Interchanges of the future

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 2015

A three-year European project to improve the quality of public transport interchanges recently held its closing conference. PSE spoke to Stephen Wise, senior transport planner at Reading Borough Council, one of the UK participants in the programme.

NODES – New Tools for the Design and Operation of Urban Transport Interchanges – was aimed at improving urban mobility by better integrating rail, tram and bus stations with the cities around them. The main output has been a ‘toolbox’ of methods, processes, ideas and tests to influence and improve interchange design.

The EU-funded project was co-ordinated by the UITP (the International Association of Public Transport) and featured member cities, researchers and transport bodies from across Europe, including Reading Borough Council (RBC) and Centro from the UK. Every member city was building or rebuilding an interchange, and Reading was no exception – its new station was reopened by the Queen in summer 2014 (pictured, facing page). The station rebuild has been a core component of the wider £900m Reading Station Area Redevelopment of new tracks, platforms, a depot and a viaduct to unclog what had been one of the rail network’s most severe bottlenecks.

Centro’s involvement focused on the Birmingham Snow Hill interchange, though the larger New Street station was also upgraded in the NODES timeframe. 

Factors to consider

RBC was a lead partner for NODES on the executive board, responsible for one of the work packages and the testing of the tools that came out of the project, which also featured collaboration from operators, research centres and European associations.

Stephen Wise, senior transport planner at RBC, took on a senior role with NODES and spoke to PSE after the final conference in September. He discussed how the original factors to explore were chosen, which ended up covering everything from integrated ticketing to wayfinding, and from waste management to business development. Wise said: “There was a very wide spread of topics, which I think reflected individual cities’ interests and the way they were approaching their own interchange rebuilding.

“We obviously had already set in train the project to rebuild Reading station, but because that took awhile, there was an opportunity to test some of the tools emerging from the NODES project on Reading station. It was interesting to see that real-life experience, when applied to something that theoretically seemed a good idea.”

These final tools were grouped according to five main functions and factors:

  • Land use and infrastructure
  • Design
  • ICT & Intermodality
  • Interchange management and Business models
  • Energy efficiency and environment

Real-life experience

Of the Reading project partners, only the council itself was formally involved with NODES, but because of its close relationships with Network Rail, the engineering contractors and train operators, “we were able to tap into some of that knowledge and observe what was happening,” Wise said, and to test the tools directly. Wise’s presentation at the final conference focused on noise control. He said: “It was very interesting to use the Network Rail timelapse photography they published on their website, which showed the massive construction work required to move the transfer deck into place. But because it’s timelapse, there was no sound – and that made the point that you had to imagine how noisy this could be.

“Environmental noise control is important: you have to minimise noise, take note of who lives nearby and remember this will affect them for a three-year period. They need their sleep.

“These are things that if you ignore, they will come back to bite you, big time. So it’s not just about designing the most fantastic interchange, or having the most technologically fantastic integrated ticketing or information systems – it’s actually also about the human aspects. Being a good neighbour is really important in these things, and it’s easy to overlook.”

c. Steve Parsons

European comparisons

The NODES participants undertook site visits to many interchanges, which were as varied as you would expect – from slick shrines to urban mobility in Rotterdam and Toulouse to a more questionable hub in Budapest that needed major work.

Wise said some countries in Europe have a proactive approach to urban transport interchanges, with a default position that public transport is good and worth spending money on. The historical approach in Britain has been more penny-pinching, he said, which makes comparison tougher.

He said: “Rotterdam, for example, was an amazing station – similar in concept to the Reading station project in that it was a rebuild to accommodate increased passenger traffic. It was perhaps a little bit more slick in its joining up with the town and local transport, though Rotterdam is a major city and Reading is not, and a major aspect with Reading was the wider operational side of it to make whole railway work better. From Reading’s point of view, the major impact I think we were looking for was to stimulate development of the area around the station – and it’s certainly done that.”

The NODES toolbox was tested in real conditions at these sites: Reading; Birmingham; Rouen; Toulouse; Osnabrück; Budapest; Rome; Thessaloniki; and Rotterdam, Utrecht and ‘s-Hertogenbosch (as one site).

Spreading the message

Now that these tools have been created, tested and approved, the partners involved want to ensure they don’t just end up sat on a (metaphorical) shelf in a dusty corner of the EU archives, but instead get used. Wise said: “That’s the biggest challenge with this kind of thing. The research has been done, the tools have been refined and are available. Will people decide to use them? Or will they muddle on in a way where they don’t use the right tool for the job? If you know a tool exists, you can use it. If you don’t, you’ll use something else that maybe doesn’t work.”

The UITP is going to maintain the NODES website rather than just archive it, and there are taster tools to attract more interest, such as a way for any town or city to assess its own interchange. “I’ve applied that to the other two stations in Reading to see if it gave a fair result, and I think it did,” Wise said. “The answers people get will tell them whether they should be concentrating on accessibility, or the environmental impact, or the physical features of the station, for example.”

Wise said it would have been a “waste of time” if the results do not inform future interchange projects, and he is keen to see more people find out about it. The outputs include the ‘Typology Diagrammatic Representation’ tool to assess the design needs and facility requirements of an interchange, and the ‘Station Experience Monitor’ to improve the user experience.

Taking the user into account

Neither using the tools nor implementing their recommendations needs to cost a lot of money, Wise said. Some are about better ways of involving all potential interchange users in the initial design and then the construction – for example, blind people or those with physical disabilities. 

“To take an obvious example, if you’ve built something and it looks fantastic and the designer is really pleased and the operator wants to get its hands on it, but the first blind person walks in and falls over, that means somebody has not really appreciated the full aspect of the user interface. Real people have to use the facility: it’s not just about design and status.”

Reading station did face some of these kinds of criticisms early on, because of a lack of waymarking. Wise acknowledged that making a busy interchange a friendly place for blind people is a “challenge” but added: “Their needs can be accommodated, and if you’re going to spend £850m, it needs to be good for everyone.”

One local tech project tested using the NODES methodology was the 3D SoundScape Demonstrator, a guidance tool combining a headset, GPS mapping and beacons on urban furniture to help visually impaired people. The project – developed by RBC, Microsoft and Guide Dogs – was a ‘smart city’ initiative to help bring the world to life for blind people, and give information on what is where in the station. Ultimately, the NODES methodology suggested a number of potential improvements, such as making the GPS more precise and offering multiple languages.

Discussing the tools more generally, Wise said: “If people want to delve deeper, there are the examples from each city that tested the tools, and the conclusions they came to. So, can we improve our interchanges? Yes we can, and we don’t necessarily need to spend a huge amount of money to make them work for people.”

The experience also made it clear that people do put up with bad interchanges when they have to, from dodgy signage to physically climbing over badly placed walls. “People will make it work even if we design it badly and don’t build it properly. But that’s not a reason to do it that way,” Wise said. “You can look at some of the massive investments that have been made at places like St Pancras or Rotterdam, but it doesn’t have to be on that multi-million-pound scale: you can do a cheap yet user-friendly and fantastic job, just by using a set of very easy-to-access tools.”

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