Travellers’ checks

Sara Manuelli tracks down the latest train of thought in railway design, where stations are following the lead of airports, and upping their customer service

There was a time when railway stations were considered non-places or merely transit spaces for travellers. Then during the Thatcherite years of privatisation and franchising, railways became big business, leading to a re-think of their role. Railway stations were expanded to incorporate retail areas. Restaurants and cafés sprang up to attract the traveller’s spare time and cash. Liverpool Street Station, part of the Broadgate centre in the city of London, is a paradigm of the Eighties boom in retail and interior design and represents a milestone of architectural development in that decade.

Now something new is happening to station design and the airport experience seems to have influenced it. Go to any major hub of rail travel today and you will find starkly designed ticket offices, first class passenger lounges and luxury franchises to shop in. At London’s Paddington station, you can even check in your luggage at the Heathrow Express terminal a couple of hours before your aircraft’s departure.

The changes are a reaction to the experience of late Nineties travel. The advent of the Eurostar and fast link trains to airport terminals means that railway stations are often the first point in a longer international journey. More connections mean dealing with an increasing flux of passengers and this has led designers to create station environments that, like airports, can handle large numbers. Travellers themselves are becoming more experienced and expect a level of comfort and service that old-style stations fail to deliver.

Gatwick Express is among the train companies to have tuned into the airport spirit. This has to do both with its nature of a link to Gatwick Airport, as well as with the desire to improve its service. “We are planning to ‘airportify’ everything,” says Roy Campbell, Gatwick Express head of marketing. “We will redevelop our ticket office in Victoria along the guidelines of the new identity by Bamber Forsyth and we also will have a new fleet of trains by the end of the year.”

Mike Rodber, director of Think (the new branding and design strategic consultancy arm of Leicester design group Jones Garrard) is in charge of the industrial design and engineering to production of the interiors and nose cone of the new Gatwick Express fleet. He acknowledges a definite airport inspiration behind their construction.

However, “train design is still imbued with environmental culture and it cannot be the same as aircraft design,” he says. “Airlines are pointing in the right direction, but they aren’t perfect.” He believes that airport philosophy is teaching rail operators mainly how to improve their customer service level. “Train companies such as Midland Mainline have adopted that kind of customer care, friendly approach.”

But it’s not just airport-dedicated rail lines that are jumping on the bandwagon. Rail privatisation may have brought along free market and competition, but it has also led to an increase by 30 per cent of passenger’s complaints about delays. Train companies need to improve their service and the airport experience is constantly quoted as an inspiration.

Virgin Rail is the only example of a train company which can directly compare itself with the higher service standards of its sister airline. Although the two businesses are distinct, Ashley Stockwell, design director of Virgin Rail, admits there is a common thread linking their design and style.

“There are lessons to be learnt from airlines and these can be can taken across to trains,” he says. However, Stockwell is also keen to highlight the differences in train travel and how these affect the train interior design. “On the new train fleet we are planning a self-service retail unit and there will be a working space with power points for laptops and full scale computers,” he says. All these solutions would be impossible on Virgin Atlantic.

Great North Eastern Railways, the operator that took over the east coast route from British Rail three years ago, is aspiring to recreate some of the old excitement that used to be part of the train journey within a contemporary setting. It believes in airport philosophy enough to invest £5m in a major upgrade of its stations. Airport-style customer care is the inspiration behind the new travel centres designed by Allen International, as well as the first class passenger lounges conceived by Australian architect Humphrey & Edwards and carried out by London architect Austin-Smith Lord. Specifically oriented towards the premium traveller, the lounges – so far open in Doncaster and Berwick – will have an Internet and modem facility, a meeting room and will offer complimentary drinks.

“We want to offer a modern style airport environment,” says a GNER spokesman, “and move away from the assumption that waiting lounges should be cold, unemotional rooms.”

Paddington station

When Paddington station in London is completed in November it will represent the latest innovation in train travel. The Grade I listed building has been completely refurbished by Railtrack, and architect Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners has upgraded Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpiece.

The solution has been to insert modern installations while keeping the spirit of the early Victorian railway architecture.

