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An interview with Network Rail’s director of stations

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If asked about their rail journey, most people will talk about their experience on the train, not unsurprisingly as that is likely to be where they will spend most of their time. Much attention is therefore drawn to the rolling stock, its design, performance and passenger facilities.

But if a journey is analysed in more detail, it is obvious that stations also have a considerable impact on passengers’ overall experience. They are, after all, the points at which passengers enter and leave the system, perhaps transfer between services or other transport modes, and where they might spend significant time when things go awry.

Greater appreciation of this has led to a stronger focus on station improvements within Network Rail, which owns virtually all of the stations on the national rail network and manages the largest and most important ones itself. Rail Engineer met with Norrie Courts, director of stations at Network Rail, to learn more about how the increasing profile of stations is driving future plans.

Norrie explained that the key driver is to improve customer experience. As measured in Passenger Focus’ National Passenger Survey, overall satisfaction with stations in October 2017 was at 81 per cent, slightly higher than overall satisfaction with train services but still leaving much room for improvement.

Access for all at Godalming, Surrey.
Access for all at Godalming, Surrey.

Work in progress

Network Rail has, in fact, been promoting improvements for some time. The National Station Improvement Programme covered investment of £250 million in Control Periods 4 and 5 (2009-2019), benefitting more than 450 stations across the country. But this is becoming a stronger element of policy.

“Network Rail works closely with the Department for Transport’s station policy team, as well as with the Welsh Government and Transport Scotland”, Norrie explained. “The aim is to encourage TOCs to invest in stations for long-term benefits and to ensure we all get the best value from stations, whether you are a passenger, customer, stakeholder or member of a local community. Stations fit for purpose from an operational perspective will drive better customer satisfaction but can also deliver other opportunities such as housing, retail, local regeneration and jobs.”

It is clear that many stations have not had sufficient investment in the past, with little incentive under older franchising deals for train operators to invest in stations during relatively short franchises. That is now changing, as is evidenced by the recent Welsh Government award of the 15-year Wales and Borders franchise to KeolisAmey, which included a commitment for £194 million improvements to stations, as well as opening four new ones. The current train service woes of the Northern franchise are also overshadowing the commitment for £55 million of investment in stations, including upgrades for even the remotest rural halts.

The challenge, of course, is in funding such improvements. Some comes through Network Rail’s own budgets and from government initiatives. Schemes funded by the Department for Transport have included the Station Commercial Project Facility and two New Station Fund schemes.

The Station Commercial Project Facility was a £16 million DfT facility to deliver commercially focussed investment to improve station environments and the passenger experience, while reducing the cost of the railway to taxpayers. Six projects, including car parking, booking hall and ticket line improvements, have been funded during Control Period 5, at Cheltenham, Exeter St Davids, Market Harborough, Newbury, St Albans and Weston-super-Mare. Norrie thinks it is likely that funds such as these may be rolled into one pot going forward, but time will tell.

A separate initiative is ‘Access for All’, an ongoing government programme launched in 2006 to improve accessibility for everyone, creating obstacle-free routes to platforms and installing lifts as well as smaller improvements such as automatic doors and information systems.

Twickenham station plaza.
Twickenham station plaza.

Open for business

With limited government funds available, it is essential to unlock other sources of funding. Many larger projects are funded through joint ventures with property developers. But it is also essential to tap into local and regional funding, by broadening the scope of station improvements to achieve community, property and economic benefits. The key to this is through Network Rail’s eight devolved routes, each of which has a business development team and station-related colleagues focussed on improving the estate across the country. Working in collaboration with the system operator and the national stations and depots team, this facilitates a national overview combined with planning and delivery according to local priorities.

One of the criticisms made by the Hansford report was that Network Rail’s organisation was too complex for external parties to progress joint projects. Norrie explains that the routes are the answer to this also, under Network Rail’s ‘Open for Business’ initiative.

“The routes have that day-to-day opportunity to build working relationships with local authorities and other partners. It was clear at the recent Rail Delivery Group (RDG) Stations Summit that local partners also want to work with Network Rail to improve stations and each route business development director can act as that initial point of contact to get conversations moving about improvements, development and regeneration. If required, they can then call on specialist property advice and other services from central support teams.”

“One of the challenges is to get local authorities to change their thinking of ‘that’s just a rail project’, seeing what else can be added to aid regeneration and improvements for the local community,” added Norrie. Part of the ‘Open for Business’ work was to identify projects that could be good for the railway but would also deliver wider economic benefits, so opening access to additional funding.

The routes have also been empowered to work more closely with TOCs in the general aim of transforming stations, especially looking at where there is scope for immediate improvements, for example in toilets and other facilities.

