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04 Dec 2014
Rail stations are very often the hubs of the neighbourhoods in which they are situated, as a recent article points out. They are a gathering point, a nexus, a means of modal interchange and, nowadays, as in the case of Kings Cross Station in London, increasingly a “destination station”, a place to go in its own right, whether for entertainment, dining or even as a tourist attraction, as the lines for the “Platform 9¾” attraction demonstrate.
But the station as an attractor in its own right will be taking second place to its incidental function as an enabler of what people really want for some time yet. Increasingly, we hear of ideas of the “third place”; home, work and “somewhere else”. The rise of ubiquitous mobile connectivity gives knowledge workers the ability to work wherever it suits them to work. The idea of “presenteeism”, where people are to be seen physically working in the office, can now be substituted with a digital version, via a little green status light saying “available” or “online” that appears on people’s social media rosters, whether via Facebook or the corporate Microsoft Lync application.
What makes this work is the agglomeration of “digital presence” in one place. But for interactions that will remain face-to-face – and there will always be many, these will increasingly be concentrated around hubs, with rail stations’ interchange driving traffic. But the total experience of the station as an enabler is being transformed by this. The stand-out example here is connectivity – as expected, “free wifi here” is fast becoming an expectation in places where it was previously a differentiator. People expect to be connected and will, increasingly, avoid places where they can’t get a phone signal or internet connection.
The idea of a station as the hub has been given new life by this expectation of universal connectivity. The “third place” may now be a reality, but the “fourth place” is something that will reveal itself in the age of intelligent mobility. With the advent of autonomous vehicles, rather than smartphones and tablets being seen as a dangerous distraction from the business of driving, driving will increasingly become something that will get in the way of work, and entertainment and relaxation. And while much is made of the potential of a train or indeed a station to be a place for these as well, the “digital railway” cannot function as such unless it can also act as a similar “fourth space” – which will require a seamless digital experience on board. Potential customers will vote not with their feet, but with their seats.
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