The importance of railway stations, large or small

07/06/2020 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
Suscribe my blog

(Version en français)

Railway stations are a part of Europe’s railway infrastructure and history. They provide a core element of all national railway networks. Some are icons of the past and embody stories of the everyday lives of thousands of people. They are the mandatory interface between passengers and boarding trains.

A brief history
Main railway stations have always been the iconic piece of cities. Many of them were intended, in the 19th century, to represent the splendour of the railway company that built them. This was the case for example of London-St Pancras (Midland Railway), Paris-Nord (Compagnie des chemins de fer du Nord) or Antwerp (Grand Central Belge). In other cases, governments decided to build large stations, such as Budapest-Keleti (1868) or later Milan-Central (under Mussolini).

As one moves away from the big cities, we travel within rural areas where there were other, much smaller stations. But these small stations were sometimes equipped with very complete amenities: waiting room, toilets, ticket office. Major railway stations on local and regional railway lines have high cultural value and are an element of urban entities. Nearly all of these stations also had a freight yard with daily service. One of the things that was brought there was the coal that was used for heating. All that is the world of the past. Most of them are now used as parking lots…

Particularly after the Second World War, there was a kind of gradual abandonment of stations, many of which were closed. The large urban stations, often destroyed by the war, were replaced in the 1950s and 1960s by what has been called « brutalist architecture », the best examples of which are London-Euston or Paris-Montparnasse.

In rural areas, there was either an urban exodus, with consequence that local lines and their stations became useless, or one witnessed the construction of new housing further away from the stations, sometimes several kilometres away. In the meantime, the old paved roads had been modernized with bitumen, which accelerated the introduction of the automobile into households. This socio-economic situation has put the railway at risk. Protests from all sides have sometimes made it possible to maintain some stations, but for the smaller ones, only the two platforms often remain today, without any amenities.

Disused railway station and platform near Blaenau Ffestiniog (photo John Charlton via


Gendron-Celles, Belgium, in 1980, seems to have been frozen since the 1930s… (photo Michel Huhardeaux via flickr license)

Many of these small stations have left a very bad image of the railway and the state: dirty and old-fashioned places run by the public service, while the automobile, coming from private industry, is constantly being renewed and presents a permanent picture of modernity and design. These elements had a considerable impact on citizens: fewer and fewer people were taking the way to the station.

New era
Fortunately, population growth and the limitations of a society entirely devoted to the automobile turned things around as early as the 1990s. Local and regional railways were able to get a second wind in countries where the state finally allowed local authorities to take care of their stations. In centralist countries, it is still difficult. The current paradox is characterised by the multiple wishes of many participants, by the often unsatisfied demands of customers and users, by a building stock that no longer meets today’s requirements and by the empty purses of public railway enterprises when it comes to concrete investments and improvements in the local situation.

Small stations are now facing new demands for which they have not been updated. For example, the recognition of autonomy in favour of disabled people has progressed strongly, which means that all stations, as well as trains, must be equipped with specific access for people with reduced mobility, which is often difficult to establish. In 2018, a study reveals in UK that 50 per cent of stations in Scotland, 40 per cent of stations in England and 32 per cent of stations in Wales do not have full step-free access, which prevents passengers with physical disabilities travelling.

Some stations deserve a serious breath of fresh air despite the presence of modern trains (Germany – photo pxfuel)

Other requests relate to the bike ramps to be placed along the stairs to reach the corridors under the track. Still others demand the return of the ticket machine or even sometimes of the ticket office. All of these requests has a major impact on the rail infrastructure funding, when these are essential elements of service to the public. Maintaining a day-long ticket office in small stations where most customers have various passes remains a problem. The public railway companies have therefore adopted the same policy as bus operators, where the majority of stops have no staff on site, not even in the city. Only major public transport hubs have ticket offices.

Some modernizations have forgotten essential elements… (photo Taucha Kompakt)

There are about 5,400 stations in Germany which are operated by DB Station & Service AG, a wholly owned subsidiary of the DBAG holding company. Approximately 3,500 (65%) of all passenger stations in Germany are « small stations » and have a daily frequency of less than 1,000 passengers. The largest number of these « small stations » is in Bavaria (594 stations). Since 2011, the 5,400 stations and stops have been divided into seven categories based on several criteria, including the number of platforms, train stops and passengers per day. In December 2017, the station categories were replaced by price classes, which form the basis for determining the station prices that railway undertakings (RUs) pay to DB Station&Service and other railway infrastructure companies of the DB Group for the use of their platforms and stops.

