Birmingham is the heart of the rail network but it has never had a station worthy of its position. When the London & Birmingham and the Grand Junction which connected the city with the north were completed in the 1830s, they terminated at separate stations connected by expensive Hackney cabs and it seems that history is about to repeat itself if a high speed line is built into the city.
It took over a decade after the arrival of the railway before Birmingham acquired a through station, New Street, but it has never been a proud part of the town centre as with most other cities today it is widely recognised as the most horrible station in Britain, a dark, dingy overcrowded monstrosity which seems rather like the unwanted appendage of the vast shopping centre housed above it rather than a crucial part of the second (please, no letters from Mancunians) city’s transport system. It was built in the 1960s at a time when the problem of using cars in town centres had not been thought through and the railways were seen as a dying industry which would eventually be entirely superseded by motor vehicles. Therefore it was tucked out of the way
In this age of the renaissance of the railways, the inadequacies of Birmingham New Street have long been recognised by everyone and various ideas have been put forward to deal with it. Birmingham City Council has long pushed for its reconstruction and, at last, a scheme has been accepted by all those involved: Network Rail, the council, Centro and the local Regional Development Agency.
Details of the funding of the £600m scheme are still sketchy but the contribution of the public purse has been announced as £398m, a bizarrely precise figure. Network Rail is in fact very much the junior partner in this. In the daft multi-partner way that major schemes have to be financed these days, it is providing lessmere £128m compared with the £160m from Birmingham and £100m from Adantage West Midlands (the flash name for the Regional Development Agency which actually gets all its funds from the Treasury) with Centro making up the remaining £10m. The rest, of course, is supposed to come from the private sector which will make its money back by renting out two huge towers that are part of the scheme. Therefore, hardly surprisingly, the plan is far more geared to what the main stakeholders – the council, the as yet unknown developers, and the RDA – are seeking, rather than to meeting the needs of the railway.
The scheme will do much to relieve the immediate problem, the congestion at the station which occasionally leads to temporary closures and makes life unpleasant much of the time for those using it at peak time. There will over 42 new escalators, a concourse three and a half times the size of the present one and an elegant roof.
However, crucially, the new station will not provide any extra platforms, and offers only very limited potential to improve the throats at both ends of the station. Moreover, the curved platforms, which add to operational difficulties, will remain and crucially, though some light will be let into the upper parts of the station, essentially it will remain as a subterranean space that does not offer the step change improvement to provide the kind of station which a city the size of Birmingham needs in the 21st century.
The alternative solution of creating a new station slightly to the east of New Street was briefly considered but rejected because of what was seen as the potential cost and the overall hassle of moving a major part of the railway, which would inevitably lead to closures and disruption.
This is a big decision and there is a cat among the pigeons, the high speed line to the West Midlands which now has the support of all the main political parties.
Jim Steer, of the transport consultants Steer Davies Gleave who has been the major advocated for HS2 is relatively relaxed about the decision to press ahead with New Street. He sees it as essential
‘There are several possible solutions and I am confident the high speed station could be linked quite easily with New Street’. However, every potential solution has difficulties, and could result in lengthy transfer arrangements people carrying luggage on travelators, or worse, having to take cabs between the two. Railways are not like airports, and people dislike the prospect of any lengthy walk between trains.
The decision to stick with New Street is a failure of imagination, the kind of out of the box thinking which, for example, has produced magnificent stations at Liege and Antwerp. The decision was made a couple of years ago when HS2 was completely off the agenda given the government’s lack of interest. Now that has changed with Lord Adonis trying to elicit a commitment from the other parties to press ahead with the scheme, whatever the result of next year’s general election.
The mistake that we make in Britain, compared with station developments that I have studied elsewhere, is that unlike in Europe the planners are not prepared to ensure that it is the needs of the railway that must be met first, and that any additional benefits to, say, developers or the local council, are secondary.
If the government is serious about HS2, as it seems to be, then surely this requires a rethink about New Street, rather than pressing ahead with a scheme that may leave Birmingham with the type of arrangements they had when the railway first arrived there, with people being forced to take cabs between two different statiions
It is only in Britain that we could have disjointed planning of this type in such a key part of the nation’s infrastructure. Integrated transport remains a fantasy which never translates into reality once hard choices – and I do not underestimate that this is a momentuous decision – have to be made. Contrast this with Berlin where the huge new Hauptbanhof was completed in …
Sure, delaying the redevelopment of New Street for a few years while the issue of HS2 is sorted out would inconvenience many passengers in the short term. However, predictions of growth based on an ever-expanding economy are no longer valid and that gives the planners an opportunity to consider the long term implications of what they are doing.
One of enduring issues about the franchising regime – of which there are no shortage at the moment – is their lack of transparency. When the announcement was made in June about the new SouthCentral franchise, the government was quick to highlight that the deal involved a transfer from subsidy to premium payments.
However, as Keith Ludeman, the boss of Go Ahead, the main partner in the successful bidder, Southern, admits, most of that is down to the fact that access charges for the franchise reduce by around £80m per year in Network Rail’s Control Period 4 which started this April. Moreover, since the franchise accommodates the profitable Gatwick Express, which was due to pay a premium of £21m this year, it would be surprising if SouthCentral, which received only £80m in subsidy last year did not quickly go into the black. Mr Ludeman says that the Department is also paying for various improvements, which will increase revenue, but adds further complexity to the deal.
When I pressed the Department to provide a comparison between the previous and current contacts, officials told me that since they covered different Control Periods, no comparison had been made as it was not relevant. This is not strictly true as the old deal overran into the current period by a few months, but more important is the fact that the Department’s negotiators did not consider it relevant to use the old deal as a basis for the new one.
Of course times are different and the bidders were allowed to revisit their figures in the light of the downturn at a very late stage in the process. However, the real issue is whether the public is getting value for money in the franchise system. Because of the strict application of commercial confidentiality rules, it is virtually impossible for the public to find out what exactly is being purchased in its name. As a reformer, with a passion for getting the best out of the private sector, Lord Adonis should revisit this aspect of the franchising system and ensure that it operates as openly and transparently as we were promised when it was first created by the Tories a dozen years ago. He could start by looking at precisely what is covered by so-called ‘commercial confidentiality’ whose main purpose seems to be reducing the accountability of the rail industry to the public.