As concerns about the sustainability of the world’s love affair with the car and airplane grow, the European Union aims to put more people back on trains, a strategy that will require not only laying new tracks but refurbishing old stations. From Barcelona to Vilnius, some of these developments aim not only to make public transportation more convenient but to renew the quarter in which they are located.
In Stockholm, for instance, a Foster + Partners plan to renovate the city’s grand old Central Stations
intended not only to make it easier for people to transfer between four modes of public transportation and preserve the facade of the 1871 building but to resolve what Senior Partner Angus Campbell calls “a 150-year-old problem”—the chasm the station’s street-level tracks created between two of the city’s neighborhoods.
As envisioned by the British firm in partnership with Marge Arkitekter, a local firm, the Stockholm station project will not only cover the tracks and add green space but grow a new neighborhood that is intended to integrate seamlessly with the rest of the city.
During a design review, Campbell recalls the internal design board saying, “’Angus, we can’t see what your architectural solution is.’ I said, ‘That’s the point. It’s designed to blend in with the city, and it’s designed from the DNA of Stockholm.’”
Most of these projects also have a serious sustainability angle. In Vilnius, Lithuania, for instance, the capstone of the Zaha Hadid Architects’ Green Connect project will be a 150-meter-long by 46-meter-wide landscaped pedestrian and bicycle bridge that sweeps back from the neoclassical façade like a glass and metal cape, 10 meters above the train tracks.
Although the European Union’s agenda is driving many of these station renewals, their architects must still work within tight local constraints. In Stockholm, Campbell said, his team has had to work with 250 stakeholders to win the project’s approval.
A lot can go wrong with such enormous projects. In Paris, a proposal for a 645-milion-euro ($648,030,000) renovation for the Gare du Nord in Paris by a development arm of Auchan, a French hypermarket, was rejected when city officials complained that the design would have added 46,000 square meters (495,000 square feet) of retail space and 30,000 square meters (323,000 square feet) of arrivals and departures space to the 150-year-old station. Years of battles with the city led to a withdrawal of that project in 2021 and the substitution of a more modest 50-million-euro-proposal ($54 million).
The last anchor
While the amount of retail in the initial Gare du Nord plan did not win favor in Paris, retail is an important driver in most of these new schemes.
This awareness of the potential of rail stations as retail hubs is relatively new, according to Nicolas Le Glatin, CEO of the OpenSpace Group, a consultancy focused on using data to improve the flow of people through public spaces. Looking at stations as retail assets “became a way to fund the redevelopment of old railway stations that needed to be refurbished anyway,” Le Glatin said.
Although digital shopping is challenging brick-and-mortar retail everywhere, Campbell notes that he learned during his work on the 2007 renovation of St. Pancras in London that retail in train stations has two special advantages: first, the train network can serve as a powerful anchor for shops, and second, that you know in advance when potential customers will be passing through.
New views of an old station
More than awareness of passenger numbers is driving the perception of train terminals as a real estate asset.
For one thing, stations are less grimy than they used to be, according to Campbell. The vaulted glass ceilings that launched a thousand spy movies weren’t there to accentuate trench coats: Campbell says the idea was to help dissipate the smoke. Modern all-electric trains aren’t as dirty as the old diesel trains, he says, making the stations cleaner places now. Today, 80% of all European rail traffic is conducted using electric traction, according to UNIFE, the European Rail Industry trade group.
Digital technology is also creating a new range of lighting options. For example, Zaha Hadid Architects director Ludovico Lombardi is working on a metro station for Oslo, Norway. What he calls “the Sky Below” project will reproduce the lighting conditions above ground in the underground tunnel, moving the central light source in sync with the sun above. “The idea there was to replicate natural light using the tunnel of the metro as a canvas,” Lombardi says.
Technology is making a difference in the planning stages as well. “There is no data today to support the design process—no real-world data about the moving of people, their activities and behaviors,” said Le Glatin. But he is trying to change that through his work at Euston Station in London and other railway terminals.
Borrowing long-standing practices from the automotive sector, an industry in which he used to work, Le Glatin and his colleagues at the OpenSpace group track people’s movement through what the firm calls mobility hubs. Using data gathered on how people are moving through a terminal and replicating those movements via digital simulation, OpenSpace gives architects and engineers data on subjects about which they once had to guess.
“We give them a picture of how the station works today. That can start helping them to imagine with real data—not on surveys, not on emotion, not on ‘I think so,’” Le Glatin said.
Having this data makes it possible for designers and architects to operate in very different ways than they traditionally did. “You are seriously changing the way designers and architects work,” he added.
Architects involved in today’s refurbishments say one of the challenges of redesigning railway stations is the need to try to “future proof” a building as long-lived as a major station tends to be.
Lombardi says he and his team have tried to design the Vilnius station in a way that allows for evolution, such as a design that is flexible enough that it can accommodate a different ticketing and control system. “We wanted to create something that is somehow flexible enough that in the future … the space can still be valid and can be utilized,” Lombardi said.
Taking the long view is important to Campbell as well. “You’ve got to make sure that it’s future-proofed for change. It’s quite difficult to come back in the future and alter something that’s built over a live railway track,” he explained.
In one respect, however, he has firm convictions about the future of urban transportation: trains are here to stay. “I don’t think autonomous vehicles or flying vehicles are the answer to the improvement of public transport in cities,” he says. “…An autonomous vehicle is more efficient than a car, but it’s still a vehicle.”