Network Rail and RIBA Competitions are hosting a design competition for small- to medium-sized stations. ANTHONY LAMBERT looks at the changing role of stations in the 21st century and what we can expect from the results
An 11-page special kicks off with a look at a design competition for small-and medium-sized railway stations.
For well over a hundred years, the railway station served as a main focal point of towns and villages. At all but the smallest stations, solid buildings and some degree of shelter were provided in a wide range of materials and styles, creating a rich and distinctive legacy deserving of care.
During the 1960s and 1970s, when both the quality of architecture and the appreciation of historic buildings reached an all-time low, British Railways was notorious for replacing good station buildings and canopies with little more than bus shelters, usually in conjunction with de-staffing.
This often-scandalous indifference to the railway’s architectural heritage was encapsulated by the destruction in 1962 of the Euston Arch.
This produced such a strong reaction that in 1968, BR dropped plans to demolish the former hotel/offices of St Pancras Chambers, although the concession did not mark a change of heart or policy.
In 1977, Save Britain’s Heritage mounted an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) entitled Off the Rails, whose purpose was “to make you angry”, as Simon Jenkins put it. It questioned “the misleading equation between corporate imagery and modernity” and called for a more responsible and creative approach to the adaptation of stations, either for railway or alternative use.
A turning point was the creation in 1985 of the Railway Heritage Trust (RHT), to provide advice and grants for the preservation and upkeep of buildings and structures on the national railway estate.
Since then, more than £ 60 million has been awarded through over 1,750 grants, most for operating parts of the railway. These have helped to develop a recognition in the industry that bland utilitarian stations do not
provide an attractive welcome to the railway, that passengers value stations of character as well as convenience, and that these qualities encourage greater use of trains.
Railway conservation work is celebrated each year by the National Railway Heritage Awards. Although the categories salute imaginative and high-quality work across the entire spectrum of railway buildings and structures, most entries are naturally stations.
Transformation of a different kind has come from passengers’ changing expectations of a station. We have moved a long way from platforms with little more than a crude bus shelter and a paper timetable on a board, or the days when BR saw vacant station space simply as a rental opportunity, without much thought of complementary activities.
As a minimum at staffed stations, passengers expect comfortable waiting space, clean lavatories, good lighting, train information screens, and secure parking for bikes and cars. Unstaffed Grade F stations lack some of these amenities.
At larger town stations, passengers look for an interchange with tram and bus services with appropriate information, a cafe and/or newsagent, WiFi, bike and car hire, car-club facilities, local or tourist information, and a staff presence for information and help with accessibility.
Increasingly, passengers will expect electric bike- or car-charging facilities. Electric bike sales have increased significantly since the first lockdown, and a recent UBS report estimates that electric cars will cost the same as internal combustion-engined cars by 2024. If that transpires, sales of electric cars are likely to increase dramatically.
Rising expectations of stations have been accompanied by a growing sense of their ‘ownership’ by the community and local organisations. This is reflected in the sterling work of community rail, mobilising volunteers and stakeholders to revitalise underused station buildings and engage with their local community.
“Involving the wider community, creating familiarity with the railway and a sense of ownership towards rail among as broad a cohort of people as possible will be critical to the recovery of our railways”, says Community Rail Network (CRN) Chief Executive Jools Townsend.
The potential of stations to play a greater role in community life is also reflected in a growing willingness of local stakeholders to share in the funding of improvements.
The regeneration of Irlam station in Greater Manchester was funded by local and regional authorities and by the local Hamilton-Davies Trust, creating a railway-themed cafe, cycle hub, children’s playground, heritage centre and meeting rooms.
“Stakeholders can see the benefits of different ways of formatting stations,” says Tolu Osekita, Network Rail’s lead on thirdparty funding.
“Although the difficult part is getting people to help pay for them, businesses and local communities recognise that stations can drive regeneration and economic growth, besides producing better and healthier communities.
“Discussions with beneficiaries about investing in stations is becoming easier - primarily because we are getting better at identifying benefits beyond transport and, as importantly, communicating those benefits.”
Success in creating a community hub is exemplified by the Kilmarnock Railway Heritage Trust, which has used multiple funding sources to establish the Kilmarnock Station Community Village.
The gradual restoration of the station has created a cafe, bookshop, gift shop, a records office for the Glasgow & South Western Railway Association, office space, and meeting rooms which host everything from art
exhibitions and creative classes to tai-chi, meditation, yoga and even charity comedy nights. The Active Travel Hub is supported by a cycle workshop and includes led rides using a fleet of electric bikes.
CRN publications and its website are full of such enterprising examples, and Townsend points to “an increasing focus on community gardening, growing food and biodiversity projects to provide a home for nature and connect people with the natural world.
This may seem fluffy to some, but it is about building relationships, community and sustainability.”
Some countries have gone much further in designing stations as multi-function hubs of the community. Japan has made a policy of combining station redevelopment with the provision of such community facilities as dental practices, surgeries, nurseries and libraries, as well as the usual amenities. These provide a source of income as well as increasing the attractiveness of train travel.
In recent years, there has been a growing focus on the need for stations to meet sustainability criteria in their construction and energy consumption.
