Is the railway station a profit generating urban centre?

Lately, we can see how railway stations are converted into multifunctional service points where the traveller can use his time efficiently. Where he can even make up for lost time by accessing all types of services under one roof, including shops, post offices, pharmacies… The railway stations also form an integral part of the urban fabric and there is always something to see or do.

This idea has been adopted to create a high number of different functions in and around station areas by mixing land use or increasing the population density. Commercial activities seek growth and expansion in order to increase sales and profit. Since the retailer must decide both where future investment will be allocated and which strategies will be most effective at particular stores or location, retail strategies have an important spatial element. Whether selling goods or services, the choice of an optimal outlet location is perhaps the most important decision a retailer has to make. It is through the location that goods and services are made available to potential customers.
Since the end of the 90s and up to 2000, there have been a lot of studies on the location strategies on retails and also on the relationship between the railway station and the retails location. Nevertheless the analysis of retail location has mainly stayed in the abstract planning level. There is still a lack of knowledge on the “street-level” distribution pattern of retail activities around the railway station. On the other hand, many specialized studies have investigated the spacial integration of the railway stations in the existing urban environment and have analysed the influence of a railway station location on the distribution pattern of freight and customer-oriented services.

Customers’ demands are more and more diverse

Railway stations are a crucial aspect of every railway journey, so it is vital for the facilities they offer to be designed in a way that meets the needs of each passenger. The problems that railway station managers are faced with are related to the way in which these railway stations can become more attractive for passengers, provide more accessible and more eco-friendly services or efficient methods through which railway stations can generate profits.
Railway stations have to be attractive and meet the expectations of passengers and retail customers. Most of the times, the railway stations is the first image associated with the idea of railway transport. They have to transform, just like airports, into profit-generating hubs. What can we say about the central position of a railway station? Many railway station locations are attractive as retail location, due to their high accessibility on regional scale, but whether they have the real effect on the distribution of retail location still needs to be investigated.
One of the acute problems that railway managers are confronted with is the liberalisation of the railway passenger transport services on long distances, an activity initiated in 2010 in most West-European countries. Thus, railway station managers will have to prove their impartiality with respect to all market players. New operators will demand their own ticketing facilities to meet the demands of their customers and the railway stations will have to provide almost the same facilities as airports: restaurants, shopping centres, modern waiting rooms. A relevant example is that of the French Railways (SNCF) which in January 2007 signed contracts with  railway operators. Under these contracts, each operator has access to a common package of services which generates most incomes and disposes of an alternative to contract additional services, such as meeting areas (for the customers of the respective operator), special areas for meeting the customers, such as business rooms, where loyal customers can hold short meetings.
Railway stations in Western Europe, such as those in Germany, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands are already providing customers with high-standard services that integrate in the urban landscape as profit-generating shopping centres and which are no longer seen as mere railway stations in the city centre.
As all good practice examples in the West, specialists say that railway station managers in Central and South-Eastern Europe will be confronted with different challenges in the years to come and will have to rethink the way in which they operate if they want to gain more profit from selling space inside railway stations or to meet the customers’ constantly changing demands.

by Elena Ilie