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Perspectives: UK rail stations – putting people at the centre of station design

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Carol Stitchman, Technical Director Rail Group, WSP 

In Copper’s Perspectives series on UK rail stations, we’re asking construction sector leaders for their insights on challenges and opportunities arising from the new ‘golden age’ of station development. 

Following on from her role as a panelist in Copper Consultancy’s recent event, Insights from a new golden age of rail stations, Carol provides a behind-the-scenes account of modern station design and accessibility. 

The redeveloped Birmingham New Street Station opened in September 2015 after a £750 million transformation. Carol’s work at Birmingham New Street spanned 14 years from feasibility to completion. 

As Head of Design for Network Rail, I worked to transform Birmingham New Street station into a major transport and shopping hub, stimulating economic growth and regeneration for the Midlands region. Today, Birmingham New Street is the busiest major station outside of London. 

At the heart of the development of Birmingham New Street is inclusive design. Inclusive design aims to deliver spaces and places for everyone and puts people at the core? of the design process of spaces and places. In the development of Birmingham New Street, we worked with stakeholder panels to help us develop spaces that were truly inclusive, ensuring that people were at the centre of the design process, so everyone can use the railway safely, easily and with dignity. 

We did a lot of work around accessibility with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), one of the UK’s leading sight loss charities and the largest community of blind and partially sighted people. A key priority for us was how could we make Birmingham New Street station a lot easier to navigate for the visually impaired. 

The RNIB suggested that most members would want to first and foremost be able to access and navigate to the ticket office simply to buy tickets and or seek assistance for travel. To do this in a vast area, we located the ticket office in the centre of the station. In this area, we included a contrasting floor surface in the centre of the station in the atrium. We referred to this as a ‘pebble in the pond’, and the flooring in this area, glass blocks, differentiated texturally with the granite surface around it. If you are sweeping your cane in that area, you can feel the change in texture helping you to identify exactly where you are in the station. 

We also included sensory aroma cues to act as a navigational aid in the centre of the station. The Pret a Manger coffee shop which has a distinctive smell has been deliberately placed centrally by the textured flooring to act as another navigational instruction for our visually impaired travellers and visitors. Both sensory indicators are designed to tell visually impaired customers that they are in the centre of the station and the ticket office is located right in front of them. 

There are three distinct entrances into Birmingham New Street station, and we also created a ‘shoreline’ to help with access into the station. Shorelines are an important element of how a visually impaired person navigates. Shore lining is following a wall, kerb, hedge or other contrasting surface to the one a person is walking on to maintain a specific orientation while travelling through environments to arrive at a decision-making point. Shore lining allows a person to use their cane either to constantly contact a surface or use two-point touch technique to cross an open space and easily travel towards the station. 

From speaking to visually impaired groups interviewed early in the design stage, we found that they often counted the number of steps to help them navigate themselves from point A to point B, so we placed positioned lighting columns in particular locations along the shoreline at the eastern entrance opposite the Bullring and a certain distance apart, so they acted as another helpful navigational aid. 

Looking to future station developments in the city, the future HS2 Curzon Street Station in Birmingham – which, when built, will be the first brand new intercity terminus built in Britain since the 19th century – is unique, as it has a lot of landscaping around it which is very unusual for a railway station in a city centre location. 

One distinct feature of the Curzon Street Station design is the change of levels from the different entrances from the east of the west. One question we asked ourselves when designing this new station is how we could help our visually impaired passengers navigate through each entrance/exit, so they know which entrance they are approaching. 

To help announce to visually impaired passengers which entrance they are arriving towards, we asked our landscape architects to introduce scented landscaping that would differ at each entrance/exit to help with navigation, and we also included shorelines into the design, like at Birmingham New Street. Shorelines at Curzon Street include the buttresses that are part of the architectural design that support the roof. 

In the Curzon Street design, a customer information hub has replaced the traditional ticket office. Following feedback from visually impaired groups, this is placed directly at the front of the station western entrance and not at a right angle to the main entrance. Obstacle detection and warning can improve the mobility, as well as the safety of visually impaired people especially in unfamiliar environments. 

Based on our increased understanding and consideration of wellbeing and mental health awareness, a new element has been incorporated in the Curzon Street Station design to help our passengers who perhaps are not comfortable in large crowds. Large transport buildings like railway stations and airports attract large numbers of people, however for some, this is not a comfortable situation to be in. We incorporated quiet rooms in the design where people can retreat from the crowds. For passengers who would prefer not to be inside at all, the Curzon Street station design has a large public square to the western entrance with the opportunity to create areas outside where they can wait in a place of safety and be under cover, sheltered from the sun and the rain. 

Accessibility in station design must be a priority. Taking a journey by train is not as straightforward process for all passengers. Passengers have unique needs, therefore, it’s vitally important that this is taken into consideration in station design. Speaking directly to groups that use our stations means we have a better understanding of how we can design infrastructure that is accessible and inclusive for everyone, ensuring that all passengers can use and move through the station safely and independently. 

Carol Stitchman, Technical Director Rail Group, WSP has worked in the railway industry for over 20 years. Major projects under Carol’s belt include Birmingham New Street station where she was Head of Design and led the design for the station redevelopment. Following her award-winning work at Birmingham New Street for Network Rail, Carol went on to work for WSP as a Technical Director in the Rail Group division. 

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