I’m standing on the concourse of Charing Cross Station, waiting for a train home. It’s 11.27 on a Thursday night. To my left is Burger King, dishing out Flame-Grilled Whoppas to people so drunk they couldn’t say “offal”. There is nowhere to sit. Behind me is a kind of large, impenetrable box, containing shops that sell knickers, ties and other items that you so often finds yourself without in the middle of a major station. The shops are all shut. The public toilets are buried beneath this “retail island”, this obstruction at the heart of the station, down a dark, steep staircase, beyond an out-of-order metal barrier and beyond the reach of all but the most able-bodied person. I long to be somewhere else.
Such are Britain’s famous rail terminals in the Nineties: by day, they are simply bottlenecks where the movement of shoppers, tourists and travellers coagulates into an uncontrolled mess; by night, when the shops have shut, an atmosphere of neglect descends and they become genuinely unpleasant places.
Much of the blame lies with British Rail’s attempts in the Eighties to exploit the retail potential of its major properties, which turned its head away from maintaining stations for their original purpose. BR’s Station Trading Division spent the Eighties letting out bits and pieces of its property and built the rent-roll from 8m in 1985 to 40m in 1993. Kiosks and shops selling tat were given equally tatty temporary accommodation on station concourses. There was no variety or acknowledgement in the retail mix that stations had different characters or different types of customer; the same names appeared at every terminal. The space was let in piecemeal fashion; there was no strategy or architectural superintendence, and the station environments, many of them framed by heroic Victorian structures, were left to suffocate under the advance of cheap underwear outlets. Meanwhile, helpful, non-revenue generating station facilities such as toilets and left luggage offices were swept off into corners or downstairs.
Now, thankfully, there are signs of control and even imagination being applied to the question of how shops and trains should cohabit. Retailers and their design consultants are learning more about the mindset of travellers, and how to tailor station shops to their context, rather than to slap down abbreviated versions of their high street outlets.
In 1900, WH Smiths’ station shops sold books and magazines, but also traveller comforts like rugs, foot-warmers and games. It even operated a national library system for train passengers: pick up a whodunit at King’s Cross and hand it in at York, say. Foot-warmers may be unnecessary today, but there are opportunities to better fit merchandise to what travellers want. WH Smith very possibly has this change of approach in mind, having just created a special division to handle travel-retail business.
More significantly, Railtrack, the landlord of all the UK’s 2596 stations, is planning investment in its stations on a scale BR could never contemplate. Railtrack is not BR; it is free to seek private finance for major long-term projects. The company is committing 1bn over five years to improvements, in partnership with the 25 train operating companies (TOCs) that lease stations. The Grade II listed Brighton Station, for example, is about to receive a much-needed 12m restoration programme. Whatever the consequences of privatisation on rail services and investment in new trains, the TOCs have all made their own commitments, some large, some small, to improvements: new information systems, lighting, closed circuit TV, refurbished ticket halls, new toilets and so on. Many TOCs are seeking to promote daytime leisure travel and thereby attract retailers selling a general range of goods to rural stations.
The years of neglect under BR are being put right. However, it is at the 14 major stations that Railtrack owns and operates – nine in London, plus Leeds, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly, Glasgow and Edinburgh – that the biggest changes will take place. A 50m development of London’s Paddington Station designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners is just the first in a far-reaching programme of investment that covers all Railtrack’s city centre stations.
Station 2000 is a two-year research and consultation project that has set out an “aspiration plan” for each property. “The whole idea of
Station 2000 isn’t just to capitalise on retail,” says a Railtrack spokesman. “It is to make overall improvements to facilities for station-users and non-station-users.”
Rodney Fitch & Co, Richard Ellis and Ove Arup & Partners have been working alongside Grimshaw’s office on this enormous planning exercise. The study drew attention to the fact, for example, that each major station has its own mix of users – commuters, occasional InterCity travellers, tourists, as well as, at operator level, different TOC combinations. It also acknowledged that certain major users, such as The Post Office and Motorail, have withdrawn, leaving large tracts of station space under-used or disused. At Euston, for example, there are former Post Office halls lying empty beneath the concourse.
The team developed a design philosophy and a development “template” which laid down an approach to space syntax (organisation, sightlines, routes and so on) and defined the stations’ core areas. It examined mechanisms for delivering change within the physical and new, post-privatisation regulatory constraints. Euston was the proving ground for the abstract model. “We decided first of all which stations provided significant potential for short-term and medium-term improvement and then, to demonstrate the system, we used it at Euston and developed a masterplan,” says Grimshaw director Andrew Whalley. “Then, to prove the system was flexible enough to take on the different types of station, we looked at Paddington and Birmingham New Street.”
Paddington Station, the terminal for the new Heathrow Express, was first to get the green light. It will soon be the first stop for millions of foreign visitors – a good reason for asking the architect of the spectacular Waterloo International terminal to take charge.
Work is due to start in the summer to insert a 50m mezzanine retail floor above the concourse at Paddington. It will extend underneath the extension to the Grade I listed Brunel building and allow Railtrack to clear the concourse of its ramshackle shops, kiosks and barrows. Rail customers wanting to shop will be able to keep an eye on the departures board from a position of comfort behind the mezzanine’s glass screen.
Rail and retail will exist under the same roof but in their own purpose-built spaces, with the circulation paths of shoppers and train-catchers being teased apart. “Station 2000 isn’t just about maximising financial returns,” reiterates Whalley. “It’s also about the core activity of getting passengers to trains. It doesn’t actually help, in retail terms either, having lots of people tripping over things. And, generally, people will spend money if they are in a comfortable environment and feel secure about getting their train. If the whole travelling experience is fraught, it’s not the right environment to be spending money in either.”
It is probably not wise to hold your breath where the UK’s railways are concerned, but there are real grounds for optimism that, if work goes ahead, rail and retail will be able to live together in peace and harmony. It’s worth keeping in mind when the builders move in.