ANDY COWARD profiles the winner of Major Station of the Year at the 2020 National Rail Awards
Reading is willing and able: RAIL profiles the winner in the 2020 National Rail Awards Large Station of the Year category.
Throughout the history of RAIL’s
National Rail Awards, recognition in the hotly contested Station of the Year category has always been highly prized.
Network Rail and the various train operators are all keen for their stations to be honoured. A Station of the Year accolade also generates a huge amount of pride for staff who often go above and beyond to help make their station stand out from the crowd.
And every year, the entries in the four categories (Major, Large, Medium and Small) get stronger, providing an unenviable job for the NRA judging panel.
The entries are generally judged from a ‘Mystery Shopper’-style visit, where the judges make an anonymous, unscheduled visit to the station to view the facilities and passenger experience for themselves. As experienced rail professionals with a long history in the industry, these seasoned judges know how to spot a winning entry.
However, in 2020, things have had to be done differently. A new judging process had to be adopted due to restrictions imposed because of the Coronavirus pandemic, while the NRA ceremony itself was held virtually, hosted by BBC newsreader Huw Edwards and
RAIL Managing Editor and Events Director Nigel Harris.
This year, it was not possible for the Mystery Shopper visits to take place. Instead, the judges reviewed their marks for the past two years where the information was available, as well as checking the Transport Focus marks from January 2020 (again where the information was available), reviewing photographs accompanying each entry, and validating their results with a panel of 27 independent assessors who lived within easy reach of the stations being considered.
Each category had an allocated judge who ranked the stations within their category into a league table, and who undertook the best possible due diligence available to ensure the judging was fair and consistent with how it would have been under more normal circumstances.
And at September’s online ceremony, Reading was announced as the Major Station of the Year for 2020.
The station has changed beyond all recognition in recent years, with Network
Rail increasing capacity as part of the modernisation of the Great Western Main
At one time, Reading was regarded as a notorious bottleneck in the rail network, almost incapable of managing the number of services that needed to pass through the station each day.
And with growing demand for rail services, especially after a thriving period of passenger growth following privatisation of the rail network, capacity through Reading had become a major issue.
Starting in 2009, Network Rail therefore began a radical and extensive period of modernisation and capacity improvements that have transformed Reading station and the surrounding area into an award-winner.
These improvements included a new track layout that helped to remove the congestion that had previously built up on the approaches to the station. A mile-long viaduct was constructed to the west of the station to accommodate the fast inter-city trains operating along the Great Western Main Line, helping to reduce the number of delays by separating the fast main line services from the
relief and freight lines.
The new track layout meant that trains no longer needed to queue to enter the station and could still be operated if there were any problems with other services. Additionally, the modified track layout has provided capacity for six extra freight trains each day, helping to reduce the amount of freight that has to be transported by road.
Alongside the modification of existing platforms, five additional platforms (four through platforms and one additional bay platform) were constructed within the station area. This has increased platform capacity, taking advantage of the expanded track layout which assists with the smooth flow of trains through the station.
Passengers also benefited from a new upper concourse with lifts and escalators, while its platforms offer extensive canopies, waiting rooms, toilets and retail outlets.
A new entrance and ticket office were built on the northern side of the station, while a new entrance was provided on the southern side. The two entrances to the station were linked by converting a subway beneath the platforms for pedestrian access, although there is no direct access to the platforms from the subway.
The newly expanded station was opened by Her Majesty The Queen in July 2014, with work on the surrounding track alterations completed the following year.
And while the station and track expansion project was largely complete by 2015,
Network Rail has continued to improve the environment around the station, with two rail bridges upgraded to enable more space for a cycle path and footpath beneath the railway at Cow Lane.
A road widening scheme at Cow Lane has also allowed two-way traffic to run beneath the railway for the first time, helping to remove a notorious road traffic bottleneck in the town.
Additionally, the project has taken larger road vehicles into consideration. The widened route now allows double-deck buses and larger goods wagons to use the route, with the Cow Lane bridge project completed during 2019, helping to improve road traffic flow.
Used by almost 20 million passengers each year, Reading is Britain’s ninth busiest station and the second busiest interchange station outside of London (behind Birmingham New Street).
Over recent years, there has been a growing realisation that passengers want so much more out of a station than just catching a train. Most major station refurbishments now incorporate retail and leisure facilities - and Reading is no exception.
It now boasts a host of retail outlets within the station, as well as the other facilities that passengers now expect from a major station. The station has a bright and airy feel and the refurbishment works have provided a modern and inviting station environment for passengers.
The main operator of passenger services through Reading is Great Western Railway, but CrossCountry, South Western Railway and TfL Rail (which will run Crossrail services on the Elizabeth Line) also have a strong presence.
When passenger numbers declined
dramatically during the COVID-19 lockdown, following the Government’s advice for the public not to use public transport, Network Rail took advantage of the quieter period to continue improving the station - ready for a time when passenger numbers return to normal.
During the spring of 2020, the station toilets were refurbished as part of a £ 380,000 project. Baby changing facilities and improved toilet facilities for passengers with impaired mobility have also been provided. And as with all Network Rail-managed stations, the use of toilets is now free of charge to passengers throughout the day, after the company abolished its previous policy of charging for their use.
Other improvements carried out recently have included the repainting of all the station waiting rooms, new customer information screens, and the installation of hand sanitising units throughout the station.
“I am delighted that Reading is officially the best major station in the country. It feels amazing for my team to be recognised for all the hard work they’ve done,” says Andy Philips, Network Rail’s Station Manager for Reading.
“In the last year, the station has continued to put passengers first by continuously striving to improve the customer experience, as well as Network Rail and GWR delivering the biggest timetable change in December 2019 since the 1970s.
“Since COVID-19, things may have changed in the short term. However, the station has continued to deliver customer improvement projects, such as the Brunel Toilet refurbishment and the Lift Safety campaign, while a robust cleaning regime has been introduced in the station to reassure our customers that it is safe to travel by train.
“The station celebrated its 180th birthday in March 2020, and as part of this a history vinyl timeline has been installed on the Transfer Deck showing the changes over the station’s 180 years.”
Reading is a worthy winner of the NRA 2020 Major Station of the Year.