Monday 25 February 2019

Assen's new railway station

Assen's first railway station was built in 1870. It was completely demolished and replaced in 1989 by a modern design of station. That station has now also been demolished and replaced with another entirely new design. The new station opened a few months ago. There are still a few details of the work to be completed, but everything is in place now. As was promised, the cycle-parking has again been expanded and improved again. This video shows the excellent access from the platforms to the indoor guarded cycle-park:

The work started in 2015 with building of a temporary station, after which the old station was demolished and the new one built. Occasionally it has been chaotic around the station as all the roads were also rebuilt, two new tunnels were made (one for pedestrians, one for cars) and one tunnel was reconstructed (the bike tunnel). The result is really very good. Through motor traffic has been sent underground which makes the entire area more pleasant (apart from buses and taxis) and as a result, the outdated traffic light junction was removed and there are fewer delays for cyclists to cross the road. In particular, cyclists who headed south from the station used to have to stop twice for traffic lights before riding on an on-road cycle-lane along a relatively busy road so it feels as if we are rather spoiled now with the choice of two very high quality bidirectional cycle-paths on both sides of the road which can be reached without any stopping at all.

Assen's population is about 68000. There are now 3500 bicycle parking spaces, 2500 of which are in the underground guarded parking while the other one thousands are on the surface near the pedestrian entrance on the eastern side of the station. This isn't the largest cycle park at a Dutch railway station, but Assen also isn't the largest city and this isn't the busiest railway station. 3500 spaces for a population of 68000 means we have better than once space for every twenty people in the city which compares well as a proportion with other Dutch cities.

There are now a total of 3500 bicycle parking spaces at the railway station. Assen's population is around 68000 so we now have slightly better than one place at the railway station cycle-park for every 20 citizens.

What it used to look like
When we moved to Assen in 2007 there was a small number of indoor parking spaces and approximately 750 outdoor cycle-parking spaces split between the two sides of the tracks. They looked like this:

In 2009, car parking spaces were removed so that the the outdoor cycle-parking could be doubled in size and it was announced that the total was to be increased to about 2300 spaces.

The 2010 upgrade: A building to accommodate 1000 bicycles which seemed quite impressive at the time. This was demolished to make space for the new station.
In 2010 there was a big upgrade to the indoor cycle-parking, taking the total number of spaces to about 2550, reaching

Because the busy road past the station has been buried in a tunnel, the irritating traffic lights which were required to control motor traffic have also been removed (read more about them in a blog post from 2014) so Assen now has one fewer traffic light junction for cyclists.

The 1989 station had a blue roof. The traffic lights in front of it were annoying. This was the most awkward traffic light junction for cyclists in Assen, requiring people to make a two-stage left turns. It is best if cyclists don't have to make two-stage turns and that can be avoided with other traffic light designsDon't take inspiration from older infrastructure like this.
Cars now travel past the station using this tunnel, built on a huge scale using a vast amount of concrete (the photo was taken on the opening day)

The temporary station
While the old station was out of action but before the new one had been completed, Assen had a temporary railway station. This included temporary lifts to take passengers over the lines to the platforms, temporary shops for flowers and snacks, a temporary full service bike shop (the new one can be seen in the video above), and a few thousand places in a temporary cycle-park:

This photo of a group from Washington University who came for a Study Tour in 2016 and not quite ready for their photo to be taken, taken outside the temporary bike shop also happens to show the temporary steps and lifts in the background and the orange post box. Everything was provided at the temporary station.

What has been built is an impressive new railway station and it has impressive cycling facilities. I'm also impressed with how well the temporary station worked. But what is its purpose ?

The sole purpose of these particular bicycles, OV-Fietsen, is to enable and encourage people to make more and longer journeys by means of a polluting motorized mode of transport - the train.
Bicycles are the most efficient transport mode on earth but not when used like this
The problem with these huge and attractive bicycle parking facilities at railway stations is that the station isn't really a destination. The destination of the people who cycle to the station is tens or hundreds of kilometres away and it is likely that 90% or more of the distance covered by any given passenger will be in a powered vehicle, the train, and not using their own power on a bike.

