Now arriving on Platform 1 ... a new economy!
Regular readers may know that I spend rather a lot of time on train stations. I travel the length and breadth of the UK using this marvellous form of public transport, and one of my great bugbears is that whichever station you arrive at, they all feature the same food outlets. Pumpkin. Upper Crust. Costa. Cafe Nero/Ritazza/whatever. Etcetera et-boring-cetera. Whether you're in Glasgow, Norwich, Liverpool or Southampton, there they all are. Although on a few of the larger stations there are now a couple of more interesting franchises doing fresh food and organic stuff, it's generally the same, bleak, miserable, clone-town selection wherever you go. Exactly the same baguette in Dundee as you'd get in Derby as you'd get in Darlington. Yawn.
I think we can do a lot better than that. Indeed, I think we need to do a lot better than that. Here's what I would love to see. I'd like to step off the train at Bradford station and be greeted by fantastic food that reflects the culture and cuisine of Bradford. Local small food businesses offering their wares in a riot of different smells and innovations. Or to go to Bristol and find food and drink available that reflect the city's history and its bold approach to its future, that reflect the diversity and creativity of the city's diverse communities.
A train station should be a city's key showcase to the visiting world, its opportunity to show off what it is that is distinctive about it. It should showcase the best of locally produced meat, fruit and veg. They say the best way to someone's heart is through their stomach (although I'm sure a few surgeons might disagree with that), and your experience visiting a station should allow you to fall in love with a place.
Some of the businesses on the station concourse could be pop-up shops, let on a 6 month lease, that allows a new enterprise to set itself set up, build a profile, and then move on elsewhere. Produce could come in on the train, and go out again on the train. Wouldn't that make visiting different places an altogether different experience? When I visited Crystal Palace last week, the cafe on their station, Brown and Green, is an independent cafe (see above). It was a lovely place, with locally made cakes and other produce. If it can happen there, why not everywhere? So I'd like to offer you a great business idea. You can have this one for free, but if it makes you millions, do remember where you got it and cut me in. I was in Edinburgh a couple of days after visiting Crystal Palace, for the Sir Patrick Geddes Commemorative Lecture, and during the talk I had my little rant about the absence of the local on the nation's station concourses. Afterwards, a gentleman came up to me with one of the most brilliant ideas I have ever heard (unless of course now you are all going to crush my enthusiasm by pointing some blindingly obvious flaw that renders the whole idea impossible).
The way it works, he told me, is that there are companies who rent the space from the company that owns the station, and then they tender out all the outlets to the individual businesses. Why doesn't Transition Network, he suggested, set up and do the same, and tender for the contract to let spaces on stations? It could take on the lease based around an entirely new concept of a window onto a city's food culture, based on flavour and entrepreneurialism. While Transition Network isn't the appropriate organisation to do this, I think it could be amazing. It could spread up and down the rail network. Add in a bit of vertical growing, and we start to think of stations in a completely different way. Station as market garden. Station as market place. Station as restaurant. Station as hub of food innovation. Station as culinary and cultural showcase.
Perhaps I am still traumatised by my recent early morning walk around Berlin Central Station (above), packed with brands and chains and nothing that spoke to me of Berlin, or its food culture, or what it is that distinguishes it from Bonn or Vienna. But I sense a possibility here, a renaissance, a rescuing of millions of people from banality, blandness and baguettes, that would be, at the very least, a public service, if not a hugely successful cultural and economic shift.
As I was finishing this post, I visited Sheffield for the second Transition Thursday, or, just to make it a bit more complicated, the first Transition Thursday that was actually a Thursday (the first one was a Tuesday). Sheffield station is, on first inspection, just like all the others you'll find up and down the land. There's the ubiquitous Pumpkin...
... an Upper Crust, a Cafe Ritazza, an M&S ....
... and a Whistle Stop and a Burger King ...
But wait, there is a Reason to be Cheerful here. What's this at the end of Platform 1?
It's the former the former Edwardian Refreshment Room & Dining Rooms, recently lovingly renovated and reopened as the Sheffield Tap, a pub and 4-barrel craft brewery. The brewery equipment is in the pub, right next to the tables and chairs ...
All of the beer brewed here is served here. It is part of the fantastic craft brewing revolution taking place all across this area of the north of England. It's on the station. Speaking to people in Sheffield they tell me that people now go to the station, not to catch a train, but to visit the brewery/pub. It's a taste, quite literally, of what's possible.
Imagine if we could roll this notion out to every station across the land, it'd be amazing. Perhaps you could pick up the gentleman from Edinburgh's idea and transform the life of countless places and of those visiting them. You read it here first folks. Don't forget me when you make your first million. And make sure you invite me to the first opening.