Design management strategy for better passenger experience at railway stations

The way we conceive the roles of our local and national railway stations is changing rapidly, with what were once considered purely functional and uninviting urban add-ons now being embraced as strategically crucial assets which can serve several vital community functions while providing an attractive hub for retail and leisure, fully integrated with, and complementary to, the surrounding environment. The next step for station to provide inclusive, transport-led environments, the designs for which have considered the as wide a range of needs as possible while enabling the station’s social and commercial success. Drawing on a combination of extensive experience and detailed research, Chapman Taylor Transportation Director Peter Farmer here analyses how to implement an effective, passenger-focused design management strategy at railway stations to ensure that they are fully equipped for the demands of the next 50 years.

MANAGEMENT STRATEGY

A station is a key community asset and should respond to this by reflecting local character and heritage, supporting integrated, cross-modal transport and considering the provision of open-space amenity. For many years, station development drew a hard red line around the ownership boundary. Recently, however, we have learned to approach the design of stations as a dynamic element of the wider urban environment.

Stations are enablers – social and commercial hubs integrated with, and providing for, a wider urban context. They are local, national and international statements of intent; more fundamentally, they are human spaces, full of variety and vitality.

We must “walk” all of our designs, considering the many different physical, cognitive and cultural viewpoints. Not to do so would potentially lead to problems. A station is a thoroughfare for passengers and visitors who have varying senses of urgency and levels of familiarity and mobility. It is full of sensory information, particularly visual, and this needs management.

The design of stations needs to bear social issues in mind and assist management teams in working with social issues. Management also needs to consider greater local stakeholder partnership, keeping investment and return within the community, rather than simply resorting to national partners.

Achieving these objectives in conjunction with a strong understanding of the best commercial mix for each location will lead to socially and commercially successful stations which help to support the network’s overall business case, further enhance passenger experience and create opportunities for the wider community to enjoy these strategically important urban assets.

At the outset, it is important to understand the parts that the various components have to play. Some elements are operationally and safety-focused, while others focus on the welfare of visitors and staff. Others still are about generating revenue to support the overall rail business.

With all of these elements, the scope needs to be coordinated with the primary design process, including operational flow modelling, planning and other regulatory requirements. In all aspects of these design considerations, we advocate a wide stakeholder engagement policy which includes user groups. The wider this engagement, the better, as to miss one element can lead to significant strategy failure and costly re-engineering at a later stage.

Control Grid

We establish the principles of a project in a layered control grid that develops in detail through the design development of the project. This includes physical dimensional coordination strategies, with some aspects embodying regulatory policy. The design’s overall properties are established and agreed at the start but can always be challenged, subject to design guardianship agreement.

We aim to set up an exhaustive list of components, fixtures and fittings to be overlaid on to the operational, welfare and commercial strategies as they are implemented. The physical grid covers items such as material modules, wayfinding, information screens, MEP, life safety equipment, street furniture and ticket machines.

The project’s policy structure includes aspects such as operational procedures, commercial strategies, maintenance, strategies and inclusion.

Other features, such as commercial or cultural “pop-up” promotions, entertainment areas, seasonal/festive displays and lights, security and health emergencies cross over the two main project pillars of policy structure and control grid.

The aim of this is to develop a coordinated end design, avoiding omissions and the need to accommodate elements at the last minute.

PRIMARY STRATEGIES

Operations

The success of station design is about ease of access and efficient passenger flows. We need to map the flows, which can be large and complex, and we need to understand what people are doing and what they need at each step. Such journey mapping has been common in the aviation sector for some time but is relatively new for railway stations.

This mapping requires us to “walk in the footsteps” of as many types of user as possible, informing our strategies for wayfinding, media and commercial planning. Station designers have traditionally looked at flows in terms of total capacity requirement; while this enables the overall sizing of a concourse or stairway, it lacks the subtlety necessary to provide a human-scale experience because it treats everyone as being the same.

A further advantage of carrying out this “walk in the footsteps” process is that it allows us to spot and design out issues such as blind corners and slip hazards where people are distracted by the need to look for information. Some considerations include:

  • Horizons

A masterplan for a station needs to consider generational change. Its configuration needs to change as pedestrian flows change through the life of the station.

The primary architecture of a station also needs to take account of the potential future needs of a developing interchange. Once conceived, these principal structures tend to be unchanging. There is, however, a secondary layer that needs to flex within this shell to meet changes in flow, capacity and demand. The primary architecture tends to be constructed to meet the capacity demand of the masterplan horizon, which may be 30 to 50 years. The secondary layer, within that shell, can flex more frequently, according to demand.

