Championing Quality: Network Rail’s New Focus on Architecture and Design (Part 2)

In the first part of this interview (The Beauty of Transport, 4 March 2020), Network Rail’s Professional Head Buildings and Architecture Anthony Dewar and Principal Architect Frank Anatole explained how carefully chosen design competitions are opening Network Rail up to new design ideas and publicly demonstrating its renewed interest in architecture and design.

But internally, there have been some significant challenges in promoting the importance of these functions in a company with over 3,000 engineers and approximately 12 architects. Dewar’s responsibilities are a national function, but Network Rail has recently been through a devolution process which has decentralised many decisions to its five Regions, and the 14 Routes which sit within them. A key challenge has been to ensure that there is widespread understanding of the importance of architecture and design across the Routes and Regions.

Principles of Good Design

The first sign of this work (after some 18 months of consultation to ensure buy-in from across the company) was the publication in January 2019 of Our Principles of Good Design, setting out nine principles, explaining why they matter, and outlining how designers of Network Rail projects should respond to the principles in the document.

Network Rail’s Principles of Good Design. Via the Network Rail website

Unlike earlier design guidance, this document is easily accessible (even to members of the public; click here to see the document and read more details of what the nine principles should mean in practice) and fully signed-off.

And it’s just the start.

A mandatory requirement that all Network Rail works affecting the built environment must carry out an architectural submission demonstrating how the works relate to the nine Principles is now included in the Engineering Assurance Standards. This should significantly increase the attention given to the quality of design when changes are made to the built environment.

New Design Guidelines

To support projects, approximately 25 Design Guideline documents will be introduced over the next three years. Once the set is complete, they will cover the full range of Network Rail’s architecture and design functions and be best practice benchmarks. They are also being designed to be attractive documents in themselves, reinforcing the idea of design quality. Dewar and Anatole have a lot of time for British Rail’s Corporate Identity Manual and want to bring some of its rigour to bear on Network Rail’s activities.

It won’t quite be a modern version of British Rail’s Manual; Network Rail’s activities are different from those of the fully-integrated British Rail. In terms of contemporaries, what Dewar and Anatole seem to be aiming for is something like Transport for London’s suite of Design Standards (publicly available, via this link) with a set of Network Rail guidelines that are so thorough they become de facto standards because they are obviously best practice solutions, and because an off-the-shelf design from the relevant guidance document means it would actually be more difficult to do something different (and less good).

The first of these guidance documents is expected by summer 2020.

Trunking and Toilets

One sometimes overlooked issue Anatole is keen to tackle quickly through the design guidelines is containment systems for services (pipes and wires). There will be a guidance document on toilets, too. It’s one of those subjects that’s hard to talk about without inadvertently smiling – which Dewar and Anatole duly do – but the quality of toilet facilities at stations is of real importance to passengers.

Design Guidelines for station toilets are on the way. Image courtesy of Network Rail

The toilets at London Victoria have recently reopened after a massive multi-million pound refurbishment, and look to set the standard for other Network Rail facilities. “They’re a great design, and we aimed for them to be good enough to enter the Loo of the Year awards scheme,” a proud Anatole says. “They were done ahead of the actual design guidance document for toilets, but we’ll be incorporating features we used at Victoria into that.” Sure enough, the London Victoria toilets won the Transport Market Sector Award at 2019’s Loo of the Year Awards.

London Victoria’s refurbished, award winning, toilets. Photo courtesy of Network Rail

Changes Ahead for Station Information?

But it’s the Design Guideline documents which will relate to Principle of Good Design number 1 “Identity” that sound really intriguing. Principle 1 talks about “a holistic approach across the network … that will generate a world class identity for Network Rail through good design”. While that might refer to standard high-quality footbridge designs being deployed, for instance, the railways have often used typography, signage and graphic design to relate their corporate identity to passengers.

It is at the 20 Network Rail-operated stations where passengers have their greatest exposure to Network Rail graphic design in the form of distinctive signage and information displays. Apart from newer Network Rail logos, the basic design has been around for some 20 years, since Railtrack days. The Brunel typeface signage at those stations, with white or yellow lettering on blue backgrounds, has been one of Railtrack’s most obvious legacies in terms of design, and probably one of its more successful projects, given the corporate circumstances in which it was delivered. It brought a contemporary and cohesive appearance to Railtrack’s major stations (The Beauty of Transport, 17 April 2013) which has persisted to this day, even if by now some of its shortcomings are becoming more evident. So what will the Design Guidelines have to say about that? Will they codify the existing arrangements or is the blue signage definitely on the way out?

