Over the past few months Tube bosses have announced a number of tie-ups with retailers to place collection points and lockers at stations.
The deals are the first, early signs of ambitious plans being developed by Transport for London to transform the network from a collection of trains and stations into a more meaningful part of the communities and districts they serve.
The most visible aspect of the plan so far has been the arrival of short-term ‘pop-up’ shops at Old Street where the usual mix of key cutters and newsagents selling overpriced and undercooled water are out of keeping with the local hipsters.
While the tie-ups with Amazon, Waitrose and Tesco are nakedly commercial and should help TfL boost non-fares income income, the pop-up shops venture gives credence to claims that the plans aren’t just about squeezing every drop of cash possible from the network, but about building a wider community benefit.
To accommodate the start-ups and SMEs it hopes to attract, London Underground has had to forgo guaranteed rent by reserving some of its retail units – highly sought after thanks to the assured footfall they bring retailers – for short-term lets.
TfL’s commercial development team, headed by Graeme Craig, are hoping that the allure of new, cool brands will have a halo effect and help make stations – the pop-up initiative is due to be extended to Piccadilly Circus, St James’s Park, and Baker Street stations – destinations in their own right.
In addition they’re looking to boost the role which stations that serve major tourist attractions play in creating a unique London experience, for example by highlighting and promoting the West End’s retail offers to passengers as they arrive at Oxford Circus and helping guide them towards the shop they want.
There are also long term plans being worked on to radically transform South Kensington, a station which delivers millions of passengers every year to some of the world’s most popular museums, yet looks the setting of a sequel to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.
In addition to improving the mix and quality of retailers in the station, London Underground are also likely to work with museums to bring something of the wonder above down into the station’s apocalyptic foot tunnel and depressing ticket hall.
More immediate plans include a major expansion of retail opportunities at Canary Wharf station starting next April, followed later in the year by the construction of a business lounge.
But it’s not just the tourist and business-centric stations which are set for a facelift – TfL is looking at how other stations can be used to enhance the services on offer to local communities and, in some cases, push the Mayor’s social inclusion agenda.
This could include working with agencies such as the Post Office and Met police to provide counter services in stations to fill gaps in their coverage.
Craig says each station will be looked at on a case by case basis to ensure that the new services really do address local need and make a positive contribution.
Some of the ideas floating around are so obvious that it’s baffling nobody implemented them years ago, but it seems the wider austerity drive and political pressure to keep fares increases to a minimum is helping to sweep aside internal barriers to change.
While it’s inevitable that not every change will be met with universal acclaim, the plans in development seem far preferable to the sort of ‘Oxford Landing’ sponsorship deal which gets mooted from time to time.