Network Rail currently owns and manages 19 of the busiest stations in the UK and this number is increasing. Moreover, there are over 2,500 stations across Great Britain with more than 20,000 daily train services running through them. Network Rail, such as Infrabel in Belgium or ProRail in the Netherlands, is responsible for the technical aspects of the track, signalling and catenary, i.e. technical railway elements that are outside the commercial perimeter intended for the public. The areas open to the public, on the other hand, are the responsibility of the TOCs (train operating companies). No two franchises are the same. By their very nature they run on different rail lines and routes, having different requirements and specifications. Some franchises include station upgrades.

This separation between technology and « public » spaces comes from the observation that while public spaces are daily used, while technical elements do not require staff to be permanently on site. Technical teams are nowadays mobile and go from station to station for maintenance or possible repairs. Technologies now make it possible to monitor a large number of railway equipment remotely.

The other argument is that certain areas open to the public can be « marketed », which is not a really railway worker’s job. This marketing makes it possible to generate incomes, where possible, from a real estate asset that costs their manager money, especially when it is necessary to conserve a historic building that has become too large for current traffic. For example, SBB Real Estate, a subsidiary of the public railway company SBB, is one of Switzerland’s foremost property companies with 864 employees looking after 3,500 buildings and 3,800 railway sites across Switzerland. Part of its role is sustainable development of sites around its stations to generate income for reinvestment. The goal of SBB’s properties are likely to be among the most profitable in Switzerland in future too.

Station of Visp, Switzerland (photo SBB Real Estate)

These real estate objectives continue to annoy some ideologues who see « a commodification of public service to the detriment of the role of the state ». The debate is endless between those who believe that a public rail service must be paid for whatever it costs, and others who propose alternative solutions to bring revenue into a financially burdensome sector which needs huge amount of money to run. The management of the common good must involve creativity and daring, while remaining within the framework of the law.

Importance of local field
The renovation of these small stations still too often depends on the financial objectives of governments at the national level. One can easily speculate on the fact that a railway which makes only 8 to 15% of market share is not priority by elected political, who have other (electoral) priorities to fund. This problem isn’t new.

These figures showed above indicates the scale of the investments to be made for a public that is still a minority. That shows that a regional policy can play a major role: what appears to be trivial and incidental at the state level is in fact of great importance at the local level. We do not have the same view from the top of London, Paris or Berlin by comparisons with existing realities on the ground.

This local policy of stations must, however, take place with financial founds from the State. This is what has been lacking in France: the SNCF has been left to decide at national level what investments are needed – as long as the regions pay! The aim was to safeguard the uniqueness of the SNCF and to pick up the money from elsewhere. Transferring a lack of national investment to the local level is obviously not a sustainable policy…

Bade-Wurtemberg for example has planned in 2019 a total of 430 million euros is to be invested in construction projects between 2020 and 2029, for approximately 400 stations from the total of 787. Land will contribute 150 million euros to this investment, while the municipalities are to provide a total of 80 million euros. The remaining 200 million euros will be provided by Deutsche Bahn. Similar deals can be found all over Europe, to varying degrees, but it all depends on the political culture.

Of course one cannot compare France, or even Great Britain, with federal countries such as Germany or Switzerland. Some « non-federal » countries, however, apply a policy very similar to federal countries with transfers of funds from the national state to the Regions or Counties, like in Sweden or the Netherlands. In most cases, stations are still part of the incumbent and are managed either by a subsidiary of a holding company (DB Station & Service) or by the infrastructure manager (Adif in Spain).

The new high-speed train station of Figueres-Villafant, managed by ADIF and not the operator Renfe (photo

But relations between the infrastructure manager and the transport organising authorities are sometimes strained, even in the case of a decentralised policy. In many cases in Europe, local elected representatives have no control over their stations, whatever the institutional configuration. For example, from the point of view of the VBB (Brandeburg and Berlin), it is not acceptable in the long term for Deutsche Bahn to define the quality for the stations itself. According VBB, Deutsche Bahn’s own minimum requirements for service and quality were significantly below from those of VBB GmbH.

However, today we can find very nice renovations of small stations without it costing billions of euros. Some stations are sometimes repositioned or even … created, which is always an event, as we are so accustomed to closing our stations and small lines. One could even imagine to relocate the housing closer to the stations to avoid users having to use a car. This would make it possible to achieve certain climate objectives which have become the urgency of this century. But for that there must also be an attractive train service.

>>> To read: New homes should only be built near train stations

Some stations have had very nice renovations, often when a line is reopened, as below between Nantes and Chateaubriand, France, on the occasion of the introduction of a light train in the form of a tram.