All public-facing elements need to be coordinated to create an operationally, socially and commercially prosperous facility. These elements must be like layers of colour in an oil painting that build up to create a world-class finished piece.

  • Mobility

We need to cater for a wide range of mobility needs. A high proportion of passengers have a bag and luggage of some kind and, as the population ages, there will also be an increased need to accommodate impaired ability, whether physical, sensory or cognitive, as well as more wheelchair space.

  • Entrances

Access to a station is often very immediate from outside and we need to design transition zones where a passenger or visitor can orientate themselves with just the right amount of information without blocking flows – spaces where water can be shed and lighting and temperature levels can be acclimatised to. These areas are often undersized and, too often, are backed up with emergency precautions.

The tidal nature of flows in many stations can be an issue, but measures such as staggering revenue protection barriers can be useful. However, while revenue protection barriers have long been considered obsolete, they do provide a useful flow and capacity control device for station management, so the removal of these would require alternative measures to be in place.

  • Level changes

Vertical circulation can be slow. Escalators are a known safety hazard, particularly at peak flows. We have developed proposals that manage flows to different escalator banks at peak times, away from the most obvious, to allow a degree of natural flow attenuation before passengers reach the escalators. When the flow is in the reverse direction, the escalators strategy changes to suit that flow. Dynamic signs help with this diurnal approach.

  • Inclusion

As society becomes more demanding of the principles of fully inclusive environments, we have to provide facilities that reflect our complex, multicultural, multi-religious, multi-gender society of different ages and abilities.

As many countries demographically age, there is an increasing need to provide facilities that address reduced physical and cognitive ability. Cognitive provision can be challenging, as these environments may be used infrequently and visual and physical prompts can be less effective.

Whole lifecycle design and maintenance

The provision of safe, accessible and inclusive station environments can be achieved by considering a sustainable whole-life, whole-system approach to asset design, construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning, all of which are required for effective asset management.

A rail station asset should balance operation and capital cost. This is can difficult within political and regulatory investment structures, but the design professions have a duty of care to maximise the longevity of any asset. We must understand the fundamental qualities that lead to best whole-life value; durability, design life, coating requirements, cost of replacement and the use of standard modules all have influence on this ultimate cost.

All of our designs must have a firm basis in sustainability, with clear targets and strategies. Associated with this is the consideration of a whole-life analysis approach to asset design, taking account of the construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning of all elements.

Wayfinding

As people move through spaces, they pick up a vast array of information via multiple senses. Our role is to ensure that the passenger is provided with the wayfinding information they need and that we want to give them in the most appropriate and direct way possible, including through personal digital technology.

The role starts with the building and primary architecture, which should maximise the intuitive aspect of wayfinding. How a station is entered (and exited) and then laid out internally will establish the amount of overlaid wayfinding we need to apply. Intuitive signals are by far the most effective, reducing our need to process messages conveyed via text, pictogram or audio (for which there can be literacy, language and cognitive barriers).

A design strategy starts with analysis and the establishment of key bases, such as demographic and user studies, to understand required and desired journeys along and optimise flows. Wide stakeholder engagement is vital to the strategy’s development.

Proposals encompass directional, operational, welfare, safety and regulatory information and associated services.

Flexibility is vital, as operations change from time to time, including during the same day. In many stations, there has tended to be a tidal flow of passengers arriving at certain times and leaving at others. Wayfinding in a station therefore has to work in two or more directions. Flexible digital signs can greatly assist with this, as could elements such as varied lighting intensities to emphasise certain areas or features.

Systems can also be tailored for different needs. For example homeward-bound commuters, who generally know the platform from which their train would usually leave, tend to double-check on the move. This informs the location size and message content.

Others, less familiar with the environment, tend to stop and pause for longer periods and need more information. They are then reassured with slightly less information about their target service as they pass through the station, although still tending to pause at each information point.

Therefore, information needs to be provided at different points for differing needs. Positioning is key and must consider the journeys of others, which create cross-flows. Poor consideration could lead to a passenger blocking a flow or walking into a seat because they are busy looking up at a departure board.

Signs need to be clear and sized to be readable by people of varying abilities from the appropriate distance.

Graphic showing hierarchy / bad arrows / avoid clutter / Languages / Consistency and simplicity

The passenger route should be reinforced with reassuring information if the endpoint is not immediately apparent.

