Cambridge railway station woes


It’s my station and I’ll moan if I want to. But for those interested in contributing positively towards Cambridge transport, please respond to the County Council’s transport strategy consultation!

Cambridge Station: It seems slightly random for a blog to feature a post moaning about a railway station, but this public transport hub – being in my childhood neighbourhood – is one of the few permanent buildings in an ever-changing part of town. Cycling back and forth over the railway bridge during my paper-round days did wonders for my fitness, even though in those early days cycling up hill wasn’t something I particularly looked forward to until I noticed it did wonders for my fitness. It was only when I had to use the station regularly that I began to notice its shortcomings. In a nutshell the station is too small and its surroundings too poorly-designed for a growing city.

So, what are the problems?

Let’s list a few of them:

  1. Not enough ticket machines
  2. Not enough (staffed) booths – in particular at peak times
  3. An entrance hall that is too small
  4. Not enough ticket barriers to allow smooth flow of people – in particular at peak times
  5. Departure boards too small
  6. No step free access from platforms to trains, and from station to taxis
  7. Lack of alternative pedestrian exits north and south of the station
  8. Toilets – in particular the lack of for ladies & people with disabilities
  9. Stupendously expensive trains to London
  10. Lack of suitably-placed guides and information points for tourists arriving and (understandably) clueless about the place
  11. Bus stops poorly sign-posted and too far away from the station entrance
  12. Poorly-sited taxi drop off points
  13. Poorly sited smoking areas
  14. Lack of cycle parking
  15. Lack of decent shelters for people waiting for buses soon after getting off trains – especially during cold rainy winter nights
  16. Opportunities for better cycle links to other parts of the city – e.g. to the north of Cambridge or to the south/western side of Hills Road
  17. Lack of suitable shops that sell the emergency stuff – though this may change with the developments. (For me, a pharmacists, a convenience store and a really nice bakery are essential. Coffee-wise, AMT for me are the best ‘branded’ coffee going though).

So, who can do stuff about this?

Well, that’s part of the problem. The fragmentation of the public sector has meant that all the problems become someone else’s. Then everyone blames each other for not doing anything about it. The station is run by Greater Anglia [Thank you to Jon Worth and Sarah Brown for the correction] The trains are run by First Capital Connect, Greater Anglia and Cross Country, although signalling and track maintenance is done by Network Rail. Within the county  Cambridgeshire County Council is the transport authority but the buses are run mainly by StageCoach (the political views of its chief executive I have ‘issues’ with) while the taxi licensing is done by Cambridge City Council – which is also the local planning authority. Confuddled?

It’s stuff like this that makes people quite like the idea of one person or one institution having the power to ‘do stuff’ – assuming that person is competent enough to sort stuff out. There’s no guarantee that this would happen though.

Going through the problems.

Problems 1-8 rest purely with the station operators. It would make so much more sense either to knock through the back offices on the southern side of the main hall (where the booths are) to expand the entrance hall and add some more entrances on either side so that more people can flow through. Either that or create additional entrance and exit points to the north and south sides of the station. If anything, there is a more compelling case for a southern side entrance/exit where the bus stops are – not least because the land between the bus stops and the stations doesn’t seem to be in any use at the moment. Far better to create an alternative entrance/exit there for use in peak times if the main hall cannot be expanded.

Toilets – in particular for ladies and people with disabilities. It really saddens me to see the sight of people queuing for the toilet – and it’s seldom men that do the queuing. Can’t our planners and architects do better than this?

The lack of step-free access for me is a basic failing – especially given existing legislation requiring organisations to take appropriate action. It would also save a huge amount of staff time in terms of having to get manual ramps for wheelchair users. Is it really that complex a problem to resolve? Don’t people with mobility problems deserve better given the amount of money they pay for tickets too?

Given the queues at peak times and weekend mornings, there’s also surely a case for putting some ticket machines outside, and managing the queuing system. Does each machine have its own queue or is it one big queue where people move to the next machine becomes available? A person may be an intelligent individual but people in crowds are … far less so. Where you have crowds – especially at public transport hubs with lots of tourists, you need people to manage them. Otherwise you get chaos.