Huge bicycle parks at railway stations serve the same purpose as motorways - they encourage people to make more and longer journeys by polluting means of transport.

Bicycles are the most efficient transport mode on earth. It seems rather a shame to limit the scope of that most efficient mode of transport to that of providing a link to a far less efficient transport mode. But that is what we are building.

To truly to reduce the impact that we make on this planet we need to stop making journeys that are beyond the distance that we can cover by our own power. We can't travel ever more and achieve a reduction in energy usage. It requires something other than building lots of infrastructure to support more journeys - it requires redesigning both our cities and our lives so that what we need is close by.

Calling for less flying is a good thing for the environment.
However calling for more use of trains (or more of anything
actually) isn't "green" at all. I have supported the Dutch
Groenlinks political party in the past, but can't support this.
Even the greens are encouraging more travel, not less
There is a disturbing tendency for people to assume that travelling by train instead of by air or by car is automatically a win for the environment. Unfortunately, there's just not a huge difference in energy consumption per passenger kilometre between different powered transport modes. Making the same or a similar journey by a slightly less polluting mode doesn't make for a non polluting journey. That can only be achieved by making that journey by a genuinely non-polluting mode (walking, cycling, sail-boat) or by not making the journey at all. i.e. by not commuting, by not taking holidays, by not taking that tempting 'weekend break', whether by air, sea or rail.

Claims for trains
The Dutch railway company makes rather large claims which I think have to be looked at more closely. Claiming to use "100% green electricity" because you've signed up for a green tariff does not mean that all the electricity that you use comes from wind turbines. Just like everything else which runs from Dutch electricity, the trains are connected to a grid on which 80% of the electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. When the wind isn't blowing the trains run on fossil fuels. The stated ambition of becoming "carbon neutral" by 2020 is a start but it actually falls a long way short of the already existing claim to use "100% green electricity", which has been made since 2017.

Even if the trains really did have no emissions when running, only around a quarter to a half of the emissions of even diesel powered trains come from the exhaust pipes. The rest comes from other factors including the infrastructure on which they run. This will be a more significant source than average for Dutch railways because the infrastructure has such a short life span. They may be slightly or even quite a lot more efficient than the least efficient modes we can imagine but that's not good enough. We can't pretend that trains don't have emissions so that we can continue to make journeys.

The impact of infrastructure
Railway stations in the Netherlands are demolished and rebuilt over remarkably short time-scales. Assen's "old"station lasted only 26 years, from 1989 until 2015, before it was demolished and a complete new station built in its place.

At the opening ceremony there was one protester. His concern
was primarily with the local oil and gas company.
Even during the 26 years of its existence the old station didn't stand still. For instance, the indoor cycle-park built in 2010 which lasted only five years was itself a substantial structure. The temporary structures had a huge cost as well. Elements of them may be able to be re-used, but requirements won't be the same in other locations, some parts will have been damaged and of course there is transport and construction to account for.

Much concrete was poured to build the old station, to build new structures around the old station, to build the temporary station and vastly more has been poured to build the new one. Concrete production and use is one of the major sources of CO2 emissions. Replacing buildings so frequently as we saw here is definitely not a win for the environment.

Update summer 2019
Since the station opened it has been much criticized for the lack of safety of cycling facilities around the station.

There is indeed a problem. While the majority of motor traffic which used to be around the station now travels underground through the tunnel, the traffic which remains is large buses, taxis and people dropping off or collecting passengers. There are three cycle priority crossings which are supposed to give cyclists priority over the motor vehicles, but as I've explained before, it's very difficult to design a cycle priority crossing so that it is actually safe for cyclists and there are few places where it works well. Giving cyclists priority in the law does not mean that all drivers actually give way as they should. The other area criticized in the article to the right is a temporary roundabout in Assen on which it was attempted to give cyclists priority. Priority for cyclists on roundabouts is also dangerous. There are better ways to design cycling infrastructure than this. It is best to remove the threat posed by motor vehicles by, to the greatest extent possible, removing interactions between cyclists and drivers. Merely giving "priority" does not lead to safety or convenience.

Thus far we have not had any serious cycling injuries around the station, but there have been many near misses and it is probably only a matter of time before this happens.