Personal technology has extended the realm of wayfinding design to the home, through journey preparation via a website to approaching and using the station using personal digital technology and apps.

Commercial planning

Commercial facilities are an important part of the business case for rail networks and stations. Their revenue helps support the station as well as, in some cases, overall infrastructure investment and ticket pricing. However, these facilities also provide important services to passengers and visitors.

A passenger who is at ease about when, where and how they are to embark on the next stage of their journey will be in a relaxed state of mind and will feel encouraged to explore the retail and services the station has to offer. We always aim, therefore, to support and reinforce the operational efficiency of station design with a holistic approach, providing retail solutions that are complementary and sensitive to the wider architectural and interior design context. We believe that this aspect, along with wayfinding, media, look and feel and other elements, should ideally fall within one area of responsibility.

An exciting aspect of station design is the tidal nature of stations such as St Pancras London International, London Waterloo and Kings Cross, as they accommodate commuter flows. Others, such as Stratford International, also have to manage high event-related peaks. A tidal flow presents challenges, but also opportunities to consider varying the offers or flows - having different offers at different times of the day to meet different demand profiles.

On the way to work, commuters are generally seeking morning, and maybe lunchtime, grab-and-go items. On the return journey, many look for last-minute groceries, a bottle of wine for dinner or a last-minute gift.

The station’s importance to the local community should be reflected in the commercial offer. While the income generated is important, there is an increasing realisation of the benefit of working with local providers rather than national or international conglomerates.

Designing successful commercial facilities is about understanding interaction at the human, ‘street’-level. Offers need to be accessible, visible and relevant to the demographic base. Designers often curve retail frontage to maximise sightlines, but this is not always appropriate and there are other ways of achieving similar prominence.

Rhythm, proportion, transparency and appeal to more than just our visual sense should be considered, but an information-rich environment does present barriers. There are also practical considerations, including servicing, security and back-of-house facilities.

We encourage operators to consider providing churn and variety through regular pop-up rotation alongside the established staples. This also gives local businesses an opportunity.

Media

Advertising media is a key component of a station’s revenue base and, with the increased flexibility of digital media, commonly integrated with the physical commercial offers, wayfinding and information systems.

In its advertising role, such media needs to work with, not conflict with, the branding of the physical commercial offers and, more importantly, the station’s operational wayfinding. It should seek to maximise its effectiveness, but not at the expense of the station’s ease of use.

Pedestrian flow and behaviour is as important as demography. An advert needs to catch attention and convey its message to the target audience straight away, although not at the expense of safety.

The media element needs to be controlled to prevent clashes with other elements or negative passenger experiences. However, it can also play an important information role, particularly in unusual circumstances when the station needs to broadcast information urgently.

Media interaction with personal digital technology and information has added another layer of potential, assuming passenger agreement to interact with static media points via their own devices.

The ability of digital advertising to include increased visual stimulation needs to be managed to avoid a Times Square-type overload. While attractive to advertisers, the quality and purpose of the overall environment is paramount. The increasing cost-effectiveness of digital media is also making it more accessible to smaller local businesses, providing another way that smaller stations can integrate with local communities rather than being subject to national marketing budgets, with more control given to local station management.

Conclusion

A thorough and successful design management strategy for our railway stations will be one which combines the highest standards of operational efficiency and safety with an empathetic approach to the diverse needs of the people using the space and a future-proofed social and commercial environment, all fully integrated with the surrounding urban fabric. This requires a holistic approach in which these varied elements have been fully mastered and integrated to provide a stress-free passenger experience and a vibrant community asset.

Chapman Taylor’s Transportation team has successfully designed and delivered transport-related projects at some of the most famous passenger environments in the world. Our collaborative design approach brings together a range of specialisms to fulfil all the requirements of these increasingly complex schemes. We understand the functional and commercial needs of railway stations and integrated multi-modal hubs, including their future-proofing, as well as being at the cutting edge of research and thinking about how to turn them into flexible, socially and commercially successful destinations in their own right.

About the Author

Peter Farmer (BArch(Hons) BA Arch(Hons) RIBA)

Director, UK

Peter heads up our Transportation sector in the UK. He undertakes a key role in the continuing development of this sector, related research, masterplanning, due diligence and sustainability.

With over 25 years’ specialist experience across the UK, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and the Caribbean, he has an in-depth understanding of the political and business drivers of projects with multiple stakeholders and complex design and delivery teams.

Areas of expertise:

Commercial / Transport

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