Stupidly expensive trains

This is a national issue which strikes at the heart of housing and transport policy. I’m not going into detail other than to say that a £309million operating profit for the First Group Plc (which owns First Capital Connect) is a nice little earner. It’s a local issue but requires a national solution.

Dealing with tourists and visitors

Cambridge gets lots of them. 4.1million in 2008. That’s quite a lot for a city not much bigger than 100,000. Cambridge had a tourism strategy some 15 years ago, but I can’t find much record of one now. The problems I’ve identified would need to be part of a wider plan to manage tourists, visitors and short-term students that come to the city. The reason being that each brings their own benefits and challenges. Day-trippers that come by coach need to be managed in a different manner to visitors that come to see friends and family to the language students that come for a couple of weeks or months. It’s not just about how to handle a bunch of people who turn up at the railway station standing clueless in front of the entrances not realising their suitcases are blocking the way.

One thing I’d like to see at the station is a tourist information outlet – precisely so tourists arriving for the first time have somewhere immediately to go to ask all the questions they like without getting in other people’s way.

Buses, taxis, car parking and dropping off

The main problem with the current station entrance is they are trying to squeeze too much into too small a space. In part having the entry and exit points clashing with each other makes very little sense. Far better to have a separate area for entry and a separate one for exit. One of the biggest causes of traffic jams – in particular in peak times is taxis and people dropping off passengers. This is due to a combination of lack of space/poor layout, a complete self-awareness failure on the part of taxi and car drivers, and finally a lack of enforcement by police. A police office issuing fixed penalty notices for all the traffic offences in this part of Cambridge could make enough money to fill the gap in the cuts. But that won’t solve the problem in the long term.

Taxis – picking up. Currently you jump into a taxi which then takes you back past the station entrance. Ideally you want to jump into a taxi where it takes you away from the station entrance. There also needs to be a short-term waiting area for ordinary traffic because at present there is nowhere reasonable for people to wait to pick up train passengers.

Taxis – dropping off. Currently dropping off involves blocking much of the traffic behind. Both taxis and ordinary car drivers all too often show a complete lack of awareness and end up blocking traffic – especially buses behind them. They then get angry or embarrassed when irate people behind them start blowing car horns. It also doesn’t do local air pollution any good either. Again, this is something that can be fixed with much wider entrance and exits and much better planning.

New bus stops. My problem with the bus stops is that they are too far away from the main station entrance. Otherwise they work far better than the previous ones. At the moment it’s not clear what infrastructure is going to be built around them, but there is vacant land by them that presents the station with a huge opportunity to do something nice while at the same time providing an alternative entrance and exit. My personal favourite would be to have a combination waiting room/coffee shop/entrance-exit there (by platform 3) to make waiting slightly more bearable during cold winter nights, because at present the stops are incredibly exposed to the elements.

Poorly sited smoking areas: Not only do these need to be further away from the main entrances, there needs to be some sort of security presence to enforce this. My preference would be to have police/PCSO presence but chances are it’ll be a poorly-paid Group4-type person – if the station management even got that far. Automatic ticket booths either side of the entrance doors would go some way to moving smokers further down too. Yes, there needs to be some provision for smokers but yes, it also needs to be enforced too.

Cycle-parking, or the lack of: I defer to the Cambridge Cycling Campaign on this but in a nutshell, there needs to be far better cycling provision. It was because of this that during my commuting days I switched from cycling to using a bus to get to and from the station.

Better links to other parts of town

On my side of town, I’d wondered why no link was made for cycles or pedestrians from the cycleway next to the guided bus to the south side of Hills Road. Amongst other things it would take some of the cycle traffic away from Hills Road – in particular the crossing of it. This was picked up by former local councillor Amanda Taylor. The only thing that astonishes me is that it might cost up to £500,000 to put it in place. Really?!?!

