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Stations for the 21st Century

13th May 2014

With station usage growing year on year, the rail industry is pushing ahead with dynamic programmes of station redevelopments and refurbishments. Part of the £37.5 billion spending plan, the biggest rail improvement program since the Victorian era, makes provisions for the replacement of 300,000 square metres of platforms as well as ambitious projects at London Bridge, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Victoria and Reading.

The Office of Rail Regulation estimates that there were 2.54 billion entries and exits at railway stations between 2012 and 2013, an increase of 82 million on the previous year. This is a huge footfall. Add to this a growth in demand for rail services of 5-6% per year and the urgency of the task of dealing with future growth emerges.

Open and accessible station design

For instance at Reading station by 2030 passenger numbers are anticipated to double to 30 million a year. The £850m redevelopment has helped create a further five platforms and facilitate extensions to the existing platforms. Another attempt to ease the bustling crowds and the expected increase in passengers is the use of open and accessible station design.

Upon approaching Reading station, you would be hard pressed to believe that it’s not an airport terminal. The work being undertaken by Network Rail and Costain truly deserves recognition. The new 30 metre wide, 110-metre long bridge is a far cry from the previous span, providing an open, spacious means of moving between platforms, complete with effective signage and information systems for optimal passenger flow.

However, station redevelopments have gone further than just easing overcrowding and improving signage. Local government and its constituents are increasingly demanding architectural wonders that their town or city can be especially proud of. With HS2 looking likely to go ahead in 2017, cities in the north plan to take full advantage. What better way to make your mark than with a railway station of international acclaim.

Waheed Nazir, director of planning and regeneration at Birmingham City council recently claimed that Birmingham would not accept the ‘boxy and basic’ station design for the Birmingham Curzon Street HS2 station that was outlined in the HS2 Phase One Environmental Statement.

The new proposals for the station, which have been designed in-house by Nazir’s design team at Birmingham City Council, are intended to deliver a station of an ‘international standard’. Nazir is hoping that the funding shortfall expected in pursuing their own revised designs can be topped up with funding from the local council and local businesses.

Birmingham New Street station itself is a project that is staking its claim to be a station of international acclaim. Gone is the dreary, brutalist exposed concrete architectural design of the old station in favour of a sleek curved exterior that mirrors the more modern aesthetic of the Birmingham city centre. London Bridge, Reading and the proposals for Glasgow Queen Street, answer passengers and local community aspirations for railway stations that will make their city competitive and desirable to potential investors.

Multi-purpose hubs

Some railway stations have also transitioned into new roles as multipurpose hubs complete with high-end retail outlets and casual and smart dining restaurants. These stations offer passengers more than just a journey; opening up multiple alternative lucrative revenue streams for station operators. Sales figures show that growth in retail sales from Network Rail stations grew 7.8% in like-for-like sales between September and December in 2013 in contrast to a paltry 0.6% growth for high street retail outlets. It’s easy to see then, why station operators have begun looking at alternative ways of generating income that can ultimately be reinvested back into improving the railway.

The results of such an experiment are already clear to see if you look at the example set by St Pancras railway station. After an £800m refurbishment that was completed in 2007, St Pancras became an international rail nucleus complete with high-end retail outlets, restaurants and cafés as well as Europe’s longest champagne bar.

With Network Rail expanding its retail operations in stations such as London Victoria, Waterloo and Reading, as well as trialling a package collection service at mainline stations, it’s clear to see that railway stations are becoming more than just the inception and completion of our daily commute. Stations are quickly becoming central hubs that are essential to the growth of many local economies around the country. The task for contractors now is to strike a perfect balance between aesthetic design and functional design whilst also making provisions for various other opportunities that can offer local economic benefits.