Fast train to a shopping spree

Privatisation is creating a retail boom in our stations, says Charlotte Packer
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Britain's railway stations are better known for their draughty, vandalised waiting rooms and sad little burger bars than for their status as shopping destinations. Perhaps a Sock Shop or tired flower stall occasionally inspires a passing interest, but never for long enough to take one's mind off the fact that the train is late again and the door of the one working toilet is unlockable.

However, things are changing. Already Liverpool Street Station and Victoria Station in London are becoming known for their wide variety of shops, restaurants and other services: Victoria has a doctor's surgery, Liverpool Street a health club; Reading Station's new Brunel Arcade has a fine selection of shops, and others are in the offing: Windsor and Eton Central, Norwich Riverside, Aberystwyth, Salisbury and Cambridge are just a few of the provincial stations which will soon become shopping centres.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Japan, the consumer capital of the world, has some of the most advanced railway stations-cum-shopping, centres with large department store chains such as Tokyu and Odakyu actually owning railway lines. Virtually every major railway station in Tokyo has a six- or seven-storey department store towering above the concourse. But several smaller provincial stations have begun to specialise in shops and restaurants with critically-acclaimed noodle houses and purveyors of Bento lunch boxes encouraging passengers to travel to the station simply for its food.

In this country, Liverpool Street station has several food shops and eateries which are visited by people other than those just wanting to catch a train. The Moshi Moshi Sushi bar, with its paper lanterns and conveyor belts of food, is known as one of the best raw fish restaurants in London. Anthony Eaton, the bar's general manager, says that it should not be so unusual to eat and shop well at stations. "In France and the Low Countries station restaurants are often the best in town. Luxembourg station still has the best restaurant in the country. Why should travellers have to put up with microwaved burgers and floppy sandwiches?" Baker and Spice, the Knightsbridge-based patisserie, has opened a shop on the station gallery with freshly baked bread and pastries delivered twice daily from the Walton Street Bakery. On the concourse below, the International Cheese Centre sells more than 400 different varieties of cheese - the largest selection in the country - as well as Justin de Blanc cakes and jars of home-made pickles and spices. Ray Kenny, manager of the shop, says that it expanded from its Goodge Street location because customers from around the country complained that they had to make too long a detour to reach the shop.

"Many of our customers pick up the train from one of the East Coast line stations, buy some cheese and then get back on the train," says Mr Kenny. He added that when Harrods and Fortnums cannot satisfy a customer's request, they refer them on to him. The Cheese Centre is, for example, the only place in the country where you can buy Belgian cheese, should you so wish.

Building work has just started on the Grade II listed station at Windsor and Eton Central, a branch line which links passengers to Slough and then on to the Great Western line to Bristol in one direction and Paddington in the other. The development, which will include Queen Victoria's waiting room - a late-19th-century piece of listed architecture in Bath stone - as a restaurant, will have 40 different shops and restaurants and has already pre-let units to several shops including Droopy and Brown the dressmaker's, Jaeger, and Charbonnel et Walker the chocolate makers. Sarah Mansfield, director of the L&R Group, which is developing the station, says that although only recognised names have so far been accepted for letting, the company will also welcome individual retailers. "We have to get the big names in first, because our financing relies on that," she says. "But in a town like Windsor there is a wealth of attractive, individual shops, and we hope the development will blend in with the shopping image of the town." The project is due to be completed by next autumn.

Further down the Great Western line at Reading, there is already a good selection of shops in the new station concourse, with a hairdresser's, a silver jewellery shop, a goodflorist, a dry cleaner's and a travel agency.

Although the process of converting stations into acceptable shopping malls has only just begun, the concept makes sense, says Clive Vaughan of the retail consultants Verdict.

"Lots of people travel through stations every day, many with about half- an-hour or more to spare. The newly privatised railway companies are finding that they have a lot of space to spare on their platforms, with station master's quarters, offices and workmen's areas no longer used. Why indeed not invest in attractive retail units?" He added that to stand out from the crowd of multi-chain franchises, stations would do well to specialise.

For example, at Aberystwyth station, where plans to build a shopping centre are under way, the location of the town's museum in the station itself means that specialist antiques dealers and antiquarian booksellers are expressing an interest in leasing some of the shops there. When building is complete at Norwich Riverside station, passengers will be able to while away the time waiting for a train by visiting the new cinema complex and bowling alley, as well as supermarket and specialist shops.

Steve Tyler, a spokesman on retail development at Railtrack, said that the company wants railway stations, like Heathrow Airport, to become shopping destinations in their own right, and that there are currently more than 200 development plans under way. He dismissed the arguments of detractors that the new shopping centres will just serve to soften the blow of delayed and cancelled trains.

"Why shouldn't people want to turn up an hour or so early for their train and go shopping? The bright, airy, bustling stations are an improvement on the windswept concourses of old," he maintains. With a regular passengers' complaint being that at weekends and after six in the evening stations turn into lonely, sometimes disconcerting places, the stations that have already begun to offer travellers more than tea in polystyrene cups and fishing magazines are much nicer places to while away the time before the train departs.