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A unique estate – unlocking the potential of Britain’s railway network through its stations

It has been a busy year for the UK’s rail industry when it comes to stations. Whilst there have been civic openings and grand unveilings – perhaps most notably with the partial opening of the new London Bridge Station – the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), the Department for Transport (DfT) and RSSB have all commissioned research specifically about stations.

What does the station estate have to tell us about modern Britain and the future of the railway as a transport mode going forward?

Arguably, no other estate has quite the same emotional attachment or political sensitivity as Britain’s 2,539 railway stations. The post office network has gone through a transformation and the church estate has shrunk, while local pubs have also closed.

The rail industry has commissioned four elements of work to help better understand how its historic estate can best be nurtured, developed and optimised to meet the future needs of Britain’s transport network and its communities.

Stations dashboard

RSSB commissioned Steer Davies Gleave to research the scope, use and requirements of a Sustainable Stations Framework. Anthony Perret, RSSB’s head of sustainable development, explained: “We wanted to understand how data linking stations and the places they serve can support evidence-based decision making and encourage more third party investment, to the benefit of communities and the railway”. The final report, which will shortly be published by RSSB, indicates the currently available datasets of the industry as well as open source data.

Steer Davies Gleave developed a prototype ‘stations dashboard’ to pull together the various data sources available to describe the stations themselves and their catchment areas. “For the very first time, the potential for linking the railway and its stations to data concerning the people, places and economies they serve has been demonstrated,” commented Tony Duckenfield, Steer Davies Gleave’s project manager.

The dashboard, now being used by the DfT as it develops its proposition for the East Midlands franchise, links data from the Office of Rail and Road and National Rail Enquiries. Catchment data is drawn from the Census and other open source data provided by the Office for National Statistics and others.

“This has meant us defining station catchment areas based on the front door to train door journey. So each address is allocated to a station using a combination of the access journey and service interval. Using this approach we have now mapped across the whole of Britain in terms of its railway geography,” said Tony.

An outdated approach?

One of the other tasks of Steer Davies Gleave (SDG) was to review the current station classification system. The system classifies all of the stations on a scale of A to F. Introduced in 1995, the system has never been revised and station classifications have not been formally updated since they were created. Much maligned as being of poor value and little used in anger, the classification system has nonetheless remained resiliently quoted by communities and commentators exercised about why their station should be a ‘B’ and not a ‘C’ (for example) and therefore deserving of better facilities and more investment.

SDG’s international comparisons indicated that the British system was a blunt tool. It focussed on past usage and asset size (number of platforms). In many of the countries examined, the classification system was more about the station’s context and therefore its potential audience rather than the current usage.

Tony added: “It also became clear, through our industry engagement, that the days of a single static station classification system were numbered. Whilst there was disagreement over the finer details of an ideal system, there was shared agreement that it should be forward looking and dynamic.”

The classification system therefore had to be responsive to change and represent a station’s potential, rather than its current state.

A further piece of work, funded jointly by the DfT and the Rail Delivery Group, looks at the type of interventions that should be considered to optimise a station when a better understanding of its potential is reached, and the impact on industry and community that might result.

The solution was to develop a flexible classification system based on the area the station serves, rather than the station itself. This approach identifies a station’s potential usage and retail sales, compares it with its actual performance, and highlights potential areas for improvement. This classification also recognises the special features of a station, such as serving an airport or major tourist attraction.

This work is only a starting point for understanding a station, since each one has its own features and therefore the classification is not a replacement for local knowledge. Taken together, the stations dashboard and classification have the potential to provide the industry with tools which can facilitate more informed, consistent and holistic decision-making.

Building on the vision

The Rail Delivery Group has continued to build on its warmly received Vision for Stations with further work over the last 12 months. RDG asked architects BPR to develop some images that could illustrate the Vision’s nine principles. Publicised in September 2016, the images use an illustrative concept station to highlight integration with the community and its needs, a harmonious relationship with the wider transport network and the creation of efficient, effective space and amenities for the customer experience, convenience for the neighbour, and not least the railway’s finances and operational needs.

The Vision itself continued to gain strong recognition throughout 2016, with the Department for Transport and other stakeholders pointing toward its ambition and principles.

In early 2017, the RDG will publish some further work by Steer Davies Gleave on the case for investing in railway stations. Building upon an earlier exercise for Network Rail, which focussed on the local economic impacts of station-related investment, this later work looks at the community benefits that can arise or be triggered by collaborative investment and engagement at and around railway stations. It identifies the challenges facing central and local government, the constraints of the railway and how by working together all parties can benefit and support each other’s objectives.

As RDG head of stations policy Jonathan Chatfield puts it: “We asked SDG to objectively identify and present the benefits of third party investment and participation in station redevelopment. We are making a clear and unapologetic demonstration of the value that a well-supported station can make to its community.”

Chris Whitehouse, who is leading Steer Davies Gleave’s work to capture and report the benefits, said: “The case studies we have researched indicate that, when rail industry and local community agencies actively work together the station, railway and community benefits.”

This latest work has again reiterated the points made in the 2011 report:

  • The benefits are maximised when thereis collaborative investment that supports regeneration of the station and its local neighbourhood;
  • Action is most likely to occur when there is strong leadership around a common intent;
  • All parties, railway and non, need to acknowledge, recognise and empathise with the policy objectives, funding constraints and operational implications of their partners – expecting others to “stump up the cash” without compromise is more likely to result in delay, frustration and inaction or a suboptimal scheme.

Caring for the nation’s stations

The DfT has not been static in its approach to the franchised station estate. Recent franchise awards have seen the requirement for preparation of long-term Station Asset Management Plans. The role of the station is recognised by the DfT in the requirement for a Social and Commercial Development Plan to be implemented. However, the DfT is keen to learn from experience and has asked SDG to consider the implications for best practice asset management at the franchised railway stations.

In 2012, the Government rolled out franchises with Full Repairing and Insuring (FRI) leases, and there are now three franchises with this lease form compared to the 2000+ stations on the split- responsibility lease model initiated at privatisation and the 18 Network Rail managed stations.

The review of asset management models and capabilities considered the strengths and weaknesses of the different lease models and the implications and outputs of the FRI model to date.

So what next?

The work undertaken over the last 12 months has confirmed that:

  • Over 89 per cent of people live within a 20-minute cycling catchment area of a station, yet it is estimated that just 2.5 per cent of trips involve a bicycle.
  • Eight per cent of the population live near the railway but not near a station, yet there are around 320 stations with fewer than 50 entries/exits on a daily basis and around 45 stations with fewer than 30 trains per week (approximately four per weekday).
  • The railway network continues to be complex, both for those operating within it and those who wish to engage with it to get things done. It is estimated that there are at least five station owners, twenty station operators, four contractual models and probably at least four measures of station asset condition and multiple definitions and measures of station ‘success’ and outputs.

The station estate in Britain is uniquely placed to act as a civic amenity alongside the practical rail network gateway. To do so will mean thinking about the station from perspectives outside the railway’s own needs. The network will need to grasp the changing agenda of Britain’s communities and rapidly adapt, evolve and deliver flexible approaches to the management of the estate and individual stations.

Written by Mike Goggin, group client engagement director at Steer Davies Gleave.


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