Cinderella stations were forgotten

The ever busy Lord Adonis launched his stations initiative with yet another tour of the country. It all came about because of his experience with his previous tour at Easter when he could not get a cup of tea at Southampton station in the evening.

It is all a clever bit of politics. He may be in the Lords and fooled one BBC interviewer I talked with yesterday into thinking he is non political, but actually he is a canny operator who manages to get things done and has put the Tories on the back foot on transport. Much of the report is a no-brainer. It recommends setting standards for different types of stations – there are six – something which should have been done at privatisation if not before.

He has managed to suggest that spending £50m on a few particularly bad stations is new money when actually it is coming out of Network Rail’s already established budget. But it made for good headlines and, of course, is genuinely welcomed by the users of those stations.

In fact, the problem is that stations are run by train operators but leased from Network Rail. So getting improvements done has always been more complicated than it should have done. I have been told that there was a late move during the passage of the 1993 Act to give the stations to the operators as part of the franchise but it would have been too complicated at that stage and therefore was abandoned. It would, of course, have been far more sensible. So when an operator does put in an improvement, they are likely to be charged extra rent for using it! It is another daft legacy of splitting up the railways

  • Dan

    This certainly hit the headlines yesterday (vast number of readers comments on, for example, the Guardian website article on this topic – mostly listing worse stations than the 10 Adonis visited).

    A few points I feel worthy of mention:

    Railtrack had a pretty good station modernistaion programme (superb result at Brighton, and Bournemouth, which was a total disgrace, and Carnforth (eventually)) , and I recall seeing pics of some nice work on one of the Cornish branches) of course. Turns out of course that they were spending money on the stations, but maybe not on the track!

    In BR days when lines were modernised the stations tended to be included for a full makeover (I recall when Tonbridge – Hastings was electrified – by Chris Green and NSE of course – all the charming small stations got nicely restored). I guess when WCML was done 1st time round this happened too – with Euston, New Street (ahem), Manc Piccadily (prev guise), Stafford etc all redone – with less than ideal results maybe, but I suppose one must blame the architects and the budgets they had available.

    This I fear could be the problem with much of this current noise – these stations are not problematic because they are Victorian per se, they are problematic because they are not maintained and in many cases under staffed.

    Some modern rebuilds and new builds are nice and shiny (East Mids Parkway, Corby, Derby new platforms) but architecturally they are very dull, and may well not stand the test of time – esp if not maintained properly.

    To have a look at what can be acheived I’d point to the work of some of the Community Rail Partnerships – eg Cromford, and of course (not a CRP), but the Settle and Carlisle – what a joy it is to visit, arrive at, depart from or even simply pass through any of the stations that the S&C trust have taken under their wing. Not sure if the report gives credit for the work done in those places as I’ve not read it in full yet, but it does!

    The fact of the matter is that far too many stations are indeed rather dismal (and I find the smaller ones with buildings demolished, sold off and passnegers left with a bus shelter the most depressing), but it is TLC and a bit of maintenance spend they need, along with a human prescence where feasible.

  • The problem with many attempts at upgrading and refreshing older stations is that the accountants only see the costs, while most modern architects tend to see this as an opportunity to advertise their practices.

    Modern architecture is often rightly blamed for being crass, boring and dumbed-down. Certain architects (who shall remain nameless) tend to focus on technology, fashions and making something “worthy” of their own egos, all at the expense of *character*. The results are utterly generic, mass-produced glass boxes which could have been stamped out by a machine by the thousand. Very few are “readable” the way good architecture should be: very few modern stations *say* “I’m a station!” There’s no *art* in architecture any more.

    You could replace the Eurostar signage on Ebbsfleet’s dull glass and concrete box of a station with Tesco’s branding and few would even notice. Even the original brutalist version of Roma Termini station was better than this mewling excuse of a station coughed into this Kent valley.

  • RapidAssistant

    The problem is, when you start trying to make an architectural statement you end up with a monument. And I think that the golden age of railway architecture that produced the great “cathedral stations” like St Pancras, Paddington, Glasgow Central, York etc etc is gone forever. As you say you end up with glass boxes (my nomination would be Lord Foster’s characterless extension to St.P)

    The costs of doing even the most basic upgrade work to stations coupled to Network Rail’s tendency to gold plate anything it touches I think will remain a significant barrier to building something really memorable.

    Maybe we should get Kevin McCloud on the case!

  • “The problem is, when you start trying to make an architectural statement you end up with a monument.”

    I disagree. There are countless small stations—e.g. Penge East, the Settle & Carlisle stations, etc.—which are far from monumental.

    All these achieve two things:

    First, they are very obviously *stations*, not merely generic boxes which happen to be in use as stations. Second, they clearly didn’t break the bank. Hell, even “Lewisham Road” station (at the top of Loampit Hill in Lewisham) has more charm and character than most new builds and revamped stations today. And “Lewisham Road” was a cheaply built structure on the long-closed Greenwich Branch that hasn’t actually been used as a station for some 92 years!

    Even St. Pancras, for all its vaunted hype, is very shallow architecturally. All the plaudits are invariably over Barlow’s original work, which is truly monumental and practically screams, “I am Station! Hear me ROAR!” All the new elements—the undercroft shopping areas, the rear extension, the new platforms—are bland and charmless. I’ve used the station a couple of times now and, frankly, I could have been in the Bluewater shopping centre. It takes true genius to turn a bright, open, airy station into something with all the character of a gloomy underground car park.

  • Keith

    I think what’s changed since say, the 80s, was that cleaning, minor maintenance, catering etc was done by people who worked at a particular station for BR. Nowadays it’s presumably outside contractors who would not consider themselves to be working “on the railways”. And of course the complete loss of mail and parcels traffic hasn’t helped either. I’m sure there was overmanning, but it’s hard to quantify the benefits of having staff around, particularly at off-peak times.

  • Dan

    You are right Keith – where I grew up in Sussex in the 1980s the local (village) station had 2 staff, 1 in morning 1 in afternoon – so it was staffed from about 6am to 8pm (last train probably a couple of hours after that). Between trains they did the hanging baskets, swept up, cleaned toilets, wound up clock (until it was stolen) etc. The routine was that in virtually all cases (even if a ticket office queue) when a train arrived they would nip out of the ticket office to flag it off, ensure doors closed etc, check tickets of alighting passengers etc.

    Now it has only 1 staff member and is open 6am to 11.45am. Cleaning probably done intermittently by contractors as staff member has to stay in office for security reasons (ie that is where the cash is) behind bullet proof style ticket window. You can get on and off a train without actually realising it is staffed due to this.

    I find this an interesting point. There is a small station where I live now (midlands) which is, surprisingly, still staffed, but the way it is organised – as above really – you would not always realise the staff member is there – this seems daft to me – if you are paying for staffing you need that staff prescence to be visible for passenegrs to see – otherwise some of the benefits of it are lost, those benefits being more than just ticket sales. I often visit this station and see litter etc on the platfroms, suggesting the staff do not even have as part of their job requirments the task of a basic litter pick. As with so many things it would seem that much more could be done with little effort or additional cost.