Destination stations: rail stations are becoming multi-functional hubs and key gateways to towns and cities

Dr Paul Salveson played a leading role in the formation in the late 1990s of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP). In 2005, he joined Northern Rail as head of government and community strategies and in 2008 he was awarded an MBE for his services to the rail industry. He has since worked at Grand Central as external relations manager, and is now an independent advisor.

There’s a new role developing for rail stations at the heart of the areas they serve, and as the focus for new activity, says Paul Salveson. But their management and staffing must not be neglected

Find out more at Rail Stations 2012: 22 February 2012, Holiday Inn, King's Cross, London

At smaller stations facilities are inevitably more limited but need to give users a good initial experience on their journey as at the new Buckshaw Parkway.

T­­he ‘rail product’ is only as strong as its weakest link, and that link is often the station. So it’s good to see some real positives emerging on the station front. Both big and small.

I had a heart-warming start to 2012 when I travelled on a local train, in the ‘investment-starved’ North of England, and stopped at a brand new and impressive station. It’s called ‘Buckshaw Parkway’, located between Leyland and Chorley in Lancashire, on the busy Manchester to Preston line. It serves a large new housing development on the site of the former Euxton weapons factory. Swords into ploughshares, eh?

The promoter, Lancashire County Council, has every reason to be proud of its scheme. What’s more, the £6.8m was all externally-funded. Half came from developer contributions and the rest from the Government’s Community Infrastructure Fund.

The station car park, built to accommodate 200 cars, was already half full, though the surrounding development is still under construction. As it reaches maturity, even more people will use their new station. It has been built to the current standard Network Rail ‘modular’ design, and I saw a similar example recently at Uckfield in Sussex. It looks attractive, and what’s more, it’s staffed. Northern Rail serves and manages the station and the booking office is open throughout the operating day.

On the major stations front there is a lot of very encouraging new thinking going on too. For the mainline connurbation terminii, and the gateways to major towns and cities, the rail stations are becoming multi-functional hubs, with a fast growing range of activities that is propelling them forward as vital elements of the city economy.

The challenges traditional retailers face from the faltering economy were illustrated graphically last month by Mary Portas’s Government-commissioned review of the high street. Her gloomy assessment is backed up by figures from the British Retail Consortium showing large increases in firms going into administration.

Stations are one of the rare bright spots in the retail sector, comfortably outperforming the high street. Latest figures from Network Rail show a 3.85% growth in retail sales at its 17 managed stations between July and September 2011, compared to 2010. During this period high street sales were virtually stagnant, growing 0.1%.

To some extent, the positive performance of retailing at major stations reflects growth in passenger numbers, but it is apparent that other forces are at work too. The concept of a station as a destination in its own right, offering a variety of high quality retail and leisure opportunities, is becoming increasingly common.

The potential for stations to fulfil this role, and also assist in the regeneration of surrounding areas, is apparent in the successful redevelopment of large stations such as Manchester Piccadilly, London Paddington and many European examples. At Birmingham New Street, the station redevelopment is the focus for the revitalisation of the Pallasades shopping centre. Projects at medium sized stations such as St Helens and St Albans show the possibilities for enhancing retailing at smaller stations too.

More broadly, a study by consultant SDG for Network Rail has shown that investment in stations can increase property values in the immediate vicinity by 30%, directly support the overall growth of city centre economies, and act as a catalyst for wider regeneration.

Looking to the future, stations are set to become hubs for a wider range of services. Network Rail has signed a deal with The Office Group to install drop-in satellite work places at its major stations which will offer shared or private working areas similar to airport business lounges, along with meeting rooms. What else could follow? One development seems likely to be retail banking. Richard Branson has set out his intention to provide Virgin Money banks at stations on the West Coast Main Line should Virgin retain the franchise.

As well as providing for passengers, Network Rail’s plans for its estate could lead to stations becoming redeveloped almost as ready made town centre shopping malls. The scale of the opportunities is illustrated by the fact that its 17 major stations already have more retail space than the massive Bluewater Out-of-Town complex, even if the offer is fairly limited at present. There are also opportunities for Network Rail and train operators to explore how medium sized stations can be redeveloped to the benefit of their town centres, by providing the focus for high quality, mixed use shopping, leisure and business facilities, and a welcoming and convenient connection to high streets.

In this way, stations can contribute to the prosperity of urban retailers. There may even be business cases for some stations to be moved so that they are in a better location to contribute to regeneration, while providing a more convenient place for passengers to catch the train. This was not an issue that was explored in Portas’s report; nor was the impact that poorly presented and maintained stations have on town centres. Perhaps it is an area she should have considered?

There are other issues about station management that should not be overlooked, however, including how they are manned. At a time when the UK railway unions have raised fears that new franchise arrangements could see booking office closures as part of the adoption of Sir Roy McNulty’s recent rail value for money study recommendations, the new Buckshaw Parkway is a vote of confidence by Lancashire County Council and train operator Northern in staffing smaller stations. But what does the future hold? The general trend across Europe has been to reduce staffing at smaller stations, and countries like Germany have taken this even further than in the UK in recent years. Automatic ticket machines, backed up by CCTV and real-time information, have replaced the friendly face in the booking office. Is more of that treatment on its way in Britain?

I think hard political reality will kick in, just as when, in the past, civil servants mooted line closures to incoming transport ministers. The politicians quickly realised that they would risk stirring up a whole string of very nasty hornets’ nests. Line closures are now off the agenda, but a ‘quick hit’ would be cutting station staff. Except that the biggest hit would be taken by Government ministers, and more to the point their MPs in marginal constituencies.

So I hope wider counsel will prevail, and new franchise bidders are encouraged to develop innovative ideas for how to develop stations, existing and new, which improve passenger satisfaction rather than destroy it.

There’s no shortage of good ideas around, which can make commercial sense. Merseyrail’s ‘M to Go’ project has integrated ticket retailing with ‘convenience store’ shopping, and has proved popular with customers and also staff. Carnforth station, in Lancashire, has been revitalised through the efforts of the local authorities working with community groups. The Carnforth Station Trust raised nearly £1.5m to transform the station, and Lancashire County Council employees run the re-opened booking office, whose staff have responsibilities for bus as well as rail travel.

Wakefield Kirkgate station, for long a by-word for appalling facilities and a downright threatening environment, which I wrote about in a previous column, is set to be transformed by a partnership scheme involving the PTE (Metro), Network Rail, Northern, Wakefield Council and environmental charity Groundwork. Part of the vision is to bring back booking office staff to this increasingly busy station.

Even small stations like Appleby, very much a ‘category E’ sort of place, benefit from having staff. It serves the small Westmorland market town on the famous Settle-Carlisle line. The station exemplifies what railways in the community are about. It has recently benefitted from a package of external grants channelled into the station by the Settle Carlisle Development Company, a not-for-profit agency which works with the railway industry, local authorities and community. New waiting and toilet facilities have been provided together with an up-graded car park. The investment isn’t huge - £120,000 – but it’s a sign of faith.

Part of the funding for Appleby came from the Railway Heritage Trust, the charity whose contribution to partnership schemes have made a huge difference to stations across the country. Voluntary pressure group The Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line put their money where their mouth is and stumped up some cash as well. Northern Rail and Network Rail also injected contributions.

There may well be useful material in the McNulty Report. Its recommendations on station staffing emphatically don’t come into that category. If McNulty was taken literally with every recommendation implemented, Appleby wouldn’t have any staff and the only facilities would probably be a bus shelter. Yes, we need to think outside our traditional booking office boxes, but the need for friendly, helpful and well-motivated staff at our stations, large, medium and small, isn’t going to go away.