In another expression of the changing focus, the RDG summit on stations had the Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne as the keynote speaker, along with Rob McIntosh, the LNE route managing director, talking about the importance of stations being part of the customer journey but also delivering benefits to the communities they serve. The one-day conference was expanded this year from just rail industry participants to include representatives from local authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and other bodies keen on improving stations.

Guildford station.
Guildford station.

Major stations

Virtually all of the major stations that Network Rail manages have improvement projects in hand or planned. Here are some of the more significant ones:

  • The magnificent rebuilt station at London Bridge is now almost completely finished, with just a few final touches under way including upgrading the Western Passage entrance, which is closed until September. With the station itself complete, attention moves to opening further shops and cafes on the upper concourse and surrounding areas.
  • At nearby Waterloo, work on proper integration of the former international platforms is well in hand and on schedule for coming into use in December. This will provide a dramatic increase in station capacity and will be followed by the opening of a new retail area in the former Eurostar passenger circulation area underneath the platforms.
  • Another project well under way, and that has been featured previously, is Glasgow Queen Street, where removal of surrounding old buildings is enabling an impressive new ‘station front door’ for Glasgow to be constructed with improved retail and better station facilities.
  • Liverpool Lime Street has been something of a building site in recent times as work continues on track layout remodelling and rebuilding the platforms. The most major part of this takes place this summer during an eight-week blockade, with train services terminating at Liverpool South Parkway, Hunt’s Cross or Huyton. New station facilities will follow as the remodelling is completed.
  • At London Euston, work in readiness for the new HS2 station is starting to get under way in earnest. Lend Lease has been appointed as development partner for the project, which will lead to a major regeneration of the area with new homes and jobs. Phase 1 is the construction of the first six platforms for HS2, to be followed by a further eight. Work has now started on moving the old underground taxi rank to a temporary site in the front of the station so that utility works can commence. The challenge, as with all the station works mentioned, is not only to keep the existing station operational throughout but also to seek and deliver improvements whilst ensuring customers are always safe and secure.
  • Two major projects in the planning stage are at London Victoria and Edinburgh Waverley. At each of these, panel groups have been set up involving local and transport authorities and other key stakeholders to develop wide-reaching proposals that everyone can get behind. Edinburgh Waverley has strong heritage value but needs upgrading to be fit for purpose due to growing passenger numbers, as well as coping with events such as the Edinburgh Festival and international rugby matches. London Victoria is the second busiest station on the network and in great need of improvement. Major redevelopments outside the station are now almost complete and one challenge is to tie the station in to its new surroundings.
  • Other large stations where big projects are being developed include Birmingham International, Bristol Temple Meads, Coventry, Darlington, Leeds, Newcastle, Wolverhampton and York.

Taking in-house

In April this year, Network Rail took over direct management of two further stations – Clapham Junction and Guildford. This was primarily as the development schemes here are so large that they are expected to extend well beyond the life of the South Western Railway franchise. Network Rail is now responsible for maintenance and renewal work as well as all commercial activities, excluding ticket sales. SWR, however, keeps most day-to-day responsibilities for running the two stations and staff roles will not be directly affected.

At Clapham Junction, Network Rail has set up the Innova joint venture with partner Capital and Counties Properties plc (CapCo), which is also working with Transport for London on the Earl’s Court regeneration. Clapham Junction has long suffered from an awkward layout, with a wide spread of curving platforms connected by a footbridge and subway which struggle to cope at busy times and the vast site forms a major physical barrier in the local community.

The aim is to straighten the platforms, construct a new station box for Crossrail 2, and then deck over much of the site, with a new station concourse provided as part of the scheme. The over-site deck would release development potential for up to 10,000 homes, public open spaces and retail – a huge opportunity but also a big partnership challenge which would heavily involve the Greater London Authority, Transport for London, the London Borough of Wandsworth and others. Achieving the whole planning and consent process and delivering the scheme could take 20 years, so in the meantime smaller scale improvements to the station are being sought.

Guildford is one the busiest stations in the South East, but is surrounded by large areas of surface car parking and other under-utilised land. Here, Network Rail is working with Kier, the original partners in the Solum Regeneration joint venture. The plan is to build a multi-storey car park to release land for redevelopment. The £150 million 2.2 hectare scheme would produce 438 new residential units, 1,800 square metres of office space and 3,400 square metres of retail space creating some 300 jobs. The station itself would benefit from £2 million of Section 106 planning benefits and have spaces provided for 412 cars and 536 cycles. It is also hoped the station scheme will help promote the regeneration of Guildford city centre.

London Bridge.
London Bridge.

