While not exactly ten-a-penny, footbridges can be found everywhere on the railway. They connect platforms at stations, are used to replace pedestrian level crossings, join communities cut in half by a railway line and give access to beaches and car parks. Network Rail alone owns just under 2,400 of them.
Many are quite old, and so a programme of repair and replacement always forms part of Network Rail’s plans for any control period.
Rail Engineer has often covered the more interesting footbridge projects. In recent memory, there have been articles on the first Grade II-listed fibreglass footbridge at Dawlish (issue 99, January 2013), bridges in South Wales at Port Talbot (issue 142, August 2016) and Newport (issue 69, July 2010), the transfer deck at Reading station (issue 103, May 2013) and even a bridge with blue lighting (issue 158, December 2017).
Even footbridge refurbishments can be interesting; witness the one at the longest station name in the UK – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Llanfairpwll for short, which was described in issue 154, August 2017.
But these were the exceptions. The vast majority are everyday working structures, painted either in dark green or rusty grey and in varying states of repair.
Not unnaturally, Network Rail has a standard design which it uses when replacing these bridges, but it’s not very inspiring.
“We’ve got one official standard design for a station footbridge,” explained Anthony Dewar, Network Rail’s professional head of buildings and architecture, “and that design probably hasn’t changed in its aesthetic form for over a generation.
“The unofficial standard design is the one that’s used for ‘Access for All’ bridges, and that again hasn’t changed in its aesthetic for maybe 10 years.
“For both of those designs, one could question now, with modern architectural and structural engineering, how much of a design legacy we are leaving with those structures.”
To improve matters, Network Rail has launched a footbridge design ideas competition, in conjunction with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), seeking new ideas for the design and installation of fully accessible pedestrian footbridges across the UK rail network. The competition is open internationally to practising architects, structural engineers, civil engineers as well as students of these design disciplines.
The selection process is seeking ideas to contribute towards and influence new standard designs rather than a solution that will necessarily be implemented. The design ideas competition will be held over a single stage, with a design fund of £20,000 to be awarded to the submission judged to be the best response to the design challenge.
Although Network Rail’s portfolio of footbridges includes both those at stations and on rights-of-way, this competition is seeking to generate proposals with an elegant and effortless means of providing accessible footbridge provision within urban built station environments. It’s an area where considerable money is already being spent. Network Rail has built over 200 Access for All bridges since 2006 with an average price tag of £3 million each.
However, the competition brief continues, in addition to this principal anticipated use, the footbridge design will also need to be potentially applicable and aesthetically sympathetic to a range of other conditions and contexts including at-grade open platforms, crossings away from stations, embankments and in more rural locations across the UK rail network.
Whilst primarily not intended for use in conservation areas or listed building settings, the footbridge’s design aesthetic should offer the potential to do so.
Anthony Dewar continued: “The competition is there to encourage new creative talent from both qualified and unqualified professionals and students to introduce new creativity into a concept for footbridge design.
“We’ve worked hard to develop a technical remit for the competition that doesn’t just give a plethora of railway standards that one has to comply with, which can discourage creativity. We’ve set high-level technical parameters in the hope that it will encourage creative submission – not just in the structural and architectural worlds but we’ve also put in high-level parameters in respect to lifts and lighting across the bridges – and we hope that the creative submissions we get will be the holistic design requirements for a footbridge.”
One size doesn’t fit all
One of the most striking features of the current Access for All bridge design is the height of the lift machine rooms that extend above the bridge profile itself. They are very prominent and add to the impression of bulk that one gets when looking at one of these bridges.
Anthony Dewar hopes this area will be challenged with the competition entry, but, as a separate workstream, his team is also looking at Network Rail policy and standards for escalator and lift design. There are alternatives, such as hydraulic lifts, but he doesn’t want to change the design and then encounter problems such as maintenance and reliability challenges, so the topic is still under consideration.
Whatever the result of the competition, Anthony doesn’t just want to update, revise or even replace the existing standard footbridge design.
“We currently have a one-size-fits-all approach,” he stated. “I want to move away from the term ‘standard design’ because, for public consultation, I think it suggests that we as a business are only going to give one type of option. We want to move to a catalogue of typologies of designs for station footbridges, and we are looking at innovative and creative ways to do that.”
“One of the ways we are looking to do that is through the competition, but we’re also going through a more traditional route through the architectural and engineering frameworks to come up with design topologies.”
Anthony admits that most railway footbridges give the appearance of having been designed by structural or civil engineers. With the new typologies, he wants to get into a position that the engineering under the skin is both proven for safety and for ease of assembly, but that the architectural appearance can easily be altered to blend in with its environment.
But, at the end of the day, the resulting typology must have the variability to allow for context but also be efficient to build in the railway environment. But that’s the challenge, and no challenge is easy.
Choosing a winner
Design submissions have to be received by RIBA by 18 September 2018. Evaluation will start immediately with the judging panel due to meet early in October. All design submissions will be identified solely by a registration number, so the entries can be judged anonymously.
The judging panel will be chaired by Paul Finch, programme director of the World Architecture Festival and editorial director of both the Architectural Review and Architects’ Journal. In addition to Anthony Dewar, the panel will include Network Rail colleagues Ian Grimes, principal engineer, and Trevor Wilson, senior architect.
Jonathan McDowell of Matter Architecture will act as the RIBA architect adviser and he will be joined by Andy Savage, executive director of the Railway Heritage Trust; Chris Wise, senior director of Expedition Engineering; Rowan Conway, director of innovation and development at the Royal Society of Arts; Margaret Hickish, managing director of Design 4 Inclusion and Kay Hughes, founder of design consultant Khaa.
A design fund of £20,000 will be available for award at the discretion of the judging panel, and it is currently envisaged that £20,000 will be awarded to the submission judged to be the best response to the challenges outlined in the competition brief.
The judging panel may also identify a series of highly commended schemes which will be acknowledged in all associated publicity, but will not attract a monetary award.
It will be exciting to see what suggestions come through. Anthony is certainly looking forward to it. “Network Rail is committed to promoting design excellence. That’s why we’re challenging the architectural and engineering community to come up with new and innovative ideas for footbridge structures that will be both functional in form and sympathetic to the communities that they serve.
“The winning design concept will also need to protect and enhance the great legacy of engineering design that is inherent in railway history. We’re excited to see the solutions that will be put forward.”
Full details of the competition can be found by visiting www.ribacompetitions.com/networkrailfootbridge.
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