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Why we must disrupt the traditional design process to get better infrastructure

13 July 2021

Approaches to footbridge design need to reflect current society and sustainability goals to enhance the passenger experience and the station environment.

Why we must disrupt the traditional design process to get better infrastructure
The 'Frame' footbridge design. Image credit: Network Rail

Network Rail owns more than 1,500 station footbridges. Some are heritage structures but most are utilitarian, historically designed with little consideration for aesthetic value or for their context or setting.

Every year, about 20 new footbridges are installed, either because the old ones are life-expired, to improve accessibility, or as part of station redevelopment. For the past 25 years, nearly every one of these new bridges was built to the same design, whatever the location; a design that was first conceived back in the 1990s.

Think how much has changed in the past quarter of a century in structural engineering. How much society has transformed, our expectations regarding diversity and inclusion, our understanding of climate change, and how we expect structures to fit into their surroundings. The designs we used in the past needed modernising to make them appropriate to current and future socioeconomic expectations and passenger demands.

Achieving better design

Good design has to take account of more than just structural integrity. I am a member of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC)’s Design Group; we recently produced Design Principles for National Infrastructure. The principles emphasise that good design involves thinking about climate, people and places, as well as value in its widest sense.

The 'Beacon' footbridge design. Image credit: Network Rail
The 'Beacon' footbridge design. Image credit: Network Rail

These principles need to apply to footbridges just as much as they do to any type of infrastructure. The rail industry - from client to designers to the supply chain - was used to using the same designs; we weren’t questioning our approach.

To achieve positive change, my Network Rail building and architecture team wanted to engage with the widest possible community of designers to develop new footbridge designs. So we held an international competition, open to any designers – engineers, architects, students – from anywhere in the world.

The competition was intended to be a disruptive activity that would help us to develop new standard designs fit for today’s world. We developed three designs – the Beacon, Ribbon and Frame. All are a huge improvement on what we had before and give our network managers the opportunity to vastly improve the passenger experience and enhance the station environment.

Designing for the future

I see these three designs as the equivalent of a modern car: an improvement and upgrade of previous versions rather than a completely radical rethink.

In addition, we are working on two concept designs to take forward as research and development projects. These are the Futura, which is made of a polymer composite, and the Model T, made of precision-cut stainless steel. Both have the potential to tackle problems associated with current manufacturing and construction processes, as well as environment and safety issues.

The 'Ribbon' footbridge design. Image credit: Network Rail
The 'Ribbon' footbridge design. Image credit: Network Rail

Lessons for everyone

The competition and the work we’ve done with the winners shows the value of considering good design in its widest sense. It is something that all engineers need to think about, which is why the NIC Design Group has been working with the ICE to get a better understanding of civil engineers’ experiences and attitudes to design.

Last autumn, we surveyed 1,200 ICE members to find out what they thought about climate, people, places and value in their work. The findings, published today in the What Makes Good Design? report, give us a fascinating insight into how engineers see their role in the design process.

Our footbridge competition shows what can be achieved when designers are encouraged to think about their work in a holistic way. The projects that have come out of the competition really give us the chance to do things differently.

Complementing this work is Network Rail’s new design hub, which contains design guidance manuals, expanded over time, that cover all aspects of station and operational building, planning and design management. Visit the hub to access all that you will need for your next project – more will be added as the year progresses.

  • Anthony Dewar, professional head buildings and architecture at Network Rail