Rail Stations Tour
To coincide with the publication of the Station Champions' report, Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the ten stations it names as being in greatest need of more work to improve life for travellers.
17 November 2009
On the Pendolino from Crewe to Milton Keynes, then on a Railbus to Luton, on the penultimate leg of my stations tour. I am finally entourage free and the refreshments trolley is making its way up the carriage, which is like the sight of the oasis in the desert after 14 hours on the go since Clapham Junction.
Crewe station is in a terribly dilapidated state, its Victorian canopy patched up but leaking and flaking as a long debate draws to a conclusion as to whether the station should move to an entirely new site. There appears to be a growing local consensus that the station should stay where it is. If so, Network Rail and Virgin, the train company which manages the station, need rapidly to bring the station into the 21st century.
Before Crewe it was Warrington Bank Quay, another partially modernised station with a smart entrance and ticket office leading back to the 19th century as soon as you enter the subway. Virgin are building a new car park for 200 extra cars - in addition to the existing 80 place car park - because of the burgeoning demand for the fast trains to London. Warrington is now a mere 1 hour 45 minutes from Euston as the first stop on the accelerated Hourly express service from London to Glasgow, and Virgin see Warrington as a major park and ride railhead for the whole of north Cheshire. It is a taster of what could happen more widely if we go ahead with a north-south high-speed line - which High Speed 2 is going to propose to me next month. The decision on HS2 is the biggest transport policy decision we will take between now and the election, and the north of England and Scotland could be huge beneficiaries.
Just leaving Liverpool Lime Street having visited Liverpool Central, number seven of today's ten stations. Merseyrail do a fantastic job with their metro system. Mark Dowd, Neil Scales, Bart Schmeink and their team have carried through a magnificent modernisation and expansion of the service, including the stations. I opened a new travel centre at Liverpool Central - but it is far more than a travel centre. It is a food and convenience goods retailer which sells the full range of rail tickets at the checkout till, similar to most modern petrol stations. This is an exciting innovation in rail retailing which deserves to be closely studied by other train companies. The issue with Liverpool Central is the restricted circulation space and access to and from the narrow underground platforms, which get highly congested in peak periods. The indefatigable Neil Scales handed me a costed plan for tackling the issue as I got on my next train and he bubbled with suggestions as to the partnership funding opportunities which could bring it about. Neil is typical of the can-do generation of modern rail managers, who give me confidence that we can tackle successfully the challenge of modernising our Victorian rail infrastructure. Warrington Bank Quay is my next destination, followed by Crewe, one of the biggest challenges of all.
On then to Preston and Wigan North Western - stations of two halves. Outside each, an impressive, brand new, four-storey car park providing excellent access for the thousands of commuters who rely on these stations each day. Sadly, this terrific facility is not matched inside.
At Preston while the Victorian structure is impressive, it is in serious need of a makeover. Recent investment in the retail facilities is a welcome addition, but the station remains a challenge to navigate for anyone with limited mobility. Those unable to manage the stairs can only access certain platforms via a dungeon-like tunnel dubbed "medieval" by Chris Green, one of my Station Champions. The poor lighting, dripping water and constant rattle of trains overhead does not leave you feeling like you are experiencing the joys of 21st century train travel.
I was joined on this leg of my tour by Julie Warburton from Passenger Focus, who knows both stations inside out. She pointed out that there are only four ladies' toilets at Preston, with at least one regularly out of action. At Wigan North Western it was even worse - the station toilets are actually locked during off-peak hours to combat vandalism. Scrabbling around for a ticket to gain access when you're caught short and rushing for a train is hardly what you expect of modern railways. However, with recent improvements to the ticket hall and the imminent completion of the new car park, this station has great potential as it is further redeveloped.
Now on to Liverpool Lime Street - in the cab of the train for this leg of the journey. All my trains so far have been on time and in good or excellent condition - a testament to the real improvements in rail services over recent years. The best stations have been excellent too - we now need the best to become the norm.
It's 3pm and I have now reached Chorley on the train from Manchester Victoria to Preston. Victoria retains a lot of wonderful Victorian features, but the roof needs replacing, the concourse is in a derelict state, the facilities are poorly maintained and the entrances are shabby and inadequate. Heidi Mottram, the managing director of Northern Rail, and Manchester MPs Tony Lloyd and Graham Stringer, explained to me the history of failed projects to modernise the station in the past. But they are optimistic that a new scheme could succeed as developer confidence improves, assisted by some of the extra £50m which Network Rail will be investing in the ten priority stations.
I've just been speaking on the train to rail journalists Roger Ford and Phil Haig - who know the rail industry backwards - about the importance of passenger info. Many stations don't even provide a local map, let alone details of local bus services and other transport providers. Information of this kind is one of the new minimum standards recommended by the Station Champions, together with real time info about departures and arrivals. This will make a real difference to passengers, even at the smallest stations.
Leaving Stockport en route for Manchester on a Virgin Pendolino train. Stockport is a partially modernised station, with a superb new entrance and ticket hall but most of the platforms and other facilities are in poor condition - a particular contrast to the modern trains which pass through. The station is very close to the M60 and could become a significant park-and-ride location, but the car park is inadequate both in the number of places and the quality of facilities. We need to promote park-and-ride much more strongly, to encourage people to get out of their cars and onto trains - which they will do in much larger numbers if the car parking spaces are there.
Just about to arrive in Manchester Piccadilly - a great modernised station - then onto the excellent tram connection to Manchester Victoria, which is the fourth of the ten priority stations on my tour.
Just leaving Barking, the second station on my tour. The station shell is a 1962 listed building, but the interior is drab and cluttered, with far too little space for passengers to move down to the platforms in one of London's busiest commuter and interchange stations. There is huge enthusiasm for a renovation plan to improve the station and enable it to handle the extra traffic from 20,000 extra houses planned in local developments including Barking Reach.
