Railway pubs: on the right side of the tracks

By Claire Churchard contact

- Last updated on GMT

Vision king: the challenge is to make a station pub a destination pub
Vision king: the challenge is to make a station pub a destination pub

Related tags: Network rail, Train station

Station pubs are changing. Network Rail is encouraging operators to develop destination pubs that draw people in. We look at what this evolution means for publicans thinking about opening up next to the tracks.

From the birth of the first modern railway in 1830 between Liverpool and Manchester, entrepreneurial pub owners have been providing refreshment and somewhere to stay for the multitude of passengers travelling on the line.

In response to demand, scores of railway or station inns, taverns and hotels sprang up along the first tracks. While the majority of these public houses were not actually inside the station buildings, they were very definitely catering for rail passengers.

The fact that the Railway Tavern, and countless other train-inspired pub names, remain ubiquitous, even when there’s no longer a station in sight, is testament to the sheer numbers of such establishments.

Fast forward to today and station pubs remain a refuge for many travellers.

But as the larger rail termini are developed and modernised, the pubs within their walls are also going through their own evolution. Where once passengers may have nipped in to have a swift half before the train arrives, infrastructure organisation Network Rail wants pub operators to nurture loftier ambitions. They want more destination pubs.

And operators are already rising to the challenge.

“Over the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a slow evolution and growth of the destination pub or bar,” says Daniel Charles, head of retail at Network Rail Properties, referring to a pub that draws people to a place. “[Previously] a lot of station pubs were just the definition of ‘the local’,” he says, in an almost disparaging tone.

But what people want has changed and station pubs needed to cater for that, he says.


A destination station strategy

Network Rail began its research into who uses its stations about 15 years ago. This showed that commuters spend the least money, while businessmen and women spend more and people who are travelling to see family and friends are spending a lot more. This, says Charles, is what drove the creation of a destination station strategy.

“We knew people were time-poor, so we needed to create a reason for them to visit the station. This covers more than just the people who pass through the station, so we moved from calling them passengers to calling them customers or consumers.”

He says that the research showed the station market is 51% male and 49% female, so it made sense to provide an offer that is “just as appealing to women as it is men”. 

“It gave us our first real insight: we didn’t want the pubs where people just lean against the jump with a pint.”

Did you know?

■  In the 1930s and 1940s, Southern Railway ran ‘tavern cars’ based on the Chequers Inn at Pulborough, West Sussex. It painted mock brickwork and its own version of a pub sign on carriages, which included names such as the Jolly Tar, White Horse and George & Dragon. They served draught and bottled beers.

■ Railway stations used to ring a bell when a train was about to arrive or depart to give passengers a five-minute warning. This explains why inns and pubs in close proximity to the station were named the Railway Bell or the Bell.

■ Rail played a large part in the expansion of the brewery business in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire. Midland Railway transported so much ale from Burton that it decided to dedicate the entire basement area of its huge new London terminus at St Pancras, opened in 1868, to storing barrels from Burton’s breweries. This storage was earmarked for Burton on top of the rail company’s existing 3.6m gallon capacity beer warehouse. Burton’s production of beer was more than double that of London by 1888 despite the capital being home to Watneys, Young’s, Whitbread, Charrington and other brewers.

Charles says that the research also confirmed that as railway pubs and stations were central to the local area, there was an opportunity to engage with the people who live and work around them. “We’re not like an airport, which sits on the periphery of things, stations are major hubs.”

With this shift in station customers came the need for a different kind of pub. Premises that have their own unique draw. This is where the opportunities lie for operators.

Footfall to the station is high and there are good transport links. Money is there to be made.

The Sheffield Tap is a prime example.

Situated right next to platform 1b of Sheffield’s main train station, it is a specialist, multi-award-winning pub offering world beers. Unsurprisingly, it is a favourite with beer enthusiasts. It is regularly full to capacity and has had to speed up its expansion and development plans to keep up with demand.


Creating a destination pub

It isn’t just the high-quality beers that draw people to this site. It’s also the lovingly restored Edwardian building with deep red leather seating, gleaming brass railway memorabilia and a salvaged mahogany bar that add to the friendly atmosphere and help make this a destination pub.

Speaking to The Morning Advertiser earlier this year, general manager Phil Briddon said that while it is a wet-led pub, the outlet is an inclusive place. He and his staff work hard to ensure it stays that way. And their efforts are working as he says that even his mother-in-law feels comfortable coming in on her own to sit and have a drink.

For the Tap, the station poses fewer logistical issues than other sites because the pub has a roadside entrance.

But many other station pub sites do not have such access.

The Parcel Yard in King’s Cross, north London is one such example. Tucked away in a corner of the concourse, up a flight of stairs and beyond the ludicrously popular Harry Potter tourist attraction of platform 9¾, you might almost miss it.

Network Rail’s Charles admits that when he first saw the space he wondered how they would get a pub operator to take it on.

