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Stations as a service

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So what are railway stations for? The answer is obvious: they are the places where you go to catch or get off trains. For many this is true; cold, draughty platforms that are not nice to hang around on – especially if trains are delayed. Writes Clive Kessell

In the remoter locations, stations are unstaffed with lack of information on train services except perhaps for a printed timetable.

But is this perception really fair, when so much has gone on in recent years to brighten up station environments, provide better information and maybe a place for shops and cafes?

The improvements have been largely piecemeal and brought about by Train Operating Companies and local community initiatives. You will not find a national specification setting out what a station should provide. Upgrades have not been integrated to take advantage of modern technology and the opportunities that could result.

However, this uncoordinated approach may be about to change under a new banner of ‘Stations as a Service’. A recent seminar hosted by the Rail Safety & Standards Board and Cisco brought together the various interested parties to discuss how new facilities and usage will be progressed.

Project Background

Innovation is the buzz word of this decade and several initiatives are underway to both steer and fund foreseen opportunities. One such goes under the ‘Catapult’ banner, with a number of topics being considered. Catapult aims to bridge the gap between government, academia and industry such that the best brains available can focus on a designated problem.

Co-funded by the Technology Strategy Board and RSSB, Stations as a Service is intent on looking at the whole operation of stations, what they do well, what could be done better and what opportunities could emerge. Topics are numerous and wide ranging:

  • Interchanges
  • Impact of disruption
  • Seamless journey with modal interchange
  • Personalised information
  • Use of transport information to improve network performance
  • End to end mobility
  • Integrating quality of life with city based economic benefits
  • Whole journey accessibility
  • Systems approach to investment
  • Seamless freight.

These can involve many railway disciplines but all are seen as having some impact on station facilities, operation and management. The ongoing scenario needs also to take into account climate change, the growing population, urbanisation, mobile technology, social and sharing trends, and ownership replacement with service provision.

Constituents, Participation and Objectives

Stations as a Service (StaaS) is one of seven projects going forward under the ‘Enabling the Digital Railway’ collaborative approach and is a consortium of four project partners and several industry observers. Cisco is leading the project and will drive the futuristic IT vision, while systems integrator Telent will facilitate the trial modelling and mock ups. Several TOCs are involved,
as is Network Rail, RSSB and a number of private companies. Opportunities will exist for small and medium sized companies to participate as the project gathers momentum.

The project has four main headings spelt out by Cisco’s managing director for the public sector, Rod Halstead: security, operations, retail and the passenger experience. Information technology is very much part of all these and the IT world of today has come about only in the last twenty years. Part of StaaS will take account of the huge increase in smartphone usage – around 74% of the UK population now has one.

Photo: shutterstock.com
Photo: shutterstock.com

In more specific terms, Felix Gerdes, the Cisco business development manager for rail and mass transit, set out the objectives from three perspectives.

The IT and industry perception is that retail opportunities in stations are poorly delivered and ready for a re-think. Assets can be remotely monitored and managed by taking advantage of greater standardisation in IT. There should be improved integration of smaller station groups and the removal of split responsibilities at stations.

The TOCs’ view mirrors this to some extent. They are interested in ways to use stations more effectively, to increase the time spent by travellers in retail areas while, at the same time, reducing the risk of accidents and overcrowding. There is also a need to focus on what to do during disruption with the provision of better information.

Network Rail, which manages most of the very large stations, has similar views but, because of the potential for larger crowds, has some additional requirements. These are promoting a richer traveller experience, making enhancing capacity and traveller management, improving transit times for passengers, increasing operational efficiency and finding ways to monetise the facilities.

A more contentious vision is to move from replacing products with service provision. To illustrate this, in the airline business, jet engines are often leased on the basis of hours of thrust rather than directly owned. Service does, however, mean being able to connect things and station infrastructure needs to be controlled and delivered as a managed service. This may well emerge by creating standards that allow for station information services and retailer needs to be provided by a single IP based protocol. Due notice will need to be taken of legislation such as disability requirements, and the effectiveness of trials will mean putting in place a constant feedback loop.

Trial sites and the need for caution

As Stephen Goodman from Cisco commented: “No plan survives the first contact with the enemy”. Whilst there is no real enemy here, there will be many false starts and lessons to be learned. So how to take this forward?

