Innovators hone passenger tech ideas for Temple Meads

Past thinking collided with future ideas at Bristol’s iconic station in January inside the very room where Britain’s most celebrated rail engineer masterminded the introduction of his mainline route towards London.

Surrounded by heavy wood detailing and beneath the intricate ceiling of Brunel’s Boardroom, nine nimble technology firms with ambitions to make stations function more effectively for passengers gathered to present their clever ideas.

They were there for a welcome day as members of cohort one of the Catapult and Network Rail’s new Station Innovation Zone programme, supported by Innovate UK, which this spring will see three of the nine companies selected to demonstrate their products or services inside Temple Meads.

One by one, a representative from each firm stood up and had just three minutes to showcase their big idea to the room; which ranged from accessible wayfinding apps for customers with special needs, to the use of artificial intelligence to monitor crowds, to the creation of new co-working spaces in underused areas of stations.

Find out more about the firms shortlisted in our brochure.

Pitches over, the innovators sat shoulder to shoulder around tables to chat through their ideas and receive feedback from the programme’s representatives. The atmosphere inside Brunel’s Boardroom – now part of the ‘Engine Shed’ co-working complex adjacent to Temple Meads station – was very much of collaboration, sharing and support.

Station Innovation Zone 2023 Cohort 1 Guide
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Creating something special

“This is an exciting day for the Station Innovation Zone; getting innovators in and understanding what we could potentially do differently at stations” “We encourage you to take the opportunity to engage as a group, co-create together and really do something quite special.”
Alan Peters, Catapult Ecosystem Director for Rail and Stations, speaking to the cohort

The cohort then received an overview of how Temple Meads sits within the rail environment: a Grade I listed building serving as a hub for both a local network and long distance routes towards Wales and the South West, London, northern England and Scotland. The station may feel somewhat dated, but it is a crucial interface for many people and is the region’s busiest station with over 10 million passengers passing through each year.

What better place, then, to trial the addition of clever new technology to aid the passenger experience? “If we can make this work at Temple Meads, I don’t see why we cannot make this work at other stations,” said Network Rail’s Programme Sponsor Brian Wortman.

“I’d like to see different ways of working, innovation and new ideas,” he said of the Station Innovation Zone project. “If we carry on doing things the way we do today, we are going to have problems.” His advice to the technology innovators hoping to secure a successful trial at Temple Meads was to fully understand the complex nature of the station.

Tour of Temple Meads

Before lunch the group was shown around Temple Meads by Station Interface Manager Andy Rhodes, Station Operations Manager Fran Gibbs and Connected Places’ Senior Innovation Technologist Jonathan Wilson to see for themselves the unusual layout of the station, which includes platforms built on a curve. One of the delegation noted that signage is not always easy to read and wayfinding can be a little difficult; something they hope could be improved with introducing new technology.

At the moment, parts of the station resemble what Brian Wortman referred to as “a big set of Meccano”, with scaffolding in place to service a roof refurbishment. Three new entrances and exits are also set to be introduced to aid passenger flows as part of an ongoing modernisation.

The cohort was also shown a busy subway beneath the tracks that provides access to all platforms. At one end, a colourful hoarding promotes a future ‘New Gateway to Bristol’ behind which an eastern entrance will one day open to the University of Bristol’s new Enterprise campus.

Presentations in the station were sometimes interrupted by the loud roar of diesel locomotives pulling away from platforms and all the while passengers continued to bustle through the station, many carrying large luggage. It was clear to everyone being shown around just how busy the station can get – even during the middle of the day – and the importance of making sure the passenger experience is as smooth as it can possibly be for all users.

Local regeneration

Beyond the building itself, there are also plans to transform the area around Temple Meads into a new ‘heart’ of Bristol over the next decade with over 10,000 homes and 20,000 jobs. The hope is that the Temple Quarter regeneration will deliver the kind of transformation seen around King’s Cross station in London, boosting the local economy and creating new communities.

Catapult’s Chief Business Officer Paul Wilson – himself a proud Bristolian – joined the group to explain the historical context of Temple Meads station, which he said has always been somewhat removed from the centre of the city after Brunel was prevented by the authorities from bringing trains into the heart of Bristol. Perhaps the planned regeneration around the station could help extend the centre of Bristol closer to Temple Meads?

That afternoon, the Catapult’s Living Labs Manager Clemence Martin-Beaumont advised innovators to bear in mind three key words when taking forward their ideas to trial new technologies. They should, she said, be ‘ambitious’ and test things they don’t already know; be ‘open minded’ and curious and ready to gather unexpected feedback; and be ‘flexible’ in their approach, as testing in a live environment can bring unexpected outcomes.

Aided by Accelerator Programme Manager Agathe Parois, the pair encouraged the cohort to take part in a series of practical exercises to challenge their understanding of their own ideas, ask how they could improve them and to give the chance to pose questions of the rail team. The next stage of the Station Innovation Zone programme will see the appointment of three companies to trial their innovations over the coming months, after which their impact will be assessed.

Rail passengers passing through Temple Meads should brace themselves for an exciting early glimpse soon into how technology could help people navigate and interact with large stations of the future.

Station staff involvement

Getting to this point in the Station Innovation Zone programme followed a series of comprehensive interviews last year with 14 members of staff working at Bristol Temple Meads and other stations along the Western Region lines. The staff were asked for their experiences and vision for the future of the station, which helped to inform three ‘challenges’ that the nine innovators with new technologies are trying to address through the innovation project: namely ‘safe’, ‘seamless’ and ‘social’ stations. Work was conducted by User Researcher Anne Spaa of Connected Places Catapult.

Interviews with staff underlined the need for people to be able to travel with confidence, and it was said that making stations easier to use will help the rail sector to address challenges such as recovering from the pandemic, increasing urbanisation, climate change and new ways of working.

It is well known that the number of rail commuters has declined drastically since the onset of Covid, but there have been subtle changes too such as a rise in the number of leisure passengers. According to staff, these changes are forcing them to reflect how they can best fulfil their roles. The challenge, it is said, is how to adapt the workloads and roles of station staff in ways that are resilient to these and future changes.

Changing behaviour and the use of technology

Station staff also observed that passenger behaviour is adapting, with more people absorbed in their technology, less aware of their surroundings and who may be paying reduced attention to station communications ­– which could have an impact on safety. There is also a risk, they say, of passengers placing more trust in the information on their smartphones than information displayed at the station.

So rather than fighting the digital trend, staff suggest that a combination of digital and human interaction represents the best way forward to imparting passenger information. Some saw an opportunity to create a virtual environment that sits on top of the physical one, allowing ‘digital layers’ to communicate tailored information to station users.

It was also said that digitalisation presents opportunities to meet station users’ needs in more specialised ways than can currently be achieved. The nine firms hoping to trial their innovative new products and services certainly have the support, it seems, of those working on the front line.

A showcase of the innovators will take place on 9 March at Bristol Temple Meads.