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2024 RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition runner-up: mind the gap – inaccessibility in British rail stations, by Ellie Olszewski-Smith

Ellie Olszewski-Smith

Ellie Olszewski-Smith, a Part 1 student, argues that by prioritising accessibility from the outset, station design can empower individuals of all abilities to navigate with confidence

Accessibility remains a major problem for travellers on Britain’s railways.
Accessibility remains a major problem for travellers on Britain’s railways. Credit: Ellie Olszewski-Smith

Navigating the bustling concourses and platforms of British rail stations is seldom straightforward: moving over labyrinthine bridges, across subways and through liminal passages that seem to defy dimensional coherence; slaloming through the crowds who stare, frozen beneath the departures board, trying to make sense of the delays and cancellations. The yawning gap between the platform and the carriage, the attempt to cross hurried by the passengers who make haste to be the first to board, to the chagrin of those alighting. Accessibility within these environments is problematic, and the complexities presented by the lack of consideration for mobility can greatly discourage the use of public transport.

Accessibility should not only be a legal obligation but form the primary basis of the architectural function of these transport hubs. Currently, provision fails to address the fundamental needs of its users, and paints a stark picture of the inclusivity gaps in public infrastructure design. A lack of step-free access is endemic to train stations – provided by only 61 per cent of British stations - and often forces those with limited mobility to travel much further, sometimes to entirely different locations.

The Department of Transport has invested £500 million as part of the Access for All scheme to deliver accessible routes at over 200 stations and improve conditions at an additional 1,500. These large numbers reflect the poor consideration historically given to inclusivity within the rail service but they also offer a sliver of hope for a more progressive shift towards design that responds to passengers’ requirements.

Many of Britain’s stations are steeped in rich heritage, and preserving the historical characteristics can sometimes waylay the user-centric principles that prioritise functionality. The overarching iron girders and columns of York station have remained largely unchanged since its completion in the late 19th century. However, in order to accommodate the diverse needs of passengers, architects now retrospectively integrate modern accessibility features into the existing fabric; blending ramps, lifts, and tactile paving with the Grade II-listed station’s industrial features, though this is rarely seamless and the result is not conducive to high-quality design.

To produce effective responses to issues faced by those with mobility, sensory and cognitive differences, there must be a collaborative design process with a continuous dialogue between designers and stakeholders. These should include disabled-led advocacy organisations and the disabled community. To champion inclusivity in design is not just to fulfil design standards and legislation, but to help found cornerstones of architectural excellence.

Innovation in accessible design continues beyond the bricks and mortar, by utilising developing technology to supplement traditional architectural interventions and consider the broader implications beyond physical mobility. For example, departure information still relies heavily on screens, which can often be confusing or hard to read, particularly for those with vision or learning difficulties. Digital wayfinding through mobile applications and interactive kiosks within the station, partnered with good spatial design, can make navigation less complicated and more intuitive.

Furthermore, where architecture fails to serve accessibility needs, station staff and rail operatives are relied upon to bridge the gap, quite literally when facilitating passengers’ access onto a train. Only two per cent of all rail stations have level boarding as there is no standardised access height for rolling stock, so this must be mitigated with the use of temporary ramps or steps. This can cause delays and, in rare circumstances, assistance may not be available to the passenger, who is then unable to complete their journey. Design solutions to this problem are very costly and complex as there are many variables between stations on the mainline network. Standardisation would require an overhaul of the entire rail infrastructure so we must investigate other, more attainable methods to make journeys more independent and alleviate the reliance on staff.

In 2022 there was major backlash after the Department for Transport approved plans for the permanent closure of station ticket offices. The public consultation had over 750,000 responses, making it the most responded-to consultation in history and, no doubt, helped force a U-turn over the decision. While technological advances have led to changes in ticket purchasing patterns, ticket offices still play a vital role in providing personalised customer service, information and, most notably, assisting passengers with additional needs. The closure of ticket offices would also disproportionately affect smaller, local stations and heavily reduce, if not completely eradicate, the passenger assistance available at these locations.

York station is currently undergoing major redevelopment to improve access to the front of the station and immediate public realm. However, the proposals have received some resistance from the disabled community due to the introduction of adjacent two-way cycle lanes and bus-stop bypasses, which they claim will make access more difficult due to the number of pedestrian crossings required. This reinforces the need for collaborative partnerships throughout the entire design process so that all passengers are considered.

Meanwhile, Old Oak Common, which is under construction in west London, promises to be the largest and best-connected train station built in the UK. With this, it is hoped a new precedent might be set for passenger circulation and accessibility within the rail industry, to be echoed throughout the British rail network.

Accessibility in train stations is an indispensable aspect of ensuring equitable transportation for all passengers. While human assistance remains crucial, it is important to acknowledge that true accessibility necessitates the integration of inclusive principles and design into the architectural fabric of stations. By prioritising it from the outset, station environments can empower individuals of all abilities to navigate with confidence and embody the architects’ collective commitment to assured mobility for every member of society.

Ellie Olszewski-Smith is a Part 1 working at engineering consultancy Systra

See the 2024 RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition shortlist and results here and all prize-winning entries here