The old retail area and the main indicator board have been removed, allowing passengers to flow through hustle- and bustle-free zones. “Railway design has begun to adopt the information systems and retail design ideas used in airport terminals,” says Mark Middleton, architect at Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners. As a result, smaller flat screens stand on both the sides reducing congestion and allowing passengers to visit the retail areas while keeping an eye on the timetables.

The most prominent development in Paddington is the Lawn area, so called because it was once the station’s master garden. Divided from the main concourse by a glass screen, it has a feel of modern grandeur about it. The area is a passenger’s waiting facility divided by a mezzanine level which will soon be filled with cafés and franchises such as Dixons, The Body Shop, and Sainsbury’s Local, the retailer’s first outlet at a transport terminal. At the back of it, stands Heathrow Express’ new checking in facility. Opened in June, it claims to be the world’s biggest international remote air terminal.

The architecture and interior design are by BAA architect Gebler Tooth and have been conceived to fit in with Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners’ masterplan strategy for the station. The look is crisp, cool and with an abundance of glass and aluminium. “By relieving passengers of their luggage we wanted to offer them a less frenetic experience of travel,” says Gebler Tooth project architect Peter Fennel. “The architecture reflects this light, airy, calm feel.”

The Heathrow Express service effectively gives Paddington an international atmosphere. “Once you check in, you forget it’s a rail journey,” says Aidan Kirby, consultant at Wolff Olins, the consultancy behind the overall design concept for Heathrow Express.

“The seating, the lighting, the information on board, are all part of a modern travel experience.” He also cites the Stansted Skytrain Express rail link “as finally a train where you feel looked after, which you know won’t break down”. “Reliability” and “customer service” are his recipes for the future of train travel.

So are railways the new airlines? Luckily, the future seems to offer a more interesting third way. “I think railways have learnt good things from airlines, but they are taking it further and developing their own style,” says Rodber.

“The Eurostar is a good example of service and design which airlines themselves admire, and the TGV in France is as competitive as any airline.”

With the opening of the new Channel Tunnel rail link in 2007, a journey from central London to Paris will take two hours and 20 minutes, and with plans to transform St Pancras Station into the new principal terminus, competition with airlines will get even tougher. The golden age of rail travel seems set to make a come back.

GNER Travel Centres

Allen International is designing the new travel centres for GNER. These will substitute the ticket offices inherited from British Rail and bring the railway operator to the forefront of customer care. The London design group has already worked with travel operators such as NS Stations in the Netherlands, and has an experience of ‘travel retail’ environments.

Each GNER centre will have an individual style, although the primary aim is to make ticket purchasing a simple, stress-free affair. Phase one of Edinburgh Waverley opened on 15 July and will be completed by October, while London’s King’s Cross travel centre is due to open this month. Allen International has also created the preliminary concept for the travel centre in Newcastle and the overall design concept for the other six GNER travel centres along its East coast route, which will be implemented by architect Austin-Smith Lord.

The concept behind the design is to offer an inviting environment which combines airport and retail style convenience. ‘It’s about channelling customers to the appropriate delivery point,’ says Paul Foley, associate design director of Allen International. To accomplish that there will be fast lanes for travellers who know what they want and slow lanes for those who want to explore all the travel/pricing options. A key objective is the achievement of a ‘clearer communication hierarchy’ and a better ‘zoning’ scheme.

During busy times passengers will be assisted by a ‘meeter greeter’, a member of staff who will direct them towards the correct counter. Placing flat screen monitors above the counters and removing glass barriers between the customer and the staff will transform ticket buying into a fast, yet friendly experience. Other features include a Customer Information Point on the concourse, dealing with inquiries such as platform numbers and train running times.

Each centre will have its own layout and individual idiosyncrasies, but with a generic theme. ‘The idea is to return to the golden age of travel,’ says Foley. The overall concept of a ‘restrained style combining clean modernity with fairly bright colours’ will spread to all the future centres. GNER’s architect, Humphrey & Edwards – previously involved in Sydney’s International Airport – and executive architect Austin Smith Lord have worked with Allen International to accommodate the different space constraints of the various stations.

Architecture: Concept architect: Humphrey & Edwards

Executive architect: Austin-Smith Lord

Interiors, signs and environmental graphics:

Allen International (senior graphic designer Marguerite Hartley)

Lighting: Into Lighting Design

Identity/branding: Vignelli Associates

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