Nort-sur-Erdre station, renovated by the SNCF as part of the Nantes-Chateaubriand tram-train (photo Cramos via wikipedia)

Other small stations were built in the 1970s but could sometimes be upgraded in a very simple way, by a small architectural creation, as here in Den-Haag Moerwijk in the Netherlands. It’s clean and unadorned.

Den Haag Moerwijk, Netherlands (photo Albert Koch via flickr license)

Architecture and conviviality are not unnecessary luxury. First impressions is very important because it is by his station that people notice the quality of a public service of a region, a Land or a County. Investment in regeneration of a station can, in turn, increase confidence by providing a focus for development for municipalities. Improvements to stations can deliver wider benefits, for example about the neighborough of the station. The train station can no longer be the hideous corner of the village, which one avoids. It must once again become the centre of the village or small town. One can sometimes dare the architectural gesture, without sinking into megalomania. For example with this bus station in front of the train station in Attnang-Puchheim, Austria.

Attnang-Puchheim, Austria (photo Architektur Studio Gilhofer)

The advantages of getting to the station by bike are no longer obvious. But a recurring problem has always been securing the bike during the day. Too often, the bike was tied up, at best under a canopy on the platform, at worst outside the station. All rebuilt or renovated stations have bicycle parking facilities (photo, Austria).

From now on, it is started to install real bicycle garages. For example, with its 61 bicycle stations, North Rhine-Westphalia has more bicycle parking garages at train stations than the rest of Germany combined. In a relatively short period of time, municipalities and private partners were able to create a state-wide network of bicycle parking options under the brand “Radstation” (“Bike station”), all of which fulfil common minimal standards.

A revolution in station catering in the last 20 years makes it possible today to definitively forget its reputation for curled-up sandwiches and bad coffee. Catering has never been a railroader’s job and it was time for quality to take hold. Today, it’s giving way to higher quality retail outlets managed by independant retailers, like here, in Cuxhaven and Bad Bentheim, Germany.

Cuxhaven (photo Allianz Pro Schiene)


Bad Bentheim (photo Allianz Pro Schiene)

All these examples show that the revitalization of small stations is perfectly possible, as long as we give ourselves the means to do so. The success of our stations is achieved only by shared effort and ambition : the partnerships of the public sector, private and social enterprise, and organisations that are both part of the railway and outside it. The best ideas are collective, not just from a single state company. There is not one way to build a sustainable railway station, but hundreds of ways.

It is not only a question of money, but also a question of better allocation of resources. Seeking out the money available, cooperating with local authorities, rejecting political localism – these are essential ingredients to ensure that small stations become attractive and efficient hubs. In some countries, there is still a lot of persuasion work to be done…

Station of Baarn, Netherlands (1874) (photo E. Dronket via flickr license)

07/06/2020 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
Suscribe my blog

(Version en français)

Sources :

2011 – – Bicycle Parking at Train Stations

2011 – Tim Lehmann – Der Bahnhof der Zukunft – Alternativen zum traditionellen Bahnhofsempfangsgebäude

2015 – Campaign for Better Transport – Passenger’s Guide to Franchising

2016 – Campaign for Better Transport – Development around stations Exploring international experience and lessons for the UK

2017 – Rail Delivery Group, UK – Regenerating Britain’s railway stations: a six-point plan

2019 – Network Rail – Station Design Principles for Network Rail 

2019 – – La régionalisation du rail allemand

2019 – Allianz Pro Schiene – Bahnhof des Jahres: Die besten Bahnhöfe Deutschlands

2019 – Ludwigsburger Kreiszeitung – Millionenschweres Finanzpaket für Bahnhöfe geplant

2020 – SBB Real Estate


Other related post:

Automatic_couplingHow real estate can financing railways?
09/28/2020 – The railway is a sector that brings very little return. Other adjacent areas could bring in additional income, but not by selling frenetically. Explanations.

Aerial view of Interchange StationWest Midlands: first railway station in the world to obtain a sustainable label
05/12/2020 – How do you build a station with a sustainable label? Example with this new station in the East of Birmingham, but with a very English label…

0001New homes should only be built near train stations
04/15/2020 – Bringing homes closer to railway stations will help us achieve part of our climate goals. Explanations

Chamartin_reconstruccion_DCN-5Chamartín station, an essential element for the future of Madrid
02/14/2020 – The existing Chamartín train station is called to become one of the most modern in Europe and a cornerstone for the future of Madrid, under the impetus of the ‘Madrid Nuevo Norte’ urban development project.

>>> Others news here
Suscribe by mail to connect with railway information