Railways: The backbone of sustainable mobility


Railways: The backbone of sustainable mobility

From local shops to global cities, transportation is central to how places function. Whatever the mode and whether this involves active travel, driving or public transport, how we arrive at a place and circulate are essential for it to function (they are also important for how we form our first impressions, but that is another article!). 


Generally, well connected places benefit from greater activity, footfall and sales while poorly connected places are constrained by the number and type of visitors they can attract and have to work harder to compete. Destinations that are more remote and difficult to access rely on visitors arriving by car, which contributes to trip generation, traffic and CO2 emissions. Consequently, not only is transportation critical for a place to operate successfully but it is also an essential component of sustainable development.  


Of course, this is a very simplistic way of looking at it and each location presents a different set of challenges and considerations for mobility (for instance, rural areas where access to public transport is likely to be limited). However, multiple authorities and organisations from the UN and the World Economic Forum to the UK Government have highlighted the importance of sustainable transport for meeting net zero targets and slowing the rate of global warming.



Hitchin’s direct rail connectivity to London, Cambridge, Peterborough and Bedford is one of the main reasons for the town’s popularity 



Over a thousand ticket office closures have been announced

Europe already has the core of an integrated sustainable transport system in its rail network. Across the UK alone, this involves 20,000 miles of track connecting over 2,500 mainline stations. Currently, approximately 60% of these have ticket offices. However, at the beginning of July, the Department for Transport announced plans to close almost all of the 1,007 offices in England over the next three years, including those at the main hubs of London Euston, Birmingham New Street and Manchester Piccadilly. 


Speaking about emerging proposals at the end of last year, the previous transport minister reasoned that as only 12% of tickets were purchased at offices, closing these would enable the redistribution of resources to create a better overall passenger experience. This same rational was reasserted by the current Rail Minister at the beginning of this year.  


For the Rail Delivery Group, this represents the modernisation of the system but according to a report in The Guardian, it is principally about reducing costs. Additionally, it worth noting that the 12% figure comes from a time when passenger numbers and tourism were recovering from the pandemic. As the total number of passenger journeys has increased by 45% over the past 12 months, it is assumed the use of ticket offices has also increased over the same period. 


The impact on passengers with mobility impairments is particularly concerning. According to Scope and the charity Transport for All; ‘nearly a third of disabled train passengers said that they don’t trust their journeys will go as planned. Closing ticket offices and cutting staff will only make this uncertainty worse’. While a BBC report suggests that ‘many rail users, who rely on help at ticket offices, fear the changes will make it harder for them to travel’. 



Reducing ticket access could strip communities of income and character

Reducing access to public transport not only affects the health and wellbeing of those that rely on the service for work, shopping and socialising, it can also have a lasting impact on a community. One of the practice’s current studies involves the preparation of a public realm strategy for a strategically located but predominantly rural county in the East Midlands. In 1959, Rutland had ten train stations distributed across the county, four located in nine of today’s largest settlements. By 1966, nine stations had been closed, including those of the second and third largest towns. Today, only one station remains in the county with two passenger service per hour.  


It could be argued that reduced connectivity has sustained Rutland’s predominantly rural character – and this is partially true – but it is also impeding growth and investment today. Furthermore, narrow country roads and peaceful villages are clogged by local, through and freight traffic at peak times. 


Access to a train station in Rutland in 1959 and today (source: Placemake) 



Another project by the practice involving a town where the station closed in 1965 found that limited public transport links are similarly constraining economic growth and preventing residents from accessing employment and training opportunities further afield. Meanwhile, the neighbouring towns with stations are thriving in a strategic growth zone between London, Cambridge and Oxford. 


This trend is not exclusive to the UK and a previous project by Placemake in Ireland found the town’s commercial offer has been gradually contracting since the station was closed in 1979. Conversely, the neighbouring town that retained its station has expanded in scale and facility provision over the same period. The varying fortunes of these two towns located only 5km apart is such that the latter has now overtaken its neighbour as the regional centre.   


These studies highlight the value of connectivity for economic growth and also, the importance of public transport access for the vitality of residents and communities alike. At present, it is difficult to see how closing ticket offices will improve the use, efficiency or experience of rail travel today - certainly not without having other systems in place to facilitate the transition to a more automated system. However, given the significance of this for economic, social and environmental sustainability, we should clearly be strengthening the service rather than disassembling it.


By David Edwards for PBC Today, August 2023


Header image: PBC Today