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Shedding light on station design

Designing stations that successfully meet the needs of passengers was the theme of a brainstorming conference last month. Ed Dorrell reports

As government investment in rail infrastructure gets back on track with the reinvention of Railtrack, a group of experts in train station design met in London on 20 June for a 'round-table' debate.

The central theme of the event, sponsored by products manufacturer Marshalls, was how architects could successfully design stations that meet passengers' needs. Vinita Nawathe, policy and research manager for the Rail Passengers' Council, gave the user's perspective. All passengers want is to get on a train with the least possible hassle, to have easy interchanges with other trains or forms of transport, and not to feel threatened, she said.

Tony McGuirk, director of architecture at the Building Design Partnership, which has been closely involved with London's longawaited Crossrail development, said that it was crucial to passengers that they have personal space. 'They all need territory if they are to feel secure.'

'We need to try to create a human environment, ' he said. 'One idea we have is to create a part of the city landscape within a station. It is an environment that most people understand and it makes people comfortable within the station.'

Irvin Morris, technical director of the Design Research Unit, agreed that the key is to make stations more relaxing. 'For example, it is fantastic if you can get natural light into Tube stations - it makes people feel relaxed. The Copenhagen metro has pipes to the surface with mirror pyramids directing light into the station below, ' he said.

Copenhagen's metro - which was 'comfortable, convenient and safe to use' - should provide a model for British stations, Morris argued.

Lighting was a continuous theme in the debate. Morris highlighted the problem in many underground stations, where the light gets more dull the deeper into the station you go, 'giving the impression of disappearing into a black hole'. He argued that lighting intensity should be maintained or even increased at deeper levels.

Taylor Woodrow's Ray Lascelles questioned architects' aspirations when designing stations. 'What is a station?' he asked. 'Is it just a utility space or is it a public space that could be a visitor attraction?'

Nawathe responded that the challenge was to accommodate the many different types of traveller. 'Commuters want to be in and out of a station as quickly as possible, ' she said. 'Holidaymakers would ideally like to see the station as part of their trip and business travelers are halfway between.

Striking the balance is the key.'

Morris added that any station designer has to be realistic about the possibilities; for example, small-scale village stations could not, or should not, be transformed into retail centres.

Most agreed with Design Research Unit senior associate Tim Nicholls that an 'honesty system' would be the greatest aid to improvement. 'The process of joining a train would be so much easier if you got rid of the barriers, ' he said.

'They are one of the chief causes of hassle in stations. If you could trust passengers to have a ticket, then boarding would be much easier.'

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