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Transition Culture - an evolving exploration into the head, heart and hands of energy descent

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.

Brown and Green

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.

Berlin Central Station

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 ....

Sheffield station

... and a Whistle Stop and a Burger King ...

Sheffield station 2

But wait, there is a Reason to be Cheerful here.  What's this at the end of Platform 1? 

Sheffield Tap (outside)

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 ...

Brewery set up

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.  



Ian Jackson's picture

Train Station adoption

12 months ago Transition Belper 'adopted' the green spaces of our small train station. This has given us a higher profile in town (helping the town win the National In Bloom competition) and some very grateful commuters. We are now helping organise where the first cycle racks are going to go and we can post our Totally Locally Belper map, including our great independent town centre cafes, in our notice boards on the platforms. East Midlands Trains are looking for adopters throughout their network. This may be a way in for others. 

Chris Wells's picture

Name idea for free

Lovely vision Rob. You're absolutely right. It's so boring to see the same Pumpkin Cafe and WhistleStop on every platform in the land.

In the same spirit of giving away your ideas for free; if someone opens up a local soup kitchen on their town's rail platform, they should call it "Rolling Stock".

If they need a logo tell them to get in touch with me and I'll draw it for them for free...

Adrian's picture

Soup Kitchen Name.

Rolling Stock is good but how about Rolling Boil for a soup kitchen.

Lovely idea and when I've saved up enough for a train ticket I'll buy one.

Chris Wells's picture

Trainstorm of café ideas

@Carbon Trapper, I like "Rolling Boil" but perhaps would that one work better for a teashop?

What about "Roll 'n' stock" for the soup kitchen, assuming they'd be offering delicious locally-baked crusty rolls to go with their organic soups?

Or is this all getting a bit too punny hairdresser names now?

David Lyons's picture

Independent traders at station...

Lewes station was recently under threat to have its indendent cafe forced out and Costapumpkin installed.  The leaseholders encouraged their customers to write to Southern Railway and complain...many of them did..emphasing Lewes individuality and that a chain company would not be a good welcome to the town.

The train operators who manage station concessions have an interest in making their stations attractive and understand that local independently run outlets are more likely to be staffed by engaged staff who work well in the station environment and make stations attractive to travellers.  I suspect that train operators prefer to contract with international companies like Select Service Partners with who they will have standard terms and safety procedures. 

Forming a company to take over managing of station concessions would be a tall order - I would be pleased to see it happen.  Perhaps in the shorter term someone could form a support group/website/guidelines to help independent operators engage with train operators...and perhaps Network Rail who directly manage the large terminal stations.  A first step might be to build on Rob's description of the banality of the majority of the existing... and promote the idea to train operators of the advantages in having local independent concessionaires at statoins.


David Lyons

Julia Sander's picture

Aren't we lucky!

Aren't we lucky in Chichester! We have two independent traders selling coffee, snacks and so on - one on Platform One, and one on Platform Two. Good going as we only have two platforms. The next station up the line - Barnham - has similar facilities - and one of them has a book swap counter. A mobile coffee shop - Harries - supplies coffees to early morning commuters at Arundel and Pulborough. These stations are probably too small to attract the likes of Pumpkin. Let's keep it that way!

James McLaren's picture

Thinking a little further...

I think it's an intriguing idea, and I'd like to see it happen. I like the enterprise shown by the guy in Edinburgh.

But I think you need someone coming along behind the visioneer to look more closely how it would work:

- Local identity for food in somewhere like Bradford is easy (or perhaps it's easy to make a stereotype of it). How would it work in suburban London or middle England?

- if the independent owners are buying in food that is factory-produced and supplied through a distributor, how is it really different from having a Ritazza/Costa? (Do we need a Transition entrepreneur to set up a decentralised food wholesale business?)

- building up a local clientele is not difficult. Building a reputation such that an outsider will pick an outlet s/he doesn't know about rather than a chain outlet is harder. You cannot rely on "pull" advertising (where people ask for the information) to get outsiders informed about these things; you have to use "push" techniques to engage them, and that is expensive unless you are very clever about it. Or you have to work at the really big, philosophical level to combat the lie peddled by the ISO9001 people that consistency and predictability equals quality (give me a blog for Transition Philosophers and I'll do that all day!)

- and one thing in the defence of the big chains: you can make an impact in one place and the next thing you know it's everywhere. The owners of Ritazza put a cafe into my then workplace in 2003. A group of friends lobbied them to supply Fairtrade goods. They did, and having done all the "due diligence" to set up supply contracts, they discovered there was a market and rolled Fairtrade out into other outlets.

(Question: if Ritazza were to approach local suppliers with a view to putting at least some of their produce in outlets within, say, a 15-mile range, what would your suggestion to the suppliers be?)

Some of this is conditioned by what I see in my locality (Jersey) - a lot of what we have is locally-owned rather than chain-owned, and we also have a very clear boundary delimiting what is local. Might be worth someone taking a closer look...