But vision is a powerful thing. Fuller’s saw the potential of the former post office parcel yard. Now reincarnated as a pub, the space draws passengers and office workers from the thriving areas around it and from further afield with a combination of strong food and drink offers and the charm of its heritage story.


Drawing in customers

Peter Turner, property director at Fuller’s, says: “We had to overcome some initial challenges in drawing customers up those steps because signage is relatively limited. Network Rail is very careful about signage clutter, it doesn’t want too many directions.

“But as a customer once you go in you go ‘wow this is fantastic’ and when people have been up there they are very happy to tell their friends. News travels fast.”

  • Interested in running a pub? You can find out more about pubs for sale, lease and tenancy on the MA property site 

The pubco also runs the Three Guineas in Reading station. The pub is housed in the old ticket hall, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, with high ceilings and lots of character.

Turner says that when Fuller’s took it over, it was in need of some TLC. “The ‘R’ was missing from the sign, things like that,” he says. “It was a wet-led pub, there were a number of people there nursing a pint. Even though it’s a wonderful building architecturally, the pub didn’t have a huge amount of kerb appeal.”

Again, Fuller’s saw its potential as a destination pub and sensitively refurbished the interior and opened up the outside area. In a nod to Brunel, the pubco and brewer enshrined his words about the railway in ceramic tiles on one wall, which reads “God’s own Railway”.

It dug out the basement and excavated the cellar to put in a new basement bar called Firefly – characterised by arches, high ceilings and varying levels. It was designed to draw people to the area.


Challenges of station pubs

Turner says that while the Three Guineas is on the edge of the station, setting up a business within the station environment brings added complications, many of which are mechanical and electrical related. Decisions around where services come into the unit, how the site gets power from one side of the station to the unit and whether it’s got the right power requirements need to be made carefully and in partnership with the station managers. There are also a number of different stake holders in the station who have to sign things off. It can be quite a challenging process, he adds.

Deliveries present another challenge. “We need to make sure we have storage or access to the unit without going across the station concourse. So most of it is about design. Once we’re open and trading, most of that has been solved,” Turner says. 

Railway pubs in numbers

1963 - the year Doctor Beeching published the first of two seminal reports that slashed station numbers and routes leaving many railway pubs high and dry

8,500sq ft - size of the Grade I-listed space inhabited by the Parcel Yard at King’s Cross

2 - number of pubs that ‘bookend’ the neoclassical style Huddersfield station, the Head of Steam and the King’s Head

10 - average number of years Network Rail leases out its station pub sites

trains sign

6% - growth in total sales for Network Rail’s pub and bar category (ie, station pubs) in the quarter April to June 2017

150sq ft - size of the space in the Euston station gatehouse that is now home to the Euston Tap

20,000 - miles of track that Network Rail maintains

1830 - the year that the first modern railway was introduced followed closely  by railway pubs

100m - people pass through Waterloo station every year

8 - station stops on the trans Pennine rail-ale trail www.realaletrail.net

24 - number of railway pubs across the 18 largest stations managed by Network Rail in England, Scotland and Wales 

The effort required to manage station pubs is something Alexander Salussolia managing director at Glendola Group understands. The group runs the Alston Bar & Beef at Glasgow Central. Its unique selling point is that it offers the best steak and gin in Glasgow, in the same vein as the high-end Hawksmoor restaurant brand. It’s a design-led space, he explains so there’s no railway bric-a-brac, although customers are in the station arches that are whitewashed.

The Alston was not Salussolia’s first experience of running a station site. He explains that Glendola recently came out of a nine-year lease for a wine bar at St Pancras because Network Rail “asked for too much rent”. He says the company didn’t have much choice, either pay more or leave, because station site leases are outside the Landlord and Tenant Act. “You have no rights of renewal if you don’t agree to their rent,” he adds.

He says that rents for station pubs are rising because “everyone wants to go into destination pubs,” creating fierce competition.

“There are fabulous retail opportunities because there are lots of customers, but operators need to be self-sufficient to convert this as they will be paying substantially higher rent than they would be elsewhere,” he warns.

“In theory, you don’t have to do marketing because you’ve got the people on your doorstep but there’s a lot of people competing for business within the station so it’s not necessarily as straight forward as that.”

Turner agrees that stations offer great prospects, adding that the King’s Cross development helped drive demand for pub sites. “It’s a fantastic development,” says Turner. “And I’d say the Parcel Yard was almost a catalyst for other station sites because a lot of people in the sector thought ‘oh, a train station, that’s a great place to be’, so there was a lot of competition for units and now rents have reached potentially unsustainable levels.”

He says operators need to balance their desire to get into wonderful station locations with getting the numbers and planning right. “There’s been a lot of competition and these sites are not cheap to fit out. It’s about making sure you go into it with your eyes open, having done your due diligence. Ensure you have thought about everything and planned and planned again because they are complicated sites.”          

Related topics: Property law

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