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Stations: so much more than a place to catch a train

01 March 2019

Rand Watkins, chartered engineer and Associate Director for Transport-Oriented Development at SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business, explores what the "right" design is for a railway station and what that means to different people.

Stations: so much more than a place to catch a train
Image credit: SNC-Lavalin's Atkins Business

Back in 2002, while working on the construction of the London Underground station upgrade of King's Cross Station, I was concerned by what I thought were the most pressing issues:

How big did the tunnels need to be to deal with the forecast demand?

How would we build them while protecting the railway and buildings above?

How would we safely walk between the construction sites on a night shift in a part of London known for its more colourful after-dark activities!

I had little appreciation of what was to come.


Fast forward 17 years, and King's Cross is unrecognisable from the one I recall working in.

The wider redevelopment associated with the improvements to transport infrastructure at both St. Pancras and King's Cross has seen a vibrant and inviting environment come alive through retail and commercial investments.

Notably, organisations such as Google and Central St Martins have chosen to locate themselves in the immediate area, citing access to such strong transport links as a critical means of attracting the top-end of creative minds to their businesses.

Much of the reason for this success will be quality of the transport provision and the design of the station itself.

Poorly served, badly designed and ill-thought out stations will do just as much harm to communities as King's Cross has done good.

But what does good station design mean? Last year, we used the opportunity of the Great Exhibition of the North to gain feedback from over 5,000 people on what was important to them when it came to stations.

The results can be found here, but headlines show the variance across demographics from security and accessibility, from access to live digital information and a good coffee!

So many voices - just one station!

With so many differing end-user wish lists and numerous voices involved in the planning, funding and delivery of rail infrastructure, where do you start in establishing the requirements that define the scheme?

Strong stakeholder engagement in the embryonic stages of a project to establish what matters to these varied groups and balancing those with the constraints of major infrastructure delivery will always be a tricky tightrope to walk.

But taking the time upfront to listen to the varied stakeholders, looking for commonality in how they measure success, and using that intelligence to shape the project requirements will reap rewards further downstream.

Complicated consenting routes with potential objectors and scope change will inevitably lead to cost escalation, so that upfront investment in getting a project definition that everyone can get behind will bring people along the journey from the get-go.

More importantly, it gives us a consistent message to come back to as to why the project matters more than individual organisations, should we start to go off track (pardon the pun) along the way.

High-level collaboration

Our work on the Leeds Integrated Station Masterplan (LISM) has seen the benefits of this high-level collaboration first hand.

A Leeds Integrated Station Programme Board has been established with representation not only from Network Rail (study funder), LCR (contracting entity and project manager) and Leeds City Council (city planning and transport authority), but also key collaborators from organisations such as Transport for the North and HS2.

Through a common interest in the successful outcome of the project, the Station Programme Board is now required by its member organisations to deliver on the primary objectives and business case for LISM – namely an inclusive, functional, and transformative station that meets the current and future needs of the city.

Proposals for the Leeds Integrated Station Masterplan. Image credit: SNC-Lavalin's Atkins Business
Proposals for the Leeds Integrated Station Masterplan. Image credit: SNC-Lavalin's Atkins Business

It’s not all about the train ...

Experience tells us that the key to unlocking the right design is to go beyond the station boundary, to align the rail infrastructure planning with wider master planning.

Clearly a station needs to work for its primary purpose – moving people through it and around it in an intuitive and effective way.

If we can’t make that work right, the wider benefits will be stifled as people struggle in the battle to the train.

If we take it as a given that the station functions, then the ambience, look and feel of the station, layout and amenities will take it from a pure transport infrastructure asset to a transformative central piece of a masterplan jigsaw.

Using transport hubs as a means of connecting more people, creating a sense of community and stimulating conversations that might not otherwise happen is a powerful driver for railway investment.

Using location to bring people together

The Engine Shed adjacent to Bristol Temple Meads is a great example of this, using its location to bring people together in an innovative way to enable projects and share ideas.

The successful reinvigoration of retail arches and terraces at stations such as Waterloo and London Bridge are a clear indication of the increasing trend in the number of people visiting a station without any intention of getting on a train.

The £750m redevelopment of Birmingham New Street station, with its 450,000 sq ft Grand Central shopping centre above, unlocked the south side of the city through new entrances and increased permeability through the station.

Critically, integrated transport and an increased focus on last mile connectivity featured heavily in the wider design considerations.

Previously, the user experience on arrival to New Street was all about the car and to get into the station, you ran the gamut of drop-off and pick-up points and parking spaces.

The new station was modelled to link in with the other stations in the City via the Metro line to Snow Hill and a link to five Ways station and eventually the HS2 hub.

All this has helped to boost the city centre of Birmingham, breathing new life to the areas around the station as well as the experience within it.

Birmingham New Street Station. Image credit: SNC-Lavalin's Atkins Business
Birmingham New Street Station. Image credit: SNC-Lavalin's Atkins Business

So, we may not have many opportunities these days to create the Cathedrals of Steam that tend to be the symbols of grand station design.

But we can still use every opportunity to use stations to create communities and to unlock regeneration opportunities on a different scale to anything we've seen before.

Let us know your thoughts on what makes a good station a great one!

  • Rand Watkins, ICE fellow and associate director at SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business