Signage at Leeds station. The colour scheme, Brunel typeface and pictorgrams date from Railtrack days. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Dewar clearly has thoughts on the matter but is wary of confirming any plans at the moment; he promises me some more definite answers later this year, which suggests that at least one of the design guidance documents will indeed tackle this area, and be in the first tranche to be published.

In the meantime, he is happy to pose some questions. Does the current signage at Network Rail-operated stations still represent best practice in signage design? For instance, the logo used for ‘train’ (in directional signage towards platforms, for instance) is misunderstood by some passengers as meaning ‘bus’, Dewar notes. TfL has always used the National Rail double arrow symbol to point towards mainline trains, whereas Railtrack dropped it from its station signage, presumably in part because it related so directly to its nationalised predecessor. Do we now have a better understanding of the way people absorb information from signage at busy locations like stations? Could the current signage be made clearer? And do advances in signage manufacturing, with reduced costs, make it affordable to reprint entire signs when necessary? Could that move Network Rail away from an approach where information is provided in strips or on planks, and individual parts of larger signs are swapped out or vinyled over when the information on them needs to be updated? Watch this space, is the message.

Design Champions and Advisory Panel

With Buildings and Architecture a centralised function, but Network Rail increasingly devolved to its Routes and Regions, Dewar and Anatole have put in place support systems at Region level. These are designed to assist Regions and Routes more easily access architecture and design advice, and make sure that centralised guidance gets out to the Regions and Routes. “Regional Design Champions” are members of Network Rail staff who will act as first points of contact for advice at Regional level. Resources are such that this job role is not full time. Instead it is being taken on by staff alongside their day-to-day responsibilities.

Larger, or high-risk, projects will attract national scrutiny from Dewar and Anatole. Such projects will have to be submitted to another one of their innovations, Network Rail’s Design Advice Panel, officially launched in August. Although it is the first such panel Network Rail has ever had, it is an approach used by other large infrastructure bodies. HS2 has a Design Panel and Highways England has its Strategic Design Panel too. Both of them, like Network Rail’s, are intended to ensure that projects embody good design principles. Network Rail’s differs in that it does not have a roster of named individuals on the panel. Instead, Dewar has commissioned the Design Council to provide a large pool of built environment experts, any of whom can be called upon to advise on design aspects of major projects. Dewar thinks this approach will bring more creativity to the advice given, as well as being a more flexible arrangement. Anatole, meanwhile, is keen to stress that it is specifically called a “Design Advice Panel” rather than a “Design Review Panel”, to reassure Routes that they are not being dictated to from a central function.

Network Rail’s new approach is strongly aligned with a recent call from the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) that new or renewed nationally significant infrastructure should aspire to high quality through embracing new design principles. The NIC’s Design Group (on which Dewar sits) has proposed that all such infrastructure should embed considerations around climate, people, places and value as part of the design process; a timely call with some major infrastructure projects on the horizon in the UK.

Future Challenges: Stations

I ask Dewar and Anatole what the next architecture and design challenges will be for Network Rail. The design of stations themselves has now reached somewhere near the top of their ‘to do’ list. Network Rail’s last attempt at some kind of standard modern station design was the somewhat unsympathetic and unadventurous modular station building, which started appearing in 2008 with several examples constructed over the following few years.

One of the Network Rail modular station buildings, seen at East Grinstead. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

A later attempt at a standard(ish) ‘station of the future’ by the Rail Delivery Group and bpr Architects called “Station Place” (reported on here by Railway Technology Magazine) never got further than the artist’s impression phase, despite embodying some intriguing concepts. But the lack of a standard design means that developers who might want to propose a new station, for instance, have no benchmark to base outline design or costs on.

Once again, Dewar and Anatole have turned to the Design Council, this time to run a series of “ThinkStation” workshops over the winter of 2020/21, asking people for their ideas about what they want and might need from stations in future. The feedback, ideas and concepts which the workshops generated will be used to plan what to do next.

