Our railways were the great democratiser of travel. They gave millions access to affordable mobility. Rail is also recognised as a more sustainable alternative to air or road travel for both passengers and freight. As lines electrify, railways look set to serve a new generation of environmentally-aware travellers. But there are many for whom rail travel has been difficult to access and enjoy.
Whether due to reduced mobility, visual impairment, deafness or mental health issues, navigating rail stations and services can be complex and challenging. As major stations become destinations and even performance or community spaces in their own right, it is more important than ever to use the renovation, refurbishment and design of station spaces to make these destinations fully accessible. That journey to inclusivity formed the topic for Carol and Graham’s conversation.
Carol: We’ve worked together at Network Rail - and now as client and consultant - on stations and accessibility for 20 years. Back then you couldn’t have imagined the changes we’ve made. Tactical paving and shore lines. Accessible toilets. The introduction of changing places with showers, hoists and space for carers. Quiet rooms for passengers with anxiety issues. Rest areas for self-propelled wheelchair users.
Graham: Absolutely. I’d add to that list. Assisted travel lounges (with dens for people with autism). Wheelchair charging points. Parking spaces for people with reduced mobility right in front of stations. Automatic doors. Safe crossings And the changes aren’t all about structure, they’re about culture too: training staff to spot and respond to different passengers’ needs. Hidden conditions are the next target.
Carol: For me, the transformational moment for accessibility was the London 2012 Olympics. The 2010 Equality Act raised the bar, but it was the late Margret Hickish’s MBE work as part of the 2012 team that really set new standards for the way we design accessibility into rail. It’s probably true that all design is improved by listening to and learning from the people who will use it, but in accessibility, learning from the lived experience of others is essential.
Graham: Yes, Margaret was also the chair of the Network Rail BEAP, our Built Environment Access Panel, made up of rail users with sight, hearing, mobility or mental health issues.
Carol: I know that since 2012 a lot of those gains now inform the Building Regs and Department for Transport advisories we all work with. And I know Network Rail has its own guidelines. But there is still a need, beyond codes and advisories, to look at a specific site. Birmingham’s Curzon Street station, for example, has two entrances over 170m apart which could create confusion. For that site, using differently-scented plants in the green areas around each entrance provides visually impaired travellers with a sensory guide.
Graham: I find it helps to think of rail as a service. Like most service industries, it’s often the little touches that can have the greatest impact. Raising wayfinding signage so wheelchair users can see it above standing passengers. Using typefaces that work better for the visually impaired. It’s a great example of accessibility being integral to the design concept, not an afterthought.
Carol: I’d also point to the ‘pebble in a pond’ tactile flooring of Birmingham New Street where the ‘pebble’ at the centre of the concourse is a smooth glass oval. It allows visually impaired travellers to orient themselves along its short or long axis. Or even taking that insight from Curzon Street and using simple pots with scented plants to guide visually impaired users into smaller stations on the network.
Graham: That’s where the challenge is. Most of the main city stations have improved. But in sheer number, it’s the branch lines that matter. We’ve got an Access For All programme we’re rolling out over the network. We’re codifying what ‘good’ looks like so we can repeat the design and placement of lifts and footbridges across the network, improving access to rail at a local level, not just in the big city stations.
Carol: As well as local stations, where do you see the big challenges ahead?
Graham: To me, the biggest challenge remains the interface between the platform and the train. That’s still handled with cumbersome ramps for wheelchair users. It’s a tough one because it will take coordinated action from both the station operators and the train companies. I’d like to see a future where overground rail offers that same easy transfer from platform to train that people experience on networks like London’s tube.
Carol: I’d second that. There’s always more to do, and new technologies are changing what’s possible. Will smartphone booking do away with the obstacle of ticket barrier? Or perhaps we need to design for a future where robot guides will help people navigate stations.
Graham: The nature of rail makes that forward-thinking agenda critical. The stations we design today won’t be built and in use for five years, add a hundred to that. We never experiment with passenger safety, but we do have to design for the future. It’s that willingness of WSP to break new ground together that I really value.
We are proud to play our part alongside Graham as he and his team transform accessibility of rail, but as he says, there is always more to do. Challenges remain. Imagination reveals now opportunities. Our commitment to the rail sector, and to inclusivity, will see us continuing to listen to all rail users and apply their insights and our engineering expertise to make rail stations ever-more equitable spaces.