From seasoned commuters to occasional day-trippers, rail passengers are never short of opinions. Punctuality, fares, trains, station facilities and staff are all subject to intense scrutiny from users, who will gladly make their thoughts known if the feel they are being let down.
For the rail operators running services, it’s natural that the bulk of ongoing investment is being spent on the core elements that feed into the passenger experience, including the introduction of new rolling stock, line and signalling improvements and high-profile station upgrades. Indeed, a rail company’s ability to make long-term improvements is a key requirement for franchise bids in many countries.
But no passenger’s journey is complete on leaving a station – there’s still the question of moving between the station and the final destination, usually the high street or office space surrounding a town or city centre. This leg of the passenger’s journey has understandably received less attention as it falls outside the usual range of responsibility for rail operators and has tended to fly under the radar of local authorities.
Nevertheless, poor planning when it comes to the walking route between a station and a town centre – unclear signage, busy roads or barren, unwelcoming sights, for example – can present issues every bit as offputting for travellers as erratic timetables and high ticket prices. For many travellers, the local rail hub serves as the primary gateway to a town or city; the practical and aesthetic quality of a station’s immediate surroundings (or lack thereof) can leave a lasting impression on visitors.
"When you arrive somewhere and you can easily establish where you are, where you’re going and how to get there, and feel safe doing it without having to cross over busy roads, it makes an enormous difference to your journey," says Richard Bourn, traffic and planning campaigner at the UK’s Campaign for Better Transport.
Fixing the Link
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As our understanding of public transport and the benefits of its integration into urban planning becomes more sophisticated, the need to look more closely at the links between stations and town centres is increasingly being recognised. One prominent campaign in this area, dubbed ‘Fixing the Link’, looks at a set of criteria for assessing the quality of station-city centre walking routes. It was initially developed in the Netherlands and is now in the early stages of being imported to the UK.
The Fixing the Link concept is underpinned by academic research, supported by Dutch Railways (Nederlanse Spoorwegen) and dating back to 2006, which found that visitors stay longer, spend more money and are more likely to return if a town has a good walking environment for rail travellers.
"I think it’s double the time and double the money, if I remember the research correctly," says Bourn. "So it makes an enormous difference to regeneration efforts in a town. If a town or another place is seeking to boost the economy and to generally upgrade the quality of the station and streets and the route between the town centre and the station, then improving these things has a very big role to play."
More recently, Dutch Railways’ international arm Abellio has been working to introduce the principles of Fixing the Link to the UK. The rail operator commissioned Bourn and the Campaign for Better Transport to write a report on the assessment method, using three towns – Ely, Colchester and Ipswich – on the company’s Greater Anglia rail franchise as examples.
There is a precedent for this kind of thinking in the UK – the Association of Train Operating Companies’ (ATOC) Station Travel Plans – but Fixing the Link represents an extension of the concept, as Bourn explains. "Station Travel Plans normally only cover the area within the station boundary," he says. "The thing about the Fixing the Link methodology is that it considers the area across the station boundary and out on to the much larger area between the station and the town centre."
What makes a good link?
At its heart, the Fixing the Link model is a set of criteria for judging the quality of the link between a station and town centre. The assessment centres around four key categories. ‘Liveliness’ covers the atmosphere and foot traffic on the route, awarding points based on the presence of mixed-use developments like shops, restaurants and housing that attract a wide range of people, making a route feel more lively and welcoming to visitors.
‘Human Scale’, meanwhile, measures how manageable the route is for pedestrians, taking in the length of the walk to the centre, as well as the scale and permeability of the buildings along the way. ‘Legibility’ assesses the user-friendliness of signage and other methods for pedestrians to orientate themselves on their journey, while ‘Safety and Comfort’ tracks dangers or inconveniences posed to walkers by traffic or an unnerving layout, so dark alleyways and busy road crossings are penalised.
For Bourn, a key aspect of a successful link is the use of the land that adjoins walking routes between station and town centre, something he feels could be emphasised more strongly in the Dutch methodology.
"It’s desirable to look for other uses for sites on either side of the route," he says. "In some of these places – Ipswich, Colchester and Ely – there were very big proposals that were being implemented for housing developments in locations that were rather remote from the station, so you couldn’t possibly walk to the station. While at the same time, there were available sites which were in walking distance of the station. That seems completely wrong – why do you not just follow the transport logic and put new housing and mixed-use developments within walking distance of public transport and the town centre, and not in remote locations on the other side of town?"
Adapting to the UK transport network
The results of applying the Fixing the Link assessment method to Ely, Colchester and Ipswich revealed a significant disparity between the quality of links in the Netherlands in the UK, with the towns on the Greater Anglia line scoring lower than their Dutch counterparts in all four categories.
Bourn notes that simple geography explains some of the difference. "Partly it’s because the length of the route between the station and the town centre in the Netherlands was typically half that of the English routes," he says. "I think Ipswich, Colchester and Ely are not atypical. It’s frequently the case that it’s rather a long way from the station to the town centre in English towns."
Of course, other factors have influenced the gap. The English towns fared worst in the Safety and Comfort category, with station routes in Ely and Ipswich deemed 36% and 40% less safe and comfortable, respectively, than the Dutch average. Since the end of the Second World War, the Netherlands has displayed a growing tendency to prioritise walking, cycling and well-integrated public transport over access for cars, whereas road access has historically dominated British urban planning. As a result, heavy-traffic roads tend to be more of an issue between stations and town centres in the UK, which reflected on the Safety and Comfort score.
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"There was a time, decades, when transport planning [in the UK] was all about improving access for the car and enabling people to make their way to the town centre by car," says Bourn. "Now the balance is somewhat redressed, and people are thinking now about improving public transport access. We’re seeing the fruit of it sometimes."
Given that British towns face different challenges when it comes to improving walking routes from stations, there is a natural need to adapt the Fixing the Link concept to better suit those challenges, like introducing reduced speed limits and other measures to mitigate the intrusion of traffic. Bourn also mentions that the UK’s generally longer distances between station and town centre could pave the way for more ambitious development plans.
"Perhaps the opportunity for using the land to different effect between the station and the town centre is greater here than it would be in the Netherlands, which does point to the size of the opportunity that exists," he says.
Funding the link
Of course, bold plans to remodel the spaces between stations and town centres don’t come cheap. But as the Fixing the Link report notes, there are a number of funding options for local authorities looking to develop these ideas. The UK government announced in 2013 that £6bn of local transport funding would be added to the Single Local Growth Fund up to 2020-21.
The Department for Transport also noted in early 2014 that the support of wider local growth – such as better walking and cycling connections – would be crucial if councils want access to a portion of the £78.5m in Local Sustainable Transport Fund cash that will be released in 2015-16.
Bourn suggests that rail franchise bids could also acknowledge the value of developing the areas around stations to incentivise wider implementation of ideas like those set out in Fixing the Link from the private sector as well as public funds. After all, rail operators stand to gain from improving the overall public transport experience just as much as local councils.
"Perhaps it could become part of franchise proposals that are being made to operate the rail network," he says. "So where the railway company shows a willingness to work with local authorities in improving the wider lot of the train passengers, not just while on the train or at the station, but further afield, then that should be something in their favour."