In 2015, the Rail Delivery Group published its Vision for Stations, articulating nine principles behind their role as potentially major contributors to local and national economies. The intention was to engrain these nine principles into the management of every station and in the long-term planning of the
network by 2030:
■ Intelligent use of technology - ticketing and information.
■ Seamless journey experience - integration and partnerships with other modes, as well as facilities that encourage active travel.
■ Reflect local needs and opportunities - working with local businesses, organisations and CRPs to use spare station space for community services.
■ Safe and secure environment.
■ Entrepreneurial spirit - stations as catalysts for innovation.
■ Flexible and long-term stewardship.
■ Shared industry know-how - sharing best practice and developing good design guidelines.
■ Optimised network - realising the full value of every station while minimising inefficiencies through investment and operation based on objective and informed decision-making.
Some of these are self-evident requirements for a station to be fit for purpose. NR’s aspirations go well beyond that - its Delivery Plan for Control Period 6 (2019-24) talks of implementing “a master planning approach to station development, to improve stations for passengers and help stations better integrate into the wider community”, as well as creating “stations that surprise and delight”.
Quantitative evidence for the value of investing in stations was provided by Steer’s August 2020 report The Value of Station
Investment, for the RDG and NR.
It examined 180 examples to assess the value of investing in Britain’s railway stations. Besides achieving the primary object of increasing passenger numbers, station investment was found to generate “substantial increases in house prices, tertiary employment, enterprise units and new developments close to the station”.
It highlighted the importance of strong partnerships with third parties and advocated ways to minimise risks and maximise success when investing in new stations.
How were these broad objectives and societal changes to be translated into designs fit for the 21st century?
The competition’s purpose
Besides raising the quality of design, NR wants the competition entrants to reflect “the evolving civic role of [its] infrastructure … looking to expand what a station could be”.
The competition will give architects, engineers and designers the chance to improve the travel experience for the millions of passengers who use Britain’s railway, and leave a lasting legacy on station design.
It asks designers to reimagine small- to medium-sized stations, which make up 80% (over 2,000) of all those on Britain’s railway, so that they better serve the needs of both passengers and their local communities.
The competition encourages entries which stimulate creativity and address the changing character of our society.
“In developing proposals, entrants are encouraged to consider how future stations can be sustainable and deliver outstanding value, while considering the impact on the environment to achieve net zero emissions to leave a positive legacy for future generations,” says NR.
To provide entrants with context and to inform a brief, the Design Council co-ordinated ideas from a range of
stakeholders, through workshops with
324 participants. Think Station sets out the findings.
Preferring the term ‘passenger hub’ rather than station, it summarises responses to the question ‘what would a future passenger hub be if it embodied each of NR’s Principles of Good Design?’ The exercise produced nine priorities for stations:
■ Support existing and new communities in their local area, embedding stations within the community by providing facilities such as crèches and drop-in GP centres.
■ Reflect and embody local character and heritage. Participants disliked “the idea of replicated designs and the complete absence of specificity, creating ‘anywhere’ places”.
■ Provide consistent quality of space and service in terms of the station facilities and standards, reflecting the station’s size.
■ Establish connections with and between the town centre and/or the High Street, through greater permeability and better links.
■ Celebrate and improve the quality of green spaces and open spaces and/or provide access to them.
■ Be welcoming and facilitate inclusive travel - a stage beyond accessibility.
■ Support and better integrate cross-modal transport to provide seamless travel with shared data between modes.
■ Help to address climate change through minimising the impacts of construction and operation.
■ Ensure longevity by accommodating changes of use, capacity, trends and technology.
Anthony Dewar, Head of Buildings and Architecture at Network Rail since 2017, thinks that small- to medium-sized stations in Category D–F have been neglected and understandably overshadowed by the magnificent developments of the largest Category A and B stations, such as St Pancras and King’s Cross. The competition is intended to redress the imbalance.
The outcome will be a catalogue of preapproved new station designs recognising that no one size fits all and which are sufficiently malleable to be used in a wide
variety of locations.
The idea of standard designs is as old as Brunel’s pattern-book series of Tudor and Italianate designs for the Great Western Railway in the 1840s. The LMS developed a Unit Station in the 1940s, and BR adopted Mob-X and CLASP designs in the 1960s, the D70 style in the 1970s, and VSB90 in the 1980s.
During his time as NR’s Chief Executive,
Iain Coucher set a challenge in 2007 to build a station for under £1m, resulting in the Modular Station programme with Mitcham Eastfields as the first example.
NR’s competition was opened to international entries in June, and the first of three phases was concluded in November with the shortlisting of five winners chosen from over 200 entries from 34 countries (see panel, below). The first phase called for concept proposals, so no specific location was given to entrants.
For Phase 2, the winners will be given a more detailed, site-specific brief, although the designs must be capable of easy adaptation to the context, size and community at a particular site.
The winners will engage with NR representatives in design approach workshops to help them develop their final design submissions, which will be made public next February. The prize for the finalists will be an invitation to enter into a contract with NR for detailed design development work, and their work will feed into station design guidance which NR will publish in March.
It would not be uncharitable to pass a poor verdict on the majority of post-war small station designs. With some exceptions, they have ignored their surroundings in terms of style and materials, and they have failed to provide the welcome and amenities that waiting passengers deserve.
This competition provides an opportunity to raise the quality and widen the scope of stations and restore their place in towns and villages as a source of civic pride.