Virgin Trains: LED lighting at stations is as much about customer satisfaction as it is about energy

'I can see clearly now the LEDs have come.'  With apologies to song writer Johnny Nash and singer Jimmy Cliff, that is the tune that passengers on Virgin Trains' new East Coast franchise are starting to sing now that a £1.5 million platform and concourse lighting overhaul is well under way with energy efficient LEDs.

Picking up where the line's previous owner left off, Virgin is ripping out the old lighting at nine stations that it manages from as far north as Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish border down to Peterborough, and is also upgrading the lighting at its maintenance depot at London's King Cross station.

The UK government started the job last August when it still owned and operated the Edinburgh-to-London mainline service, then called East Coast. A joint venture of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group and transport firm Stagecoach won the franchise in November, and began operating it at the beginning of March.

The newly branded Virgin Trains East Coast is committing £140 million in upgrades to the line, an amount that should help buoy the £1.5 million lighting project, which is already complete at  the Durham and York stations.

Round up the usual benefits, and more

While Virgin expects the lighting to achieve all of the standard LED benefits  such as reduced energy and maintenance bills and the elimination of mercury-containing fluorescent lights,  it is equally emphasising that the new lighting marks a big improvement in light quality.

Doncaster diodes:  A new LED light on the platform one recent morning in Doncaster.

And that translates into big improvements in customer satisfaction and safety, which passengers are alredy reporting in early surveys.

'It's really important  to stress that whilst new LED lighting comes with obvious environmental benefits in terms of energy costs and the life of the fittings, we've also been very keen to stress the customer satisfaction and safety  benefits,' said Tim Hedley-Jones, Virgin Trains East Coast's major projects director. 'Replacing lighting is just as important as refurbiishing a facility or putting in a new facility at a station in terms of how a customer feels at that location.'

Tangible intangibles

Noting that customer satisfaction is 'a bit of an intangible', Hedley-Jones elaborated on what makes successful night lighting.

'What we find is that once we've done the replacement of the lighting, effectively you're replicating a daylight scenario at the station,' he said. 'That's been the anecdotal feedback from people – it is a much clearer environment at the station...It's about how someone feels when they're at a station. We all know how good we feel generally when the sun shines or when we're out in the daylight.

'So I think its about sort of getting into some of the slightly harder to pin down aspects of human behaviour that respond well to  high levels of light and to things being bright. We've also been doing a painting programme at some of our stations. So when you combine a bit of lighting with improved painting, you really get a feel good factor amongst customers...So customer satisfaction is a really important aspect of doing this project. It's not just about being a good environmental custodian.'

Safe talk

The safety aspect is easier to pinpoint.

'We have customers at our stations who perhaps may be carrying lots of luggage, or they may be older people, or people with young children,' he noted. 'Quite often they find that stations can be slightly dark, or perhaps the way to go is not clear. What we find is that once we've done the replacement of the lighting, again, you're effectively replicating a daylight scenario at the station. So again there's a real safety benefit to stop people tripping over or having accidents because they didn't see something.'

Virgin expects to wrap up all nine stations by the end of the summer. It is close to finishing at Peterborough, Newcastle, Grantham, Doncaster and Newark, and will then move on at Berwick and Darlington. It is not upgrading lighting at a few of its smaller stations, or at Wakefield, a new station that already has modern illumination.

Virgin is refraining from installing high levels of intelligent lighting system in which, for example platform lights would remain off when not needed, and turn on when sensors detect people on the platform, because such systems could confuse train drivers.

'These are places which are operational bits of the railway, where we have to be very careful about sort of having lights flickering on and off if there are trains coming through and obviously there's signalling and things like that,' Hedley-Jones explained. 'So in this case it's not necessarily appropriate for there to be that sort of a facility on the concourse or the platforms.'

Sensors would be more appropriate in areas like toilets or back offices, but the 9 station upgrades are focused only on concourses and platforms. Wakefield, the new station, already includes sensors in those areas, Hedley-Jones said.

As for the trains themselves: Watch for improved interior lighting in 2018, when a new fleet of trains from Japan's Hitachi are due to come into service (the same trains shoud come online on First Great Western service in the south and west in 2017). Those will include LEDs from LPA Excil. If they allow lighting levels to tone down and warm up according to the time of day, then passengers might just find they have something else to sing about.

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Image of train is from Virgin Trains East Coast. Photo of Doncaster LED light is from Gordon Routledge.

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