Surely it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with something better than the modular station building at any rate, I ask? Anatole doesn’t want to criticise the efforts of others, working at a different time under different circumstances, but notes in terms of the building itself, “That one just got to a certain stage before development work ceased and the design was frozen, so it was just dropped onto sites in a relatively undeveloped form, and it didn’t adapt to reflect its context.” Like the earlier CLASP system stations, the modular stations at stations like Greenhithe, Corby, Uckfield and East Grinstead may sadly come to be seen as one of those station designs that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Future Challenges: Commitment and Resourcing

Another challenge is ensuring Network Rail’s ongoing organisational commitment to architecture and design at what remains primarily an engineering-led firm. “It actually reflects a wider UK PLC challenge,” Dewar says. “How do we make the argument for funding and maintenance of high quality infrastructure, against the need to ensure operational functions continue effectively? There’s a hard balance to strike.”

London King’s Cross. Spectacularly refurbished and still being well-looked after by Network Rail. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

“But our customers will eventually notice whether we’re looking after their stations,” Anatole suggests. “The need to justify spending money on design features applies to smaller schemes too,” he adds. “Like when people ask why we need to have glazing on footbridges [rather than being open structures], because then there will be a cost to clean it. The answer is to design in ways to undertake cleaning easily.”

Summing Up

With the time for the interview running out, I am beginning to realise the scale of the job Dewar and Anatole have taken on. Even under the enlightened leadership of Andrew Haines, they are turning around a supertanker of corporate behaviour which had previously often focussed on engineering first, design and aesthetics second. But the pair are feeling positive. Having worked on the foundations of architecture and design at the company, some of their projects are now making a real world difference and the Network Rail’s commitment is beginning to become more visible outside the company.

“I always saw this job as an opportunity to raise the bar in terms of Network Rail’s built environment, and affect billions of passenger journeys,” Dewar reflects. “But when I recruited Frank, the first thing I asked him was why on Earth he would want to work for this company that had a slightly questionable reputation in architecture and design.”

“Well, they’re palaces for the people, stations,” explains Anatole. The expression was originally used by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie about libraries, he notes, but adds that like libraries, “I’ve come to believe that stations have always had the potential to be great social places that combat the increasing drift towards technological isolation and non-physical interaction. Infrastructure has a huge role to play in social health. So I saw this job as an opportunity to develop interesting and expressive architecture. Transport architecture is a bit of a Cinderella sector, but your station should be lifting your spirits.”

And in October, Network Rail won RIBA’s 2019 Client of the Year Award for its championing of excellent architecture. That external recognition reassures Dewar and Anatole that the company is moving in the right direction and their efforts are paying off.

I just have time left to ask one of my favourite questions: What’s your favourite station? (And, I ponder to myself, who in the railway industry could be better than Dewar and Anatole to ask this question of?)

For Dewar it is London Charing Cross. He grew up in the south-east and Charing Cross was ‘his’ London terminus. “The contrast between my home town and Charing Cross, with the Strand and Trafalgar Square right outside, has a real impact. It’s got a nice compact concourse, and the Charing Cross Hotel is very under-rated as piece of railway architecture,” he suggests.

Anatole plumps for London’s St Pancras International. “It’s a wonderful example of something repurposed and given new life, and it came so close to demolition. I’m not sure the extension of the trainshed is as successful as the rest, but the separation of levels is great. It turned an ugly duckling into a swan.”

And with that, time is up. Dewar and Anatole have spent two years putting in place good foundations for architecture and design at Network Rail. Now it is all about turning their desire for better work in these functions into things that passengers will actually see and use. With a fair wind, things should (literally) be looking much better in the years to come.

Acknowledgements

With grateful thanks to Anthony Dewar and Frank Anatole for giving up their time to answer my questions, supply images and then fact check my writings afterwards. Thanks also to their various colleagues at Network Rail who did the same and made helpful suggestions. Any remaining errors are mine.

2 thoughts on “Championing Quality: Network Rail’s New Focus on Architecture and Design (Part 2)

  1. Interesting that Frank Anatole’s favourite station is St Pancras International. I grew up a few miles down the line in Hendon, so St Pancras was “my” London terminus. And my father could have played a major role in its demolition. As a senior BRB architect from something like the mid-1960s through to the early 1980s, he was responsible for drawing up 2 schemes: one was for the demolition and replacement of St Pancras, the other for the demolition and replacement of King’s Cross. If either had closed, trains would have been diverted to the other. And while talking about my father: he designed the NRM building.

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