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October 29, 2018updated 29 Nov 2019 11:35am

From meetings to grocery collection: the changing role of stations

Train stations are no longer just a point of connection between two places; they are in many cases becoming the beating heart of a city. With thousands of people using the train to go to work every day, how are stations evolving, shaped by our consumption habits and our hunger for convenience?

By Adele Berti

In June this year, Amazon started a partnership with French national state-owned railway company Société nationale des chemins de fer (SNCF) that aims to install parcel collection points, called Amazon Lockers, in about 1,000 railway stations across the country.

The scheme, which is currently in place at Paris’ Gare de Lyon and will be expanded over the coming months, allows passengers and local residents to order items on Amazon and pick them up at a convenient station. With over 730 trains passing through it on a daily basis, and a total of 100 million passengers a year, Gare de Lyon is one of the busiest in France and serves as a transport hub for thousands of commuters every day.

About three months in, the trial has already exceeded its targets and aims to deliver 100 packages per locker every day by the end of 2018. “This is a specific service which is used to create a connection between the city, the station and our clients’ everyday life,” explains Carole Tabourot, head of customer experience and station services at SNCF’s Gares et Connexions branch, which is responsible for railway stations in France.

As passengers become more and more time-conscious, Tabourot says that there is a growing awareness about the potential a station has to help support the commuters and locals that use it every day.

The Amazon Lockers were launched for this specific purpose. While normally a person would have to queue at the post office to pick up their parcel, thanks to the service they no longer need to make the detour and can collect on their way to or from work at the station instead. “This is what Amazon Lockers are for: to integrate a person’s daily routine between the city and the station on their daily route to work,” Tabourot says.

Grocery collection

Supporting the needs of the people who pass through the station on a daily basis has become a core characteristic of a station itself.

“By having this service we can ultimately help reduce congestion and the presence of cars on the road.”

In practical terms, this trend translates into a huge variety of initiatives and customer-focused activities. Services range from restaurants and shopping centres to delivery zones, the common denominator being the understanding that stations can no longer be conceived just as simple travel hubs.

In the Canadian province of Ontario, for example, transport manager Metrolinx is currently trialling a scheme that allows travellers to pick up their pre-ordered groceries at five stations in Toronto that collectively serve about 60,000 passengers daily.

Metrolinx media relations, social media and issues specialist Nitish Bissonauth explains that the reason behind the move is a wish to make commuters’ busy lives easier: “I think the service changes the way people see stations, which can now be a one-stop shop. Now it’s not only a place to depart or arrive, it’s a place where you can collect groceries.

“Not only does it make it more convenient for passengers, it also encourages them to take transit and incorporate it as part of their everyday lives. By having this service we can eliminate the extra trip to the store and ultimately help reduce congestion and the presence of cars on the road.”

The scheme, the first of its kind in Canada, is only in its initial stages but is proving successful, as Bissonauth says Metrolinx is planning to expand it to several other stations.

An opportunity for small and large businesses

Grocery and parcel collection are only a small part of the services a modern train station can now offer. According to Antoine Nougarède, head of retail and connections at SNCF Gares et Connexions, these hubs’ newly acquired central roles for their community have brought forward a range of opportunities for businesses: “Stations are gateways to the cities they serve. As such, they play an essential role in local life for the 10 million visitors who pass through them every day.

“French stations are city boosters, connecting people with their social, economic and cultural environment. They are not only a place to go to after or before the train but, big or small, they are an asset and this asset is specific and particular for several aims and subjects.”

“Stations are gateways to the cities they serve.”

Opportunities of this kind can especially flourish in big cities like Paris, one of the busiest financial centres in Europe. For this reason, in July last year, SNCF opened its first business centre at Gare du Nord, consisting of a conference room, about 20 individual offices and a large co-working space on the upper floor of the station.

Tabourot explains that the central position of the station makes it the ideal hub to host business meetings: “This gives us an opportunity to utilise these spaces and put them at the disposition of the people who work near the stations.

“The people who work often travel via train, so these places are dedicated to those who take the train and maybe have a couple of hours to wait before their train departs and have to work. This service is very practical for them”.

Station design will change in future

In the UK, infrastructure manager Network Rail has recently kicked off renovation works at Edinburgh Waverley station, the design of which has been carried out by global engineering firm Arup.

“Edinburgh Waverly is right at the heart of the World Heritage site.”

According to Arup UK and IMEA planning leader Richard de Cani, planning the renovation of a railway station is now a much more complex task than it was in the past: “The future station will have a different function than stations in the past. Stations are very rarely now seen as singular places, just about moving people [instead they] are seen as part of the city, they create the opportunity to integrate different forms of development, different lounges, whether it’s commercial, whether it’s retail, residential or work-based. The buildings of stations now have a different function; it’s much broader, more varied and that is reflected in the design.”

De Cani says that the urban context in which stations are built plays a central role, not only from the perspective of the communities living near them, but also from an architectural point of view. He explains: “Many of these stations are also historic in nature. Edinburgh Waverly is right at the heart of the World Heritage site, which is a very historic environment, so the station has to function in that context.”

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