In conjunction with Abellio Greater Anglia, three stations have been chosen as a trial: one large (Liverpool Street), one medium (Colchester) and one small (Ingatestone). All of these have multiple dissimilar systems and networks. A starting premise is that nothing must affect the safe operation of trains and anything new will not replace existing systems at this stage. A local station based management automation system will then support:

  • Public and staff WiFi, noting that passengers are often better informed than staff;
  • Location based services including WiFi connection between platforms if cable routes are unavailable or difficult to access; » CCTV with local archiving;
  • Fire alarm and safety systems, VA/PA;
  • Voice communications and help points;
  • Interactive customer service signage;
  • Ticket machines and gates.

All facilities will be connected together on a centralised network and monitored initially from the Telent office in Warwick. Due cognisance will be taken of the 25kV electrification and any adverse effects from interference and pantograph sparks.

The TOC reaction

Whilst welcoming the initiative, Mike Kean from Abellio spelt out some factors that will need longer-term consideration. A franchise still typically lasts only seven years and it is hard to get a payback in that period. Network Rail, as the station owner, is only obliged to maintain the sites and not improve them. As such, lease arrangements are complex.

For smaller stations such as Ingatestone that are often unstaffed for periods of the day, safety is important but managing cost is often dominant over service quality. Making these stations part of the community, maybe using the building as a public communications centre, will be welcomed. Beware also of listed buildings and the limitations this can mean.

Medium stations like Colchester invariably have many legacy systems but need to develop as a transport partnership with buses, taxis, bike hire and car parking. Longer dwell times for people may result from this thus enhancing retail opportunities.

A large station like Liverpool St often has multi-TOC usage, all being tenants of Network Rail. Passenger service and support is dominant with dwell time being the biggest problem when major disruption occurs. Staffing cost splits between Network Rail and TOCs can cause disputes on the number of staff required.

Technical challenges

The StaaS project will need to show that associated equipment and system architecture is robust. Peter Felton from Telent described it as ‘the internet of things’; the crunching of data is not difficult, joining it together is the main challenge and will be the main focus for StaaS.

Video evidence for security problems such as vandalism, theft of luggage and third party issues, is very much part of station management obligations but this will be enhanced by mobile access to station CCTV monitoring.

Getting information out to travellers in advance of arriving at the station by use of social media will become the norm. Maximising IT to give information when all stations on a line of route are likely to be affected is another objective, as is collective gathering of data for alarms and asset management.

Whilst retail outlets have expanded over the past ten years, these tend to be only at larger stations. Opportunities at smaller sites are as yet untapped: a ‘click and collect’ service to save the tired commuter a shopping expedition at the end of a long day could be worth trying, although there would be staffing implications. Maybe retail staff could be doubly employed as a visual presence for aiding station security?

Incident management and physical security are issues where faster access to knowledge can be all important. The firm Workware Systems believes that the imshutterstock_166211510 [online]pact of the mobile tablet could be vital for police officers called to deal with a problem. A video picture of what is currently happening will enable data to be gathered in quick time which can be used to both decide what action needs taking as well as providing future evidence.

Going forward

It would be all too easy to think that the present situation is all wrong. Stations like St Pancras, Kings Cross, Manchester Piccadilly, Nottingham and the ongoing work at Birmingham New Street and London Bridge can transform the station experience. There is much to commend this new initiative but part of the task must be to analyse what is being done to improve stations as part of other projects, and not seek to replace these just for the sake of it.

Very few of the listed features are entirely new; most exist today but as isolated systems. Joining them up into a new ‘single platform’ operation is the important part of the vision. The use of IP based communication is a natural technology progression but even this must be considered in conjunction with other projects.

The Traffic Management System deployment has, as a spin off, the improvement of train service information at stations, possibly by graphic displays to the public. Getting similar information onboard trains is a follow on from this.

The upgrade of Network Rail’s FTN to offer a nationwide IP service will surely have an impact on how StaaS evolves. Above all, it will be about re-educating the public on rail station expectations and this will only be possible when the early trials of StaaS have been measured, analysed and updated in the light of experience.

Watching what happens at Liverpool St, Colchester and Ingatestone will be an interesting exercise.


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