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Fixing the link

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2013

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, spoke to PSE about Dutch research into the links between stations and town centres, and its English application.

Routes between railway stations and town centres have traditionally been absent from both local government and transport investment plans.

But it is this link that directs tourism and growth to an area and encourages greater spending and return visits.

So how can councils work with train franchises to improve this? Dutch research by train operator Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) has been identifying issues including poor signage, a lack of public realm infrastructure, and complicated routes, via methodology known as ‘Fixing the link’.

In the Netherlands, the model is clarifying where investment should be focused. But a similar approach could also be applied to the UK. NS-owned Abellio, which operates Greater Anglia, launched pilot schemes in Ely, Ipswich and Colchester, and the Campaign for Better Transport compiled a report into its findings so far.

The assessment categorises walking routes based on four criteria: liveliness, human scale, legibility, and safety and comfort. 

Transferring policy

PSE spoke to Campaign for Better Transport’s chief executive, Stephen Joseph, about the English application.

He said: “The scores are widely spread, from 14-71%; there’s a good range in the Netherlands in the links. The Dutch are obviously busy trying to work out how to apply this more widely. We’ve tried to take something that fits a Dutch policy context in transport and planning, and apply it to the English experience.”

“Historic towns particularly have been doing quite a lot of thinking about this,” he added.

Some of the idea behind better links extends the existing Station Travel Plans, which focus on how passengers get to stations.

But Fixing the Link specifically looks at the walking route, which in some cases is “put in the ‘too-hard basket’”, Joseph said.

This is because the railway traditionally only thinks about what it can control immediately around its own boundaries; while this includes things like cycle parking and bus stops, the physical environment can also benefit from investment.

Complex co-ordination

Better walking links require “genuine collaborative effort between the railway and local authorities”, which has “sometimes been seen as quite difficult to do”.

The relationships are “very variable”, he said, with a lot of ad hoc work being done. Fixing the Link offers a methodology for understanding how these can be improved in a more standardised manner.

It involves co-ordination of different parts of the railway industry, as well as district and county councils, who are responsible for planning and transport respectively in two-tier local authority areas. Unitary authorities and London boroughs handle both aspects.

Recent station builds and refurbishments seem to be paying more attention to these links; notable examples such as King’s Cross and its huge public realm scheme spring to mind.

But Joseph warned: “It’s highly variable.”

A narrow view

At “the worst end”, some operators have a mindset that considers car park revenue more important than sustainable transport options. ‘Bad neighbour’ relations between the railway and the local authority “make the railway a more unattractive place to get to”, which has detrimental impacts on both players.

“We know that this stuff matters, but too often nobody’s thought about it.”

Getting the rail industry on board is clearly important, and the operators who “still have quite a narrow view”, need to work more closely with authorities to reap the benefits of a good centre-station link.

Joseph said: “As one long-serving manager put it at the launch: ‘Too often we’ve said that if it’s ten metres from the railway station, we’re not interested.’ That misses the point.”

Beyond the station

Passenger opinion could be another factor that “falls between the gaps” of the railway industry and local government when considering station links. The National Passenger Survey concentrates on how people arrive at stations and what they think of those facilities without a wider view on the route to the town centre.

Local authorities also conduct surveys of the public’s view on their streets, but again “wouldn’t necessarily alight on this”.

Improving the routes can be very simple things to change; adding clear signage at the station, for example: “Even at that level, there’s a failure to think about onward travel in that sense,” Joseph said.

Local funding

The Campaign for Better Transport has made some recommendations on funding – sure to be another sticking point as local authorities and train operators argue over responsibility.

The report suggests using local enterprises and the local growth fund – in many cases improvements will have a strong economic case.

This adds another element to the co-ordination, making collaboration even more complicated.

But the Fixing the Link methodology could provide a framework with which to bring all these players to the table and take route improvements beyond Station Travel Plans. It’s certainly a pilot to watch.

(Image: Ben Sutherland)


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