An untapped gold mine? An operational interface? A community space? A passenger’s gateway? A city’s identifier? A complex and historic asset to manage?

Whatever your view, it’s fair to recognise that the nation’s stations often prove a great catalyst for debate. So what is the issue?

Multiple voices and expectations

There are increased voices in regard to the contribution that stations need to make:

  • Civic leaders want a station that helps demonstrate the vibrancy and strength of their City/town and one fully integrated into their local transport network and civic infrastructure. In Steer Davies Gleave’s research for Network Rail we consistently heard from local decision makers of the contribution that a revitalised station had made as a catalyst (or at least not an embarrassment) to more positive conversations with potential investors.
  • The station’s neighbours and local community want a convenient railway/transport interchange and a quiet life protected from anti-social behaviour which includes the ‘hooded youths’, the impact of inappropriate car parking in side streets and congestion caused by kiss-n-ride commuters.
  • The train operator wants an easy to manage, resilient and secure estate which supports effective train performance.
  • The private sector and potential investor want a flexible approach and an asset which can evolve and adapt to new consumer expectations and products.
  • The taxpayer wants a low cost station estate that contributes where it can to other goals but otherwise does not represent a poor value asset that needs to be maintained and operated.
  • And finally, but not least, the passengers. They want a hassle- free and easy to use experience that might offer added value but which provides for an informed, safe and comfortable place to wait.

Meeting those expectations is not always going to be easy but it is a worthy and realistic challenge for the industry’s station managers. However, the apparent divergence of the expectations is fuelling the debate for a change of control of the nation’s stations. Recent press reports place Network Rail’s managed stations into the firing line.

Time to get serious

The expectations are different but they’re not wholly mutually exclusive. All too often the conversation starts pulling organisations into their respective camps unable to recognise that, ultimately, a good station performs well for the passenger, railway, local community and taxpayer.

The good news is that Rail Delivery Group has developed, supported by Steer Davies Gleave, its vision for stations (due to be launched this summer) which recognises the need for a holistic, creative and informed approach to station design, development and management.

I believe that the RDG vision for stations invites the industry’s funders, stakeholders and operators to resolve some longstanding questions once and for all. We need to stop the distraction of debate and get on with the delivery of better performing stations.

When I was at Network Rail I led the company’s response to the Government’s proposals for Full Repairing Insuring Leases now deployed on three franchises. It made me painfully aware that informed debate needs to start early and be grounded in the reality of industry and its stations.

Informed debate required

As we rightly consider the merits of potential devolution of stations, we need to help decision makers to recognise the implications of the realities of Britain’s stations. For example:

  • Stations are not a driver of passenger satisfaction or rail demand. Well-managed, comfortable and attractive stations help to mitigate passenger frustrations when things go wrong and the ‘excellent station’ may just make a statement and encourage rail’s competitiveness over other modes. Poor stations are a driver of dissatisfaction and potentially an inhibitor of some demand.
  • ORR annual footfall metrics indicate that over 10% of stations probably have less than 20 people using the station on a daily basis and a third have less than 200 people.
  • In our national review of retailing opportunities for Rail Delivery Group, we concluded that most stations do not represent potential generators of significant income. Working with retailing strategists we identified around 270 stations with potential of material commercial trading activity and worthy of further investigation – that’s less than 11% of the estate.
  • The industry has a distracting bureaucracy, for example, the station classification system now has little value and relates to footfall and platforms in the late 1990s.
  • Quality of asset information remains a live issue, not least because of the historic nature of the estate and the split responsibilities between landlord and station operator.
  • The 2,537 stations (or whatever number you quote since it depends on who counts them within the industry!) are not homogenous. There are bound to be some whose role and contribution needs to be reviewed and others whose potential may remain not fully tapped.

With an objective and considered assessment, I am confident that we should be able to make meaningful progress on stations which deliver for the industry and its stakeholders. We need to provide a clearer, more consistent and sustained approach and an investment framework to deliver within. This may just come from outside the ‘traditional railway’, but whoever it is needs to take informed steps forward.

Mike Goggin is a director with Steer Davies Gleave and was previously Network Rail’s director of stations and customer service.

Written by Mike Goggin, director with Steer Davie Gleave, previously Network Rail’s director of stations and customer service.