Train stations: where sustainable mobility meets urban regeneration

Because of growing environmental concerns – and clogged roads, poor parking, and airport queues – train travel is back on track as a leading mobility solution. As a result, many central train stations are being radically modernized to better perform their natural roles as essential urban hubs.

For many years, passenger rail was considered to be a dying industry. Mobility gurus and media pundits agreed that the car and the airplane were the future, while trains faded into the picturesque past. Therefore, investment in transportation infrastructure tended to favor huge airports and sprawling road systems. But this managed to ignore one important fact: passenger rail never really died. It’s actually bigger than ever! And now, growing global interest in the environment is forcing a much-needed recalculation of the costs and benefits of all forms of transportation – radically changing the view of trains.

Birmingham makes a bold statement about rail mobility.

Train stations as temples to modern mobility

When we think of train stations we often think of monumental structures from a bygone era. The huge old main train stations of the past were built to reflect their 19th (and even 20th century) centrality to progress and prosperity. That centrality is now being rediscovered and refreshed.

Train stations are being rapidly transported into the 21st century. Modern high-speed, intercity train service competes in price, convenience, and time savings with short-haul air traffic and car travel, and it is rapidly expanding, especially in Asia. Train stations have also developed naturally into vital urban hubs for metro and commuter rail lines. In addition, planners have begun to realize that stations can profitably offer more services to the huge numbers of commuters passing through main train stations every day.

In a related development, planners are beginning to better appreciate that heavily trafficked train stations can be used to regenerate entire urban neighborhoods, as well as incorporate and link previously separate areas into the modern city (e.g. the case of London Crossrail). And finally, there’s that growing awareness that train travel is much more environmentally friendly than the alternatives.

Berlin was an early adopter of the new style of station.

Thinking about train station UX

Spurred by this renewed interest and their heightened relevance, train station operators have been radically rethinking the user experience (UX) of the people who use the stations, much as airportsstadiums, libraries, and cruise ships have been doing.

That means more intentionally integrating the entire range of passenger rail transport: high-speed long-distance, regional, and local commuter rail and metro lines. It also means further emphasizing the role of stations as multi-modal mobility hubs. For instance, Amsterdam’s new Central Station makeover will include parking space for 17,500 bicycles.

New kid on the block: Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Station.

Better UX also means everything from better signs, maps, and ticket-purchase options, as well as extending those possibilities into the digital sphere via free Wi-Fi and apps to help commuters find the train, platform, or in-house service they need.

That includes more shops and restaurants: Because another part of better UX is offering travelers more of what they want where they already are. Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, opened in 2006, provides a good example: the center concourse is essentially a multi-story shopping mall, with everything from shoes to groceries available on site.

The dramatic makeover of the Strasbourg train station.

Making train stations a more moving experience

New stations like Berlin as well as the futuristic stations in Birmingham or Hong Kong (West Kowloon) show a growing reclamation of the “central” status of central urban train stations. What is equally impressive is the architectural energy and planning going into preparing older stations for the future.

Strasbourg famously expanded its available space in 2007 by adding a gigantic oblong bubble of glass to its exterior. Union Station in Washington, D.C. is embarking on an extensive renovation, to be completed in 2022. And the facelift to St Pancras International in London introduced over 50 stylish shops catering to a variety of upscale pleasures.

Such renewals sometimes create tensions as well. The plan for a massive overhaul of Gare du Nord in Paris has provoked a lively debate on the look and purpose of urban train stations in historic cityscapes. That’s a long-overdue discussion because citizen involvement is at the very core of what makes cities good places to live.

Improving mobility in Milan

Opened in 1931, Stazione Milano Centrale (Milan Central Station) is classically vast and opulent. It is one of the largest rail hubs in Europe and accommodates the travel needs of approximately 400,000 people every day. But by 2006, everyone agreed that it was time for major improvements.

With the assistance of the urban mobility experts at TK Elevator, the station was able to reinvent itself and improve the UX of rail passengers while maintaining the architectural integrity of this landmark edifice. A platform lift, 16 moving walkways, and 19 elevators were duly installed, providing improved connectivity throughout the huge station and enabling fast, first-class and safe movement from trains to shops to subways for everyone.

Milan is only one of the many cities that relies on TK Elevator for advanced in-station mobility solutions, the critical connection between all other forms of mobility to be found there. Other cities include Sydney, StockholmRomeCairo, and Baku – all around the world, in other words.

Milan upgraded its station UX with modern mobility solutions.

Retrofitting tomorrow into today

The renewed interest in train travel has been turbocharged by widespread media attention on the ecological advantages of railway mobility. In turn, this has dramatically elevated the status of train travel and revealed a clear crack in the previous consensus about the supremacy of cars and planes.

Cities have taken note, and a long-overdue investment in trains and the places where people connect with them – stations – is one more sign that our urban future is not decided and static: it is flexible and mobile, and we can decide where it goes and how.

Train arriving at Leeds Station.