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We're helping local authority planners to navigate the rail industry

In this month's The Planner journal, feature article 'How UK Rail Stations can support Urban Renewal'. Paul Beaty Pownall explains bpr's work in improving inward investment and the quality of public realm in rail-led regeneration projects.

Wide the planner   rail led regen feature june 2018
Wide birds eye view

Paul Beaty Pownall, managing director of bpr architects, who has written station design guides for Network Rail and Transport for London, explains: “For planners, Network Rail is the key player in navigating the rail industry. “If a local authority thinks a station could play a part in regeneration I would recommend it creates a masterplan that shows how the station fits into that then targets the rail community to find the key stakeholders.” He says rail operators will look for projects that increase passenger numbers, capacity, revenue and income from retail “and one of the objectives from regeneration for them is often better retail, as regeneration will support a better quality offer than the usual drinks and snacks, which are quite low margin”.Stations are changing. With more passengers buying tickets online, by mobiles or at machines, there is no longer the same need for huge booking halls with multiple staffed windows. Could this space become more part of the streetscape?

Beaty Pownall has developed the idea of ‘station as street’ where, for example, the station would have information, ticket sales and waiting areas but with a permeable boundary with the street environment, with people coming in to use concourse shops.

Building upwards, too, may look an obvious chance to maximise the land and its utility. But it’s far from simple, as Beaty Pownall points out:
“Going above an operational rail line is a problem because you may have a landlord who controls the stations and someone else who owns the lease of the tower block above it, while NetworkRail is the freeholder so things are in different ownerships and that affects investor value.” It’s easier to find surplus land adjacent to stations and separate from operational land. By way of illustration, he points to Lea Bridge, which the London Borough of Waltham Forest persuaded Network Rail to reopen in 2016 as a basic two-platform facility. It has done its job and the area is attracting investment, meaning something more elaborate is needed.
Beaty Pownall says Waltham Forest will sell three parcels of nearby land for 300 homes, 120 in a tower block, and a rebuilt and slightly relocated station will become a new neighbourhood hub. “Waltham Forest was enthusiastic as they had been looking at more conventional development over the station and found train operators did not
like the idea, and the retail planned would have served only train passengers so it had been very difficult to get any investor interested,” he says.
“When they took our concept they got a good response since the greatest risk was building over a station and that has been removed.”

Wide the planner   rail led regen feature june 2018

There can, however, be gulfs in perception between the rail industry and planners, says Paul Hennessy, regional manager for transportation at Aecom.
“I’ve recently seen a council in the South East put up a design, but they lacked experience in rail. So Network Rail gets something in a format it’s not used to dealing with, and it lacks appetite to take it forward,” he says.
“There’s not a great appetite there to look at wider local areas because Network Rail is focused on how to make its stations work in terms of passenger flows. Network Rail tends to think about stations, while local authorities lack knowledge of the rail industry.”
Grappling with separate public funding streams from local government and Network Rail can also be problematic, Hennessy says, with schemes “that once stacked up then don’t happen because public funding streams come separately”.
Network Rail says it “regularly enters into partnerships to leverage private sector and third party investment into the railway”.
It has a joint venture with contractor Kier and technical consultant Capco called Solum Regeneration, which carries out station redevelopments in the South East.
It also works with consultant Bloc in the Blocwork joint venture for smaller projects and with developers Ballymore, Bruntwood and Muse.

Wide the planner   rail led regen feature june 2018

Traditionally, Network Rail simply sold surplus land but now looks to make better use of it and seeks the right expertise. A spokesperson says: “A lot of our land, naturally, is long and thin, so we have sought to partner with the development sector and other stakeholders to make best use of what we have, while ensuring the safe and efficient operation of the railway. To date, we have identified almost 200 sites that will help support the delivery of 12,000 homes by 2020.”

Mark Smulian is a freelance journalist specialising in the built environment

"Well, I went down to the station…” goes the opening line to many a blues tale – and once upon a time you may have found yourself entering a dingy space leading into even dingier platforms.  Yet their location and purpose means that many stations are ripe for unlocking regeneration schemes, from giving a shopping street a focal
point, to providing easy public transport access to employment and opening up areas for homes.
Network Rail, owner of 2,500 British stations, is one of the nation’s largest landowners. It’s only too happy to put surplus space near to – and, with some caveats, above – stations into schemes that make it money. But engaging with the rail industry can be a complex operation for planners. Network Rail’s role is akin to a freeholder, with stations in effect leased by a train operator that may have little incentive to cooperate in improvements if its franchise is soon to expire. The Department for Transport, which lets franchises to operators, will also most likely become involved.  Accommodating the rail industry’s operational needs is vital in stacking up a project, but generally it will be happy if more passengers use a station because of a development.