Smaller projects

Smaller scale projects can also involve joint ventures. Regeneration experts BLOC and Network Rail have set up Blockwork LLP to maximise value from under-used property assets next to the railway. The first project is at Kew Bridge, where redevelopment of semi-derelict land is helping fund significant station improvements. Others being planned or considered include Lincoln, Nottingham and Henley.

Twickenham is another joint venture through Solum, and work is well under way in creating a new station and a modern gateway to the area. As well as the wide-ranging transformation of the station itself, with a new entrance, accessibility improvements and more cycle spaces, the project will produce a new public plaza and 115 new homes.

At West Hampstead, Network Rail worked with property developers Ballymore in a new retail and residential scheme to deliver 198 new homes, of which 45 are social housing units, in addition to creating a new town square with a convenience store and other retail and office space. At Elstree & Borehamwood, 15 residential units on unused embankment land are planned in conjunction with Taylor Wimpey. As well as funding station improvements, such projects can help significantly with local authority targets for new housing, especially in areas where available land is in short supply.


Many years ago, British Rail changed use of the term ‘passengers’ to ‘customers’ as part of the drive to improve staff attitudes and become more customer-focussed. This still occasionally causes controversy, but one thing that is clear is that many visitors to stations are not passengers, especially at the major city termini. Network Rail has in fact declared that its major stations should become destinations in their own right. This is driven by the retail and catering facilities, which also make a substantial financial contribution to the railway. So, with tales coming from the High Street of shop chains entering administration and other gloom, is retail on stations being affected?

Norrie’s immediate answer is no. “If not quite a captive audience, there is a guaranteed ‘footfall’ and, while not everyone spends, station outlets are an attractive proposition to retailers.”

This attractiveness is naturally expressed in the lease costs, which tend to self-select premium end retailers rather than discounters with low margins. Performance has generally been very good compared to the average High Street and none of the high-profile liquidations has affected station trading so far.

There is also a greater level of management of the retail outlets than might be found on a High Street, with an aim to keep full occupancy, to keep improving and, so far as possible, to provide what passengers want. Charges are based partly on lease costs and partly on turnover, and there is considerable willingness to work with retailers, for example by changing locations if this would help. Retail can add significant value to the major station improvement and redevelopment schemes, however the need to consider the station as a whole is always present and, if surveys show a greater need for seating, toilets or other passenger facilities, these will take priority.

In total, the Network Rail retail team manages over 780,000 square feet of prime retail space, with more than 600 different retail units and over 150 brands. All the Network Rail retail profits are reinvested back into the railway and total retail sales in 2017/18 were £779 million, up from £748 million the previous year. “Our figures show years of consistent growth and prove that investment in our stations and retail offer not only leads to increased customer satisfaction, but also improved sales,” said Norrie.

The good relationship with retailers also offers potential for environmental and sustainability improvements. Network Rail is encouraging its retail tenants to look at such initiatives as reducing packaging and single-use plastic items and the initial response has been good.

London Bridge.
London Bridge.

Looking forward

The final setting of Network Rail’s funding and expenditure package for Control Period 6 (2019-2024) is moving closer, with the ORR draft determination on financing issued on 12 June. This will, of course, have a significant effect on the scale, scope and speed of station improvement projects for the next five years, but there is undoubtedly a strong determination to continue the transformation of stations throughout the network.

Greater and closer working with local and regional authorities, encouraging more input from train operators and achieving maximum benefits from property and joint ventures will also have a considerable part to play in improving the customer experience.

In a final word, Norrie comments: “We also want to work more with our local communities and understand how smaller stations can be improved for the benefit of all and delivering non-monetary social value where possible.”

This article was written by Graham Coombs.

New Station Funds

The first DfT New Stations Fund supported six stations:

  • Pye Corner, Wales (opened December 2014)
  • Newcourt, Exeter (June 2015)
  • Lea Bridge, London (May 2016)
  • Ilkeston, Derby (April 2017)
  • Kenilworth, Warwickshire (May 2018)

Five more have been approved under New Stations Fund 2:

  • Warrington West station, Cheshire
  • Bow Street station, Ceredigion, Wales
  • Reading Green Park station, Berkshire
  • Hordon Peterlee station, County Durham
  • Portway Parkway, Bristol

18 other new stations have opened during Control Period 5 using local and development funding, with a number of others under construction or planned (Issue 159, January 2018).

Read more: Stations – what happened in CP5 and what’s happening in CP6?

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  1. The general perception in Guildford is that the enabling development above the station is an overweening monstrosity (the Council rejected it, but Kier/Solum won planning permission on appeal), while there will be few if any gains for the travelling public using the station, and no improvement to the integration with pedestrian routes (minimal) and bus services (non-existant) in the town. Does Network Rail take any responsibility for such local concerns?


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