There are 2,507 railway stations in the UK. Most were built when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Most do not cater for the expectations of 21st Century travellers. Yet there is no incentive for anyone to regenerate these buildings, and transport ministers will not spend public money on doing so when there are so many other projects to fund. Government and the private sector are investing millions in new trains along with better track and signalling. Stations have been left behind. That could easily be changed.
I have written here previously about how we must think outside the box on how to find economic growth. There are areas we can look at that have previously not been seen as linked to economic growth and this is one of those options.
How can we also stimulate a renaissance in our stations, taking the spirit of the Victorian railway pioneers as inspiration? What can we do to see the development and improvement of our stations so that they are buildings we are proud of, as well as fit to serve the needs of the century?
In my constituency, I have been campaigning for several years for the comprehensive regeneration of the town’s station – a drab, concrete carbuncle that has received no real attention since its construction. It is a rundown and unwelcoming gateway to the town that doesn’t link to the wider public transport network and offers substandard amenities to passengers. Yet there is no incentive for the railway industry to spend money on enhancing and improving our stations.
Stations need to be viewed not simply as a railway facility but as valuable real estate. In many cases, they are located in highly populated or high commercial value positions. This provides an attractive proposition to developers in the private sector. Many station sites are in areas needing comprehensive economic and social development. We now have companies in this country which know how to deliver schemes like this, and there will be others. Schemes that need to have finance form the private sector pulled together with delivery for the public sector, it has been done for 2012 and can be done for the wider benefit of our economy and our railway stations.
Stations could and should be a key part of urban regeneration projects; to become gateways for interchange with other transport modes; and to support other economic and business opportunities. Regeneration of our stations, if done correctly could also give a huge boost to our construction industry.
Network Rail’s main task is to concentrate on improving performance whilst maintaining, operating and renewing the infrastructure. Network Rail could theoretically deliver such a comprehensive plan, but it has not done it any major way, so there is no reason to believe it will suddenly do it now. Equally we can learn from the success of the Olympic village construction project, to ensure we get the right experts doing what they are good at. This is a property development and asset management issue, not a transport one. Therefore, we need to find a way to let property people be part of the solution and to lead it.
This programme would allow the freeholds, or long-term leaseholds, for stations to pass to development companies who then undertake the risk and development program, with caveats to protect the smooth running of the railways and their long-term future – allowing station redevelopment at no cost to the taxpayer.