Sometimes grand. Occasionally opulent. But more often functional, if unremarkable, the design of rail stations has usually been dictated more by purpose than people.
Some straddle the rail lines with stairs descending to the platforms. Others rely on footbridges and underpasses to connect platforms, car parks and ticket halls. Some major interchanges have evolved into a complex warren of walkways, stairwells and escalators.
The problem is that this creates difficult - sometimes impossible - environments for the large number of Passengers of Reduced Mobility (PRM) who depend upon public transport each and every day.
Consider London’s forthcoming east-west Elizabeth Line (known as ‘Crossrail’ during its planning and construction). Once fully operational in 2019, it will bring an extra 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of London's central districts.
Within their number, some 200,000 – around one in seven – will be passengers with reduced mobility.
So what can the industry do to make stations more accessible for all?
Elizabeth Line: A journey through time
Toby Garner, Principal Consultant on Human Factors at Ricardo, has been heavily involved in helping clients in the rail industry – including the Elizabeth Line - improve accessibility across their networks.
“The Elizabeth Line is fairly unique” says Toby. “In the tunnelled section beneath central London, new platforms and concourses are being built to the highest standards. But most of the new build are actually are extensions of existing stations– Farringdon, Tottenham Court Road - that were originally designed in the nineteenth or early twentieth century when there wasn’t such focus on accessibility, particularly in terms of street level access”.
“Indeed for much of the route beyond central London – into the communities where most commuters live - the Elizabeth Line reverts to existing routes with stations that were opened many years ago. So in terms of end-to-end journey accessibility, the Crossrail project has to look at bringing consistency to a system that mixes the very latest design standards alongside some sections that date back over a century or more.”
Setting the standard
For the new platforms and concourses on the Elizabeth Line – as with any mainline station under construction in Europe - the Technical Standards for Interoperability (TSIs) for PRM, published in November 2014, under reference 1300/2014/EU, set out the required standards that must be met before they can enter into service.
The TSIs stipulate the minimum requirements for platform widths, lighting quality, floor coverings, signage and so on. At stations where car parking exists, for example, they specify how adapted spaces should be provided for those with reduced mobility.
But these standards, part of the drive to bring consistency across Europe’s networks, only set out a minimum.
A human factors approach, however, builds on the minimum - introducing best practice based on scientific analysis of psychological or behavioural factors.
A human touch
As with airports, rail stations are about orchestrating the movement of large crowds – which will include people with different abilities, different languages – to specific locations, at specific times, as safely and efficiently as possible.
The approach should be to guide, not instruct. However, this ideal is often hampered by inconsistencies, and a general lack of forethought, in the way information is provided to passengers.
“To be compliant with the standards, signage must use clear contrasts – such as black fonts displayed on white or yellow backgrounds” says Toby. “But a human factors perspective would then look at the quality of the information– does it meet the needs of the passenger at that particular point? Is the detail clear, succinct and positioned so that passengers can take in the information without having to stop and think?"
“For example, pictograms – such as those that mark out routes for wheelchair users - are visual references that passengers who rely on them are used to looking out for. But inconsistencies in the way they are displayed hampers their effectiveness. For new build mainline routes across continental Europe, for example, the wheelchair pictogram is a white symbol against a blue background. But on some urban metro systems – which do not need to comply with TSIs – they might be blue symbols on white backgrounds or are arranged with the design facing the opposite direction”.
“Sometimes you will see stations and train operators using signage based upon a corporate brand template rather than a universally recognised symbol.”
“We also see instances of pictograms positioned in places where those looking out for them can’t see them, sometimes lost amongst other signs for toilets, taxi ranks or retailers.”
“We have seen examples of where braille signage has been provided, but the information is protracted and over-detailed.”
“It all adds up to a very disjointed and muddled experience for the passenger.”
Eylem Thron, Senior Consultant at Ricardo, has worked with some UK operators to develop signage that prioritises the passenger over the functional operations of the station.
“A sign might be compliant under PRM TSI regulation – see the example below (figure three, left) - but that doesn’t mean it is focused on helping the passenger. The emphasis was more about the layout of the station. A Human Factors approach looks at what people need to know. In this case, the passenger is more likely to be looking out for their destination rather than an instruction.”
A sense of independence
Providing a sense of independence will always be s challenge. At larger stations, where assistance can be provided – such as setting up ramps between the train and platform - the entire model is based on forewarning: passengers who require assistance must call in advance “It’s a system that can work well at stations with the resources”, says Toby, “but people can’t always be so precise about their plans, meaning support for those who arrive unannounced the support may not be available”.
However, there is a belief that the industry is looking to go beyond the minimum standards, with a more passenger oriented approach to design and information taking hold.
“Things are changing”, says Eylem “In the UK, the Accessibility and Inclusion Forum, a group organised by the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, provides design and operational advice informed by the feedback and experiences of passengers with disabilities”.
“And we are seeing more improvements based on behavioural analysis and user insight: lighting is getting better, steps are being removed, platforms and concourses are being de-cluttered to allow more space. These might appear to be relatively minor changes. But collectively they can make a big difference to the passenger experience.”
Based on interviews May 2017
For more information about Ricardo’s Human Factors team, see: Human Factors in rail operations.