Friday, October 07, 2011

Taj Mahals or stopping points – the role of suburban stations

Though victimisation rates indicate otherwise, there is a widespread perception that people feel most safe in their own homes, somewhat safer on the street and less safe at railway stations (especially at night). If the latter holds back patronage, it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Passengers frequently call for staffing, toilets and better waiting areas at stations.

And train operators face multi-million dollar annual bills to fix vandalism and clean graffiti at stations.

A way to approach these issues is to reappraise the relationship between stations and their surrounds. Relationships can be human (eg through station staff and/or ‘friends of’ station groups) or physical. Today I will discuss only the latter, since most Melbourne stations are neither staffed nor adopted by a friends group.

Go back 60 to 90 years and stations were hives of local activity. Every significant Victorian town or suburb had one. Visitors, goods and news often arrived there. Trains’ modal share was higher then than now. And there were more staff – including signallers, guards, maintenance, porters, clerks etc. Not suprisingly station facilities had to be large enough to accommodate all this activity.

While lengthening commutes and more recent patronage rises has grown the railway’s absolute contribution to the transport effort (as measured in passenger kilometres) their role has narrowed relative to that of cars and trucks. Railways in Victoria are now almost exclusively passenger concerns. And in Melbourne this is heavily skewed towards CBD area commuting, which while substantial, accounts for a minority of work trips. (Whereas trams tend to be used for diverse purposes throughout the day and local buses have a large ‘captive ridership’ role).

The only interaction that many who drive to work in the suburbs have with the railways is waiting at boom gates or hearing news reports about rail crime. The latter may give rise to perceptions that stations are unfamiliar, hostile, and unsafe, unused by ‘people like us’. This is reflected in personal safety concerns on trains and at stations, particularly at night.

How can one ‘lift the veil’ and improve perceived station safety to be no worse than any other public place? And what about other passenger concerns like toilets, staffing, information or nicer waiting areas?

Some of the best bus and tram stops comprise a simple seat under a shop verandah. They are of the street, not separate to it. Access time to local facilities (including retail ticket outlets) is measured in seconds, reducing travel times and the chance of getting rained on. Public toilets may be nearby. And no one complains about their lack of staffing.

In contrast some other types of stops, like mid-road tram safety zones, have no shelter and require passengers to cross a road. Bus interchanges may be off the main street and have limited facilities. Railway stations, especially if ringed by parking, billboards or (now) over-sized buildings may be similarly cut off.

Could the railways’ quieter stations take their cue from bus and light rail (eg Route 109’s Port Melbourne terminus)? Is there scope to give up the concept of ‘station as place’ in return for more open platforms integrated with surrounding preferably active streets (which may be seen as safer than an unattended station)?

Station - streetscape integration may require knocking down walls, removing unused buildings, taking down dividing billboards and access that puts passengers before cars. More open layouts make stations less of a mystery to non (but potential) users, and less forbidding at night. But it’s not one size fits all as vacant station buildings could be offered to community groups instead (as sometimes already done). In both cases, the community, accustomed to seeing stations as eyesores or magnets to crime, might then start to take a more charitable view. Even at the same station the differences can be marked; Mentone’s Platform 1 integrates well with the surrounding area while the Platform 2 side is shielded by billboards and parking.

If moved from the station’s fare paid area to the street outside, facilities like station toilets could serve both. Facing an active street rather than a railway could improve passive surveillance. It might be possible to involve the local community more in their siting and management, with the proviso that any relocation remain convenient to train passengers. In quieter locations one toilet (open for more of the day) could replace two and any savings used to increase the number of stations with toilets nearby.

Information is another area where transit and community needs can be brought together. Precinct maps and wayfinding signage can promote local shops and attractions as well as directing arriving passengers to buses and surrounding streets. Urban design and arts projects can strengthen these ties, with the ideal being a natural intuitive flow with signage merely consulted for confirmation and cross roads only minimally impeding access.

Some of the above is more relevant to smaller stations, preferably with edge rather than island platforms. Busier stations with more lines will always remain places in themelves and justify their own facilities and staffing. However their interface with the surrounds remains extremely important to their success.

The photos interspersed above are two stations (Grange in Adelaide, Kellerberrin in regional WA). Though minimal they appear to serve the area’s needs and interface reasonably well with surrounds.


Riccardo said...

Was in Singapore yesterday - they don't have problems with the 'people like us' or any of the other things you mentioned. Apart from the stations being right sized, they keep the population from going feral.

Ferals are literally hit with sticks, till they can't sit down, They usually need medical attention afterwards. Wounds last for ages.

If we did it like Singapore, we wouldn't have a problem with ferals and then it wouldn't matter what sort of station you built.

Riccardo said...

I do prefer "Taj Mahals" in the right context eg Chatswood. It is criminal that stations like South Yarra are permitted to continue to exist when better is required.

Melbourne is cursed with 'heritage' - Sydney is liberated from it.

mc said...

Responding to Riccardo's comment, "Taj Mahals" work when the station has sufficient people visiting it. The more minimalist structures Peter is advancing work best at lesser accessed places (as Peter says).

The problem is permeancy. A Taj with little or no barrier between the street and the platform would be the best of both worlds.