Imagine your ideal train station – then see it become a reality
By Sujata Burman
“Railways are a source of innovation for society, and have a transformative impact on people and places,” says Anthony Dewar, professional head of buildings and architecture at Network Rail.
An exciting new project sees the design development of small and medium-sized train stations handed over to the public. In 2021, Network Rail commissioned ExploreStation led by Design Council in partnership with Commonplace, Digital Urban and The Glass House Community Led Design – to engage the Great British public in creating a flexible design concept for future stations. The public contributed their input, and designs were developed by 7N Architects, with the intention of rolling out the results in years to come.
There’s no doubt trains stations have a huge impact on our lives– they’re multifunctional hubs and place makers, as much as they are conduits for transportation. “Railways are a source of innovation for society, and have a transformative impact on people and places,” says Anthony Dewar, professional head of buildings and architecture at Network Rail. So, the project required engagement to inform its design. “Creating a process that allowed diverse conversations through diverse activities was key,” Dewar notes. Here, he shares what they learned and how it shaped the project as a whole.
What do the public want when it comes to train stations?
We learned a lot about what the public want from their local stations from ExploreStation’s predecessor, ThinkStation – a programme of workshops that were undertaken across the UK and themed around our design principles. We asked what people thought a station could and should be. The answers gave us some incredibly valuable insights into the role that stations play in enhancing community, supporting equity and inclusion, achieving high and consistent quality, incorporating and celebrating green spaces, and allowing for intermodal transport – to name a few.
Overall, we learned the power our infrastructure can play. Stations are so much more than locations where people get on and off trains, they are places in their own right. Stations can build a sense of belonging, pride and heritage, while also contributing to more urgent and strategic issues, such as climate change and biodiversity loss.
'The goal is to design stations that create welcoming, safe, flexible, resilient and delightful community spaces, by opening up the conversation to include everyone.' - Anthony Dewar
What is the goal of ExploreStation, and what are the challenges in achieving it?
The goal is to design stations that create welcoming, safe, flexible, resilient and delightful community spaces, by opening up the conversation to include everyone. The challenges are myriad. Every place is different. People’s needs vary vastly from individual to individual. Critically, pushing boundaries of imagination can also be a challenge. While we encouraged people to think about what they would like, want and need on their doorstep, we also conveyed the need for the design to be delivered anywhere and everywhere.
This context was crucial, and why we spent a lot of care expanding on local character and national identity, for a station blueprint that sets a standard and enhances travel and community experiences across Britain. We also wanted to meaningfully widen the lens through which the project is regarded and developed. A project team contains a multiplicity of viewpoints and priorities and ideas, but ultimately it’s a group of people with a specific brief and goals to deliver. However, infrastructure affects us all, so creating the conditions for a wider group to contribute was important. Ultimately, it allows for a far more thoughtful, exciting and inclusive design process.
The conversations could be technical and complex, so elements of fun were essential for the best results. Tools such as VR and playful workshops helped; as did communicating design proposals via before and after images, and providing the option to respond with colourful smiley faces.
Why did you choose 7N Architects for ExploreStation?
The team at 7N Architects won Network Rail’s Re-imagining Railways design competition, presenting their response to the recommendations from ThinkStation. They demonstrated a commitment to understanding and engaging with what people like, want and need. They communicated the role that design can play in addressing the complexities of functions and services inherent in public space and infrastructure. But, they also highlighted the importance of simplicity in innovation and implementation, for a place that’s intuitive, welcoming and enables communities to thrive.
7N Architects’ understanding of these priorities implied their ability to continue to respond to the multiplicity and complexity of ideas and feedback that the public may offer. This made them the ideal team to engage in the ExploreStation programme.