Smart Railway Stations: Transforming Cities into Living Transport Hubs

Railway stations have become an important part of the discussion when it comes to smart cities, which aim to implement data and technology to improve efficiency, mobility and sustainability. Station managers, political institutions and infrastructure managers are cottoning on to the importance of renovating their rail transport hubs accordingly.

Take India, where the Ministry of Railways has teamed up with the Ministry of Urban Development to ensure that smart railway stations will be built as part of the country’s ongoing Smart Cities Mission. More than 400 stations across India are currently being redeveloped to provide easier access and improved amenities to passengers.

In October 2017, the International Union of Railways (UIC), alongside Spanish rail infrastructure manager ADIF, hosted the sixth edition of its NextStation2017 conference with the theme ‘Smart Stations in Smart Cities’. A notable lesson from the event was that smart rail stations bear connection with smart cities in that they are just as difficult to define.

“It is not basic – that is the main problem facing smart station,” says Clément Gautier, an adviser at the UIC’s passenger and high-speed department. “We have to be aware of each situation for each station in each city. There is no unique concept of a smart station.”

Nevertheless, he claims there are three pillars that should be the principal drivers in developing stations for the future: smart management, smart infrastructure and smart mobility.

Improving services for passengers

According to Gautier, smarter management will make stations more attractive, pleasant and efficient for passengers and consumers. In particular, station managers need to widen the scope of their businesses to capitalise on an increasing number of people passing through.

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“Smarter management will make stations more attractive, pleasant and efficient for passengers and consumers.”

“For most stations [in smart cities], it’s easier to go the station because there is a tramway, you can take the car, you can take public transport, or you can take electronic mobility [solutions],” says Gautier. “Because of this, the station manager has to find new services and develop a new business model.”

A stellar example of this smarter management concept can be found at London’s St Pancras Station. Since the conclusion of its enormous renovation project in 2007, the station’s shopping centre, restaurants and a hotel have essentially formulated a ‘mini-city’ within a city, reducing stress for incoming and outgoing travellers by giving them all the facilities they require in one location.

Nevertheless, these commercial opportunities, Gautier claims, should be compatible with the railway environment. For example, retailers shouldn’t sell items that are too large, heavy or fragile to take on long journeys. Dutch rail operator Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) has created smaller shops in its Utrecht station that are specifically developed for customers with only a short amount of time to browse, or who have heavy luggage.

“We have to develop stations as a living place,” Gautier says. “If we find the best solution in the best place at the best time we can bring more customers to use railway transport. That’s why some managers try to develop the culture in their smart station to improve the experience.”

Grand designs

The idea of stations acting as an effective piece of infrastructure and gateway to a city extends to their design. In a UIC handbook on the topic of smart cities, Gautier cites Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum as an example of a building’s architecture helping to improve the economic potential of surrounding urban areas, and claims railway stations can aim to do the same with their designs.

In 2014, the station in Helmond, Netherlands was renovated with a new building providing lifts, a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge, and bicycle parking. But the design also focused on connecting the station with its locality; a passage underneath the railway was transformed into part of a sprawling station plaza, which connected the station to both the historical and urban sections of the city.

Train station design should serve to decrease potential negative impacts that railways can often bring, such as taking into account environmental factors during construction and renovation.

“The environment is a global aspect,” says Gautier. “We have to improve our environment by developing smarter structures. The main negative externality from the railway companies is the noise pollution. We have to find a solution to reduce this negative impact for cities.”

The stations of the future should have more sustainable designs to reduce their environmental footprint. For instance, the railway hub in Kerpen Horrem, Germany, which was built under German rail company Deutsche Bahn’s ‘StationGreen’ programme and supplies its own energy through solar panels. It also features a geothermal system that circulates hot water under the floor to provide a clean and sustainable source of heating.

Smarter station design can also help improve passengers’ overall experience. The redevelopment of Birmingham New Street station in the UK in 2015 involved the creation of a giant atrium that has not only improved links to and from the city centre, but allowed natural light to pass throughout the entire facility, helping travellers feel more secure.

Keeping passengers moving

Making it easier to get around and keeping customers in the loop is an important aspect of smart mobility. Increased cooperation between station operators and companies in the private sector is helping stations to find innovative, technological solutions to problems.

In the smartphone era, apps have been a progressive step in terms of ticketing and real-time information, two concepts that are vital for mobility in stations. As well as providing the means for paperless tickets, train operators can offer customers another avenue for real-time information. East Japan Railway Company’s (JR East) mobile app, for example, provides detailed updates about what services are available in the country’s stations.

“Several stations have already begun smartening up their processes, creating an exciting precedent for others to follow.”

Interactive terminals, such as those that have been introduced extensively in British, Japanese and French railway stations, are another source of information that make it easier for passengers to move around.

As well as keeping passengers informed, the collection of data will allow stations to analyse common practices and help identify passenger needs and expectations. At stations in Leiden and Groningen, Netherlands, Dutch rail operator NS has deployed its smart station concept, which essentially comprises an advanced measuring system. A combination of Bluetooth, WiFi and infrared sensors are able to map pedestrians’ movements, providing NS with practical data it can use to improve traffic flow through the stations.

The interest in new Internet of Things (IoT) concepts is based on the idea that data can be used to improve services and can be best fostered by collaboration, according to the UIC. As such, both French rail operator SNCF and Deutsche Bahn have launched start-up accelerator programmes, working with inventors to develop new solutions. The former has resulted in the development of BARYL, a smart waste bin that moves around stations without obstructing passengers.

Several stations have already begun smartening up their processes, creating an exciting precedent for others to follow. However, the biggest challenge is that the best solutions for one railway hub may be different for another. Lax privacy laws in Asian countries, for example, may enable the use of facial recognition to be used at ticket gates in Chinese stations, but the same would not be possible in many European countries.

“The biggest problem is the cultural aspect,” Gautier says. “A good solution in one place, it will be a problem for another station in another country. And this good solution right now could be used less two or three years in the future. It’s very complicated, as there is a lot of revolution in stations.”

The UIC is uniting station managers in pursuit of smarter railway stations through its Station Managers Global Group (SMGG), which includes representatives ADIF, JR East and the SNCF, and a range of other UIC members. One of the SMGG’s projects is the long-term development of stations to promote them as valuable transport hubs in smart cities.

“We talk about the problem of each company and try to create a project to help find a solution,” says Gautier. “This is the best place to find innovation and share best practices.”