Sandwiches, shopping and Shakespeare: Why we need to re-think the role of the rail station

04 December 2018
Image of a railway terminal.
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From shopping malls to street theatre, our rail stations are undergoing a shift in purpose. Intelligent estate management recognises the changing habits of customers that are re-defining the role of our stations, by using techniques that identify previously unseen or disruptive solutions to transform station facilities for the benefit of operator and customer alike.

If you are anything like most commuters, your local railway station is simply the place that you dash through each morning to catch a train, pausing only – albeit briefly – to grab a coffee, breakfast or perhaps a newspaper to read on the way to work.

But times are changing dramatically. In line with the expanding and increasingly demanding needs of passengers, many of the 2500plus railway stations across the cities and towns of the UK have already begun to morph from one-dimensional buildings serving a core transportation need, into dynamic, multifunctioning assets that sit at the heart of communities.

More than just the journey

While those scurrying through the morning rush hour may not always appreciate it, modern stations are becoming places that offer more than just tickets and trains. Today the norm is coffee kiosks, cafes, restaurants, shops and mini-supermarkets. Free Wi-Fi access is now often seen by customers as more of a priority than toilets or cash machines.

The concept of intelligent estate management sits behind much of this change. It is an idea that underpins the efficient and effective use of our expensive to build, expensive to operate and expensive to maintain station portfolios, turning them from challenging liabilities into vital commercial and community assets.

Taking the forensic approach

What is needed is more rigour and intelligence when it comes to planning station development and taking a truly forensic approach to understanding our users. Data is key and sits at the heart of this so-called intelligent estate management.

To gather this data, we must ask questions: do people visit stations to board trains, to meet people, or to take part in community activities; what services do customers really want; how far do they travel and from where; are they commuters, students or pensioners; is the station sited next to a hospital, or other community facility?

This approach has led to the rapid emergence of two key drivers based around changing customer need and expanding community opportunity. Together these have prompted the train operating companies to refocus their attention on the challenges and opportunities that this vast and hugely variable real estate portfolio presents, both from a customer and a commercial perspective.

The new drivers of change

Firstly, station users are no longer using the facilities to simply kill time before transitioning from A to B. The growth of electronic ticketing and mobile timetable access have also removed the need for station users to interact with the building when it comes to information or purchases related to their journey. Instead, stations are now locations from which to catch up with work and social administration and emails, make phone calls, and generally pack in as much as possible before the journey starts.

The second key driver is the emerging demand for community-focused services and facilities to resurrect dying high street retail facilities and fill the gap left by cash-strapped local authorities forced to focus resources on essential services only. By their very nature, rail stations tend to be sited at the heart of communities making them ideal and convenient destinations for non-travel related services.

This might range from local shops and cafes through to community libraries, employment centres, crèches, cinemas or even art galleries and immersive theatres. By creating such locally-focused hubs the station operators have an opportunity to not only realise commercial returns but also create new customers and generate local employment.

This move will help train operating companies supplement their ticket revenue with income from prime town centre property, while at the same time playing a key role in tying the community together. We need to acknowledge these drivers as key to transforming the way we operate our valuable public real estate.

The station as the destination

Only by taking this intelligence-led approach can we really decide the best, most effective way to invest in a rail station for the good of the operator and for the community; only this way can we understand if the right decisions have been taken and what to do to improve them.

Intelligent estate management can analyse the data on transaction volumes to understand if this need is being met and adjust as necessary, perhaps investing in ‘chameleon’ units that play multiple roles throughout the day - serving gourmet coffee in the morning before becoming a serviced restaurant for lunch, and a bar in evening as commuters return home. 

Across the UK, at big and small stations alike, we are seeing some real innovation and a huge growth in the flexible use of space where operational services and retail merge to create previously unimagined services. Without question, rail stations are no longer the preserve of the transportation sector and, with intelligent estate management, we can help to thrust these prime assets back into their rightful place as the key destination at the heart of the community.

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