The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) held its fifth Stations Summit this month (10th October) at Grand Station, Wolverhampton and I attended along with my colleague Jo Morrison. This year’s conference revolved around the development of stations as transport interchanges within thriving communities.
With senior leaders, policymakers, and stakeholders from rail and non-rail backgrounds in attendance, the event provided an opportunity for the industry, stakeholders, government and devolved bodies to help shape stations policy, as well as to challenge, inspire and explore solutions for British railway stations.
Calvium was one of the seven SMEs whose wares were exhibited in a display area, and I also joined the panel in an afternoon workshop session about inclusive design for railways. Jo and I both received very positive feedback from the delegates and have made several contacts, including from Network Rail, who manage the larger stations in the UK.
Apart from learning from the roster of experts, we also had the opportunity to demonstrate our project NavSta—a digital wayfinding tool geared towards helping those with less visible impairments navigate railway stations independently and with more confidence.
While there were several vital points raised during the entire event, there were five themes that stood out the most.
1. Human-Centred Approach
Conceiving, designing, developing, and managing stations should take a human-centered approach. At its core, we must ask, “What is the question that any one passenger has at any one time in a station?”. Solutions should then revolve around addressing these questions.
Managing Director of CCD Design and Ergonomics, David Watts, in his keynote presentation Putting Passengers First delved into using a human-centred approach when designing railways. Among the points David made were:
- Using qualitative and quantitative methods to map out how journeys differ for people (e.g. the start of an adventure, a journey home, a moment of rest), suggesting that passenger experience is about personal interaction with the environment, and making it a multi-channel and multi-sensory journey
- The concept of the “hidden human,” wherein passengers may not see a human actor at the station, but can sense the area and how much care was put into creating it
“The human touch can manifest itself in many ways,” David said. As such, he suggested that we should look into designing stations in a multi-channel way to unlock opportunities.
Our goal at Calvium is to help stations to provide more positive passenger experiences. To do this, we put research centre stage—both for qualitative and quantitative data. Navsta has been designed with this ethos in mind, by putting our users at the core of our development and gathering their insights from the get-go, allowing us to better understand their needs and their context.
2. More Than Points of Departure and Arrival
Stations can also be more than just points of departure and arrival. According to a report by Arup and Network Rail, stations are facing a significant shift today, as they now have the opportunity to turn into bustling, multi-modal hubs and act as drivers for inclusive and sustainable growth, as well as be at the heart of healthy communities.
As Willie Watt, Director at Nicoll Russell Studios, pointed out, “A station these days is a town within a city.” He cited Dundee as a prime example, as its Council developed the city’s station to also include a hotel.
Meanwhile, Jools Townsend, CE Association of Community Rail Partnership (ACoRP), said that stations should put the lived experiences of people at the forefront of their projects. This will, in turn, empower passengers to make the line more people-friendly.
DfT’s Community Rail Development Strategy is on a similar path, working with groups, social enterprises, and volunteers to connect stations with communities. One of their projects is the Beccles Station, wherein offices and meeting rooms are available for local startups and SMEs, toilets have full disabled access, and facilities are rented out to local groups.
3. No Clear Innovation Path for SMEs
One of the issues pointed out during the summit was the lack of a clear innovation path into the rail sector for SMEs providing original technology-driven solutions. The same goes for companies operating outside the rail sector, who can also find it a challenge to navigate the industry.
Tom Painter of West Midlands Rail Executive said that people outside of the industry are “confronted with arcane processes that can feel like a barrier and a turn off.” He suggested a more streamlined process, as currently, it is “difficult for outsiders to do business with the rail industry.”
Fundamentally, the rail industry is a complex ecosystem with a wealth of different franchise agreements, stakeholders, policies, legislation, and so forth—all of which are often competing. It is not an easily legible sector.
Norrie Courts of Network Rail, meanwhile, spoke of the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships and the need to build strong relationships.
4. SMEs Harnessing Digital Tech to Improve Travel
Today, there are SMEs doing great work in harnessing digital technologies to improve the travel experience of passengers. Alongside Calvium, two notable companies that also operate in this space are:
- CityMaas — CityMaas aim to help people with limited mobility to overcome daily travel obstacles by providing a digitally inclusive and AI powered multi-modes travel platform with crowd-source real time accessibility of a city/area that can work on any routing engine such as Google maps.
- BlockDox — BlockDox utilises big data to help building owners and managers gain more insight into how their properties (e.g. hotels, libraries, shopping malls, restaurants, hospitals, etc.) are performing. With the use of machine learning, and IoT, their platform can display real-time information (e.g. people count, dwell time), so users can address gaps where they can generate more revenue, lower energy use and make more strategic and informed decisions.
5. Adopting Innovative Digital Products and Services
The rail industry showed great interest and desire to adopt innovative digital products and services to support and improve passenger experience of stations.
According to Network Rail and Arup, among the many technological innovations that may change the railway sector is the decreased reliance on physical tickets and departure boards, thanks to mobile apps and virtual messages. Personalised and real-time navigation paths are also possible, making wayfinding much easier.
The Innovate UK challenge is encouraging more businesses to introduce innovation into the rail sector and demonstrate how digital technologies can improve business outcomes and customer experience (our own digital wayfinding project, NavSta, was funded by the Department for Transport through the First of a Kind Round 2 competition, delivered by InnovateUK).
This year, RDG’s Stations Summit dove into the many opportunities that exist to improve every passenger’s travel experience. Although there are challenges, the rail industry is expecting great change in the years ahead, in part from the massive potential for impact of digital technologies. We are working hard to make NavSta an exciting part of that change.