You then have the Chisholm Trail which again to me makes perfect sense because it takes more cycle traffic off the roads. The case for it is here. Combining this with the opening of Chesterton Station in 2015 should help take more commuter pressure off of Cambridge station too.

Synchronising public transport: They do this in Switzerland. Surely we’ve got the technology to synchronise some of the buses to arrive and leave bus stops in a manner that matches when trains arrive?

Shops – or the lack of.

In a strange way I’d like them to add a storey to the main building in the station – for example throwing M&S upstairs. But the challenge is locating shops in a manner that matches the traffic flow of people. Where M&S is there was once a cafe/pub. Again, the problem is that the buildings next to the main hall are simply too small to meet the needs of the station. My personal preference is to see the building style of the main hall extended both north and south so as to accommodate a much wider entrance hall as well as shops for the essentials. A convenience food store, a pharmacist and a large newsagents for me are essential. Given the nature of your average Cambridge regular traveller there is a huge opportunity for the more specialist magazines to be sold there too. One of the things that Cambridge has been missing since the closure of Borders is a specialist magazine retailer with a massive selection. As it is, WHSmith, Cafe AMT and the cash machines are all on the platform side of the station. Useless for the rest of us.

Transport strategy consultation

Having written all of the above, I guess it’s incumbent on me to respond formally to the County Council’s transport strategy consultation. Oh well, here goes.


7 thoughts on “Cambridge railway station woes

  1. The platform height is something that really amazes me with the new 7 & 8. They were essentially built for the new 379s, which are almost identical in dimensions to the 365s, which are ever so slightly fatter than the 317s and 321s, and all the electrics are a bit wider than the 170s.
    They dead level, arrow straight and low speed. Boarding and alighting should be akin to the DLR with only a tiny gap (and a 5cm one to the Cross Country 170s)..

    I’d suggest that entry and exit need separated on the town side (but that the bridge should also lead east to the far side- this was ruled out as residents feared a huge rise parking in their streets) with exits at Platforms 3 and 6..

  2. Small point: I *think* National Express has been superseded by Greater Anglia, which is run on a 2 year temporary contract by Abellio, that’s owned by Dutch Railways (NS).

  3. Cycle parking should be covered (even sails would do) as there is nothing worse than a soggy bottom when you get off the train to cycle home. Cycle parking should have (low energy) lighting so one can at least see the bikelock. More car parking pay machines, and the sign for the car park is in such tiny font one needs bionic vision to read it.

  4. The total mess of the car park internal circulation and then exit right at the station entrance really is abyssmal. Instead of going up I’d suggest going for the practice elsewhere in Europe, and going down with taxis and cars well back along the road and having only buses and authorised motor vehicles running at current ground level up to the turning head.

    Below ground the car park entry can be lead away (eliminating the conflict with high pedestrian traffic outside the station and a pair of taxi/car setting down lanes put in – no passing points as setting down should be a rapidly delivered action Taxis can then run round to the picking up lane, or out if the rank is filled to capacity. Car based picking up would be from the short stay car parking, designing out the problem of drivers hanging about on the through roadways.

    The combination of the ticket hall with the main way in & out of the station is the nub of the problem and perhaps one way to deliver is to provide a single storey above ground, integrated with the bus shelters on Station Road, but like an iceberg, concealing lower level concourse by the taxi / set-down area. This would restore the central part of the original building to its original use as the way through to & from trains

  5. Building a road access to the stations single ticket hall does NOT address the traffic problems in the area! It is better to build a second ticket hall and taxi stand to the east of the track – – with direct access for motor vehicles from Cherry Hinton Road through the commercial estate on Clifton Road and additional pedestrian and cycling access from Davy Road / Rustat Road. This would 10 min of the journey time for many people travelling to the train station and reduce traffic on Hills Road and Station Road as well as on Tenison Road and Devonshire Road.

    If Science Park station takes some 15-20% of the trips and the Clifton Road terminal another 15% it would very much easy the troubles at Station Road and the ticket hall and terminal.

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