However, Barking is almost a gem compared to Clapham Junction, where I started at 6 am. There is no obvious evidence of any investment or modernisation at Clapham Junction for 30 years apart from the installation of some new lifts. One of Europe's busiest stations, it doesn't have a single escalator, the platform canopies cover only a minority of the congested platforms, there is virtually no waiting area and no bike parking that I could see. The station badly needs a new entrance which links into the overpass, relieving pressure on the congested tunnel linking the platforms, and this is now proposed. Local controversy has focused on the extent of commercial development around the station needed to generate the income for the station upgrading, but Network Rail now intends to come forward with a revised scheme to bring about early improvements.
It is now 8.45 on a not particularly full District Line heading west towards Westminster. All the trains so far have been punctual and I should make it to Cabinet on time for 9.
At 6 am today I embark on a day long tour of ten of Britain’s major rail stations most in need of improvement, getting back to London at 11 pm and blogging for The Times en route. This latest venture is the direct result of my solo five day national rail tour in April, when I also blogged for the Times en route, so let me explain why I am setting off again.
My April tour took me from Truro to Inverness then back to London via (among many other places) Exeter, Southampton, Brighton, Ashford, Ipswich, Norwich, Birmingham, Wrexham, Crewe, Manchester, Sheffield, Carlisle, York, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. It was a highly enjoyable and by and large positive experience. Few trains were late, most were clean and modern, and I was particularly impressed by the commitment and friendliness of the staff I met.
Less impressive, however, were some of the major stations en route. A few were excellent (including Sheffield, Manchester Piccadilly and York), but others were poorly maintained – not just the fabric but also the toilets and facilities. Catering and retail outlets at major stations were highly variable: in some cases non-existent even in mid-evening (I fear I turned the 8 pm refreshment desert at Southampton Central into a cause celebre). The same was true of bike parking: inadequate, cramped and poorly accessible even in most of London’s mainline terminals. Information about buses and other local transport is also highly variable, sometimes non-existent. Station managers repeatedly told me they needed more car parking because their car parks were full by 9 am and this was deterring motorists from getting out of their cars and onto trains – an absurd own goal, given our national policy to encourage public transport use. Beyond this, some stations require thorough modernisation to make them proud gateways to their towns and cities, rather than dingy, depressing Victorian relics.
Significant investment is already planned or underway at many stations, including a £600m rebuilding of Birmingham New Street and a £670m renovation of Reading, two of the busiest stations outside London. In partnership with Network Rail I also recently announced investment in 10,000 new bike parking spaces at stations, including the creation of ten ‘station cycle hubs’ with exemplar facilities to match those at Dutch and Swiss stations. Leeds is to be first, opening next summer.
But piecemeal improvement is not enough. My rail tour, and recent visits to Holland and Switzerland, highlighted the need for a systematic national approach to station standards and modernisation, so I asked Chris Green (a distinguished former rail manager) and Sir Peter Hall (President of the Town and Country Planning Association) to report to me on how this can be done. Now dubbed the ‘Station Champions’, their report is published today. It is comprehensive and radical, including recommendations for minimum station standards covering every station in the country, with every station allocated to one of seven bands according to passenger volume, with standards for each in terms of access, information, facilities, maintenance and environment.
I welcome views on the Station Champions’ report. I am keen to make these new standards a feature of future franchise agreements between the Government and train operating companies. They will also inform Network Rail’s future investment strategy. This would include the requirement for an extra 10,000 car parking spaces a year – to double station car parking within 15 years – and a doubling of bike parking over the next five years.
While recent years have seen fantastic improvements to some of our key stations, such as the rebuilt St Pancras and excellent Manchester Piccadilly, the Station Champions also highlight major stations which are well below standard in their facilities and infrastructure. Some (like Birmingham New Street) are subject to major investment; others are not. So in partnership with Network Rail I am today announcing a new £50m fund which, together with commercial and third party contributions and rail company refranchising obligations, will enable an early start to be made on modernising these stations too. I want to see these ten stations at first hand, and to discuss their future with local rail managers and passenger groups – which is the purpose of today’s tour.
I start at Clapham Junction – one of the busiest stations in the world, but well short of the passenger facilities required. I then go to Barking, a joint main line and Underground station. After dashing back to Westminster for the weekly Tuesday meeting of the Cabinet at 9 am, it is then onto the north-west from Euston where six of the ten stations are located (Manchester Victoria, Warrington, Stockport, Preston, Crewe and Wigan North Western). The train operating company which runs most of the inter-city trains on this route is Virgin, which is keen to work with Network Rail and the government on a plan to modernise all five of these stations for which it is responsible; in the case of the sixth (Manchester Victoria), the city council is keen to forge a joint renovation project with Network Rail and Northern. I then travel to Liverpool Central (part of the Merseyrail metro network) where I also be opening a new travel centre. It is then – by a circuitous route – back down to London via the last of the ten, Luton.
Seeing all ten stations in rapid succession, I hope to get an impression not only of their particular shortcomings, but also the wider challenge of modernising our stations so they are fit for a the 21st century. I look forward to meeting passengers and rail managers, and sharing my impressions on my blog. And yes, I am travelling around on another national Rover ticket to minimise the cost. I confess that this time it is First Class – at a cost of £650 for seven days – because it also had to get me to and from York on Saturday for the first day of the new nationalised East Coast service and it also needs to get me to and from the regional Cabinet meeting in Nottingham on Friday (with official papers intact.) So not as good value as my last Standard Class Rover (then £375) – but not bad for a week of unlimited First Class travel across the rail network. Last time I publicised these Rover tickets, the train companies put up the price immediately, so buy yours now to avoid disappointment.
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