated to walking and cycling."

Clear signage is key to this zonal strategy, and SNCF is trialling a colour-coded system for refurbished stations, with blue signs for trains, green for other modes, and yellow for services.

Boissard also sees opportunities for cultural events that can enhance the perception of the station as a public space. Photographic exhibitions have been successful in attracting corporate sponsors, and companies involved in the construction of the recently-opened Rhin-Rhône high-speed line have sponsored art installations at two new stations, which will be on display for one year and aim to reflect the culture and landscape of the region.

"People want stations to be living places that reflect something of the culture of their surroundings, and that is exactly what we aim to provide," says Boissard.