The Very Model of a Modern Modular Station (Network Rail Modular Railway Stations, UK)

Network Rail has, for the past few years, been building modular stations across its railway network in Britain.

I can’t fault this initiative. There are too many stations around the country which don’t have decent ticket offices or waiting facilities. There are simply too many mouldering old station buildings spoiling the passenger experience at stations. They were built for a different age, and many are now far too large for modern needs. If new tenants can be found to bring life to such station buildings, and an income stream to fund the maintenance of the building, then fine. But all too often, it seems that no tenants can be found. I can’t see the point of retaining old buildings just because they’re old, when they don’t possess any particular architectural merit. As William Morris would say (if he only he’d been a transport planner), “Have nothing on your railway network that you know to be neither useful nor beautiful.”

And then there are the station buildings which aren’t that old, but where the buildings are, quite simply, awful. Step forward, 1960s CLASP buildings, like this:

Sunbury station.
Sunbury station. By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, it does look a bit like a cold-war era hardened regional control room. Sadly, CLASP buildings lack the structural integrity, waterproofing, and even the elegance of your typical nuclear bunker.

Wikipedia has a very helpful page on this sorry chapter in British station ‘architecture’, which you can read if you so desire; I will move swiftly on.

So, Network Rail’s modular stations, an affordable way of replacing outdated station facilities, or helping keep down the extortionate cost of a new station, are really a very good idea. They’ve popped up at locations such as Greenhithe, Corby, Mitcham Eastfields and Uckfield.

Here’s Corby station’s modular ticket office:

By Cj1340 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Corby station. By Cj1340 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The modular buildings aren’t offensive to look at, but the trouble is that’s about as excited as I can get about them. Does modular really have to mean bland? Huf Houses are modular, and they’re not bland. The modular stations do at least pass half the William Morris test (they’re useful) even if they fail the other. But wouldn’t it be nice if they passed both?

What’s really at the heart of my discomfort is that they look just a little too much like this:

geograph-3051696-by-Colin-Smith
Morrison’s supermarket, Woking, Surrey. © Copyright Colin Smith and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. From geograph.org.uk, here

I don’t doubt Network Rail’s ability to deliver beautiful and useful stations, and I promise in future entries to feature some good examples of their work.

But, you know, come on. Surely we can design an affordable modular station that doesn’t look like a small supermarket? The new Accrington station ticket office looks rather elegant, not to mention being very eco-friendly:

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Accrington station’s new ticket office, via transportxtra.com, here

It cost £1.2m or thereabouts. This is rather more than the new ticket office at Uckfield station, which was one of Network Rail’s modular buildings. According to the local media that cost £750,000. But Accrington’s station incurs all the set-up costs that modular stations avoid through repeat ordering of identical components. And the price compares more favourably with the £2m being quoted by train operator Southern for the new modular station building (plus some car park works) at Ashtead, where a CLASP building is being replaced.

The new modular station at Ashtead, Surrey. From Southern's news pages here.
Artist’s impression of the new modular station at Ashtead, Surrey. From Southern’s news pages here.

It’s possible that Ashtead is a bigger station building, or that the car park works are in the seven figure region (!), and that Accrington’s new ticket office is still more expensive than the standard Network Rail modular station product. But even so, my question is why the standardised components of Network Rail’s modular stations can’t look a bit more like Accrington station, and a bit less like Morrison’s supermarket in Woking…

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