News, Retail, Transport

The surprising reason why train stations are raising their lighting game

Fortnum & Mason in London's St Pancras station, with lighting designed by Speirs + Major. Train station shops like this are becoming more and more common | Photo: James Newton

Train stations aren’t generally noted for their beautiful lighting. Sure, there are some great exceptions, but usually the focus is on function and safety.

That’s all changing. Station operators are raising their game when it comes to interior design, and that includes lighting.

The reason? Retail. More and more train stations are becoming shopping destinations. Some of them are even getting higher footfall than actual shopping centres.

And retailers want the place to look right.

London Underground, for instance, plans to rent out retail units in numerous stations (in many cases using space made free when ticket offices are closed) as a new source of revenue. But if the Tube is to attract the retail tenants it wants, the stations need to look the part.

The Tube is lucky to have a unique estate of heritage architecture, and lighting is going to be a key part of its plan to make the most of it. Drab, functional lighting will no longer do. Beautifully tiled Edwardian ticket halls inexplicably lit by orange SON lamps will have to become a thing of the past.

Some of these retail units will be small shops, cafes and so on, but the Tube is also eyeing the rapid growth in ‘click and collect’ services. Argos has opened its first Argos Collect store at Cannon Street station, while Amazon has lockers where customers can collect their online orders at Finchley Central and Newbury Park.

To prepare for the rise of rail retail, London Underground has put together a new station design guide, with a whole section contributed by top lighting designer Paul Nulty. Instead of just talking about uniformity, safety or watts per square metre, the Tube says that lighting should ‘create an ambience’.

London Underground’s Ivan Perre wants lighting to ‘create an ambience’ at Tube stations

‘We want to look at retail experiences and really add an element of delight and surprise to each station in a unique way,’ said Ivan Perre, electrical engineer at Transport for London at this week’s Lighting for Rail conference. ‘Each station should have one element that makes you think, wow, that’s pretty cool.’

Similarly, when Virgin Trains announced that it was upgrading lighting to LED at a number of stations on the East Coast line, it said customer satisfaction was just as important a consideration as any savings on energy and maintenance.

Jeff Shaw of Arup spoke at this week’s conference about the customer experience at train stations, and noted how more and more stations are incorporating more upmarket shops, cafes and restaurants. King’s Cross, which Arup worked on, is a prime example, but even at smaller stations, high street retail brands are an increasingly common sight.

Shaw also said that indoor positioning systems based on lighting, which are beginning to get a foothold in the retail world, could also be installed in train stations to help guide passengers around, and perhaps encourage them to visit the shops.

Some Tube stations that have recently been redeveloped have benefitted from injections of cash from developers of commercial buildings that adjoin them (or stand right on top of them).

These businesses have deep pockets and an incentive to create stations that are efficient and pleasant to use. In some cases, backing the redevelopment of a station is actually a condition for getting planning approval.