Stations should be symbols of prosperity and inclusivity

Great British Railways offers a chance to step-up our long-term sustainable investment vision for future station adaptations and transformations, says Mike Gardner of Arcadis.

Great British Railways (GBR) offers chance of sustainable vision for future stations, says Mike Gardner, pictured, of Arcadis.

To succeed, GBR will need to focus on interdepartmental collaboration and communications in ways not previously witnessed in the rail industry. A critical part of this jigsaw will be the development of new integrated operating models for defining, developing, designing, delivering and deploying projects and programmes.

Clearly the move to GBR will overcome some of the immediate organisational challenges of station investment. Franchise models and Control Periods that compartmentalise investment into ‘short-term’ boxes overlooks the long-term focus that stations transformations demand, and in these respects GBR is a welcome innovation.

Complex landscape.

Yet, as we unravel the old broken models, the station investment landscape is becoming more complex with local authorities, combined authorities, transport executives and the like taking much greater interest in what stations can do to help propagate sustainable and inclusive economic recovery. This broader bandwidth of investors, stakeholders, developers and funders will need to be fully integrated into the GBR operating model to leverage and secure the full value of stations.

Stations as purely railways assets and nodes in a network are things of the past. Now, stations must face-up to their role as civic gateways and symbols of prosperity, much as they did in the Victorian days. They need to function as critical, accessible and inclusive nodes in our networks, but also as civic assets that are relevant and meaningful to the communities that use and inhabit them.

Historically, a national consistency to the design of stations provided some efficiencies and solved engineering and technical challenges but did very little to generate any sense of community or locality. The new GBR station model must forge a better balance between convention and uniqueness.

Stations must harness the potential value recognised by all stakeholders and get stakeholders to truly collaborate, so together they can achieve so much more than they can individually. GBR has the potential to play a pivotal role in these collaborations becoming an integrator as well as a capable owner.

Stations that provide for the community, are part of the community and which serve the community will survive the fiercely competitive landscape of the post-covid travel market recovery. To drive this success, station management will need to be equipped with new and different skills and have greater oversight of a wider operational performance, focusing on strategic navigation and captaincy of the ship, rather than just ops & maintenance.

Sustainable Multi-modal Hubs.

Decarbonising our railways is not only absolutely essential but will also increasingly influence the public’s choice of travel solution. Stations that fail to embed sustainable credentials, or fail to proudly shout about their sustainable credentials, will at best be unloved and at worst dangerously prejudice our environment.

The key environmental value of stations is to act as integrated travel hubs, bringing together all sustainable modes including much greater emphasis on active travel and integrated public transport. Stations will need to support emerging travel options (EV, EVtol, drones, CAV, MaaS) alongside walking, cycling and public transport.

The future landscape for GBR’s stations pursuit should be less about rail networks in isolation and much more about a system-wide approach to engaging all modes – this will move GBR towards a more central role in driving travel sustainability to achieve targets earlier and more credibly.

Good for people.

This will require a seismic change to the decision-making around station transformation. History has shown that ‘great stations’, ‘beautiful stations’ and ‘elegant stations’ drive higher long-term value, yet there are few measures by which these strong adjectives can tangibly influence a business case.

Creating an arena in which ‘intangible’ values share equal standing as ‘tangible’ ones will drive better long-term planning. Rarely do requirements documents discuss emotions or even use adjectives, yet it is emotions that determine the stations we love and use and that shape our long-term memories of our experiences – so why shouldn’t requirements talk about quality of experience?

Uniquely local, relevant and meaningful.

Stations don’t need imposing forms or dominating architecture to be gateways. A regional gateway should celebrate the region, well beyond the visible horizon. Gateways that allow local produce to be sold by local people with the love and care that only comes from an owner/operator trader are significantly more ‘gateway’ than any ubiquitous ‘Anyville’ form that many modern stations seem to adopt.

Good station architecture has to be contextual, locally relevant, meaningful to the community and socially responsible.

Less is more - an informed and articulate minimal viable brief.

Stations must always be viable and satisfy the core immediate need, but long-term success will be founded on their flexibility and adaptability. We cannot predict the future - building stations with a clear idea of how they can be augmented and changed over time will underpin their viability and future operational performance. Minimum viable stations are therefore not a here-and-now financial imperative, but a core part of their deliverable sustainability and the measure by which GBR’s leadership will be judged.

The challenges ahead for GBR are considerable and diverse, yet with engagement, collaboration, thinking outside the box of convention and exploring a new future for stations, we can collectively shape a new future in which stations can and will proactively improve quality of life.

Mike Gardner is UK stations design director at Arcadis.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.