Rail 623: Second city deserves first class terminal

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centres had not been thought through and the railways were seen as a dying industry which would eventually be entirely superseded by motor vehicles.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.
Opaque franchises

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.

  • WITH RAIL EUROPE We may be biased, but the train really is the best way to travel through Europe. Car Repair

  • Dear Christian,I have just read your latest newsletter. I am delighted that you support my view that the rail layout at New Street – even after the passenger facilities there receive a revamp – will still be totally inadequate for Britain’s 2nd City. I wrote about this in Behind the Water Tower in September last year – More shops, but no more trains.Just one more thing you have just insulted 1 million Brummies by calling them ‘Mancunians’.Dyspozytor

  • Derek L

    I think the point was that Mancunians may complain at Brum being described as “second city” rather than Manchester and was not intended to misdescribe Brummies.

  • RapidAssistant

    As a non-Brummie I probably don’t know enough about this to make a worthwhile contribution, but it struck me that getting rid of the awful Pallasades shopping arcade would be the first step, but I agree with Christian that really the station should be relocated completely – there appears to be at least a great deal of space on the eastern approaches when you come in from the Rugby/Coventry direction. Not doing anything with New Street when the Bullring was rebuilt a few years ago was a missed opportunity.

    As he says, what’s the point when you are still going be left with a subsurface station, and the possibility of HS2 making whatever you build obsolete within a couple of decades!

  • Simon

    As somebody living in the north west who has long had links with Birmingham – in that my relatives all still live in the midlands – I have despaired at the situation surrounding New Street for the best part of 35 years now and I seriously doubt that it will ever be properly resolved in its current state and location.

    The reasons for this are manifold. For a long time (up until the late 80s, I’d wager), Birmingham has prided itself on its central location, being at the hub of the road and rail system (and more recently, the canal system as the gradual restoration of the extensive BCN system continues to take place) with average journey times to and from the city by road and rail amongst the best in the country.

    I remember reading a statistic once in the 1980s that Birmingham was the best business location due to its accessibility by motorway and that its ring road system was well placed for direct motorway access. It was said that you could drive to Birmingham City Centre from any direction and then reach the CBD from the M6 and A38(M) without meeting a single traffic light. This remained true until the inner ring road (widely disliked for its concrete collar strangling the city centre but a very useful throughroute nevertheless) was gradually dismantled and the trendy ‘traffic management’ gurus started treating road users like some bearers of the Biblical Plague.

    The same thing was said of New Street Station. In the 60s it was touted as ‘ultra modern’ and the representation of Birmingham back then as a progressive, forward-thinking city was well-known (albeit with concrete comprising its main currency). A large central city rail station with a shopping complex on top was regarded as something new back in those days – as was the nearby Bull Ring Shopping Centre which was one of the first of its kind, built in 1964. Funny then, how much difference a decade or two has made because the very same place has now been widely criticised for being the ugliest concrete eyesore in Christendom – and that has been the state of affairs ever since.

    Put simply, New Street station became the victim of its own success. British Rail recognised this problem by the late 80s but refused to do anything about it by thinking progressively and considering and evaluating any possible proposals to widen the approaches and/or build deep level platforms as at Glasgow Central or Liverpool Lime Street to allow local commuter trains to have their own segregated right of way, thus not getting entangled with the sheer volume of long distance traffic which all have to run on two track alignments in and out of the station.

    Much of the BR funds that were government allocated were – unsurprisingly – lavished on proposals and improvement schemes in London more than anything. The regional cities such as Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, etc, were left to fight for the scraps. Remember how Manchester pressed for its Picc-Vic tunnel scheme to link the two separate networks of its suburban system together through the city centre in the 1970s? Well, what became of that exactly? Answer: nothing, mainly on the grounds of cost, but to its belated rescue came a completely different travelling proposition: Metrolink – albeit some 20 years later.

    If British Rail were tardy with its abject refusal to plan for the future with New Street, then Railtrack, its successor, was even worse. To my own personal recollection, less than £9 million had been spent by Railtrack on Birmingham New Street in the few years of its miserable, controversial and pointless existence. Truly a disgustingly poor state of affairs. In that intervening period, more than £60 was allocated on useful expansions at Leeds and Edinburgh Waverley stations apiece, which have given rise to through stations that boast nearly 40 platforms in total between them, compared to New Street’s pathetically inadequate 12 (or is it 24 if you count up the a’s and b’s). What did New Street get? A new footbridge entrance. Some new signs, a few desultory cosmetic improvements here and there. I could have done the same job simply by purchasing my materials from B&Q!

    Many proposals were put forward to try and improve the serious capacity shortage at New Street and on the routes leading through it, but each one was dismissed out of hand on the grounds of cost. Well, that was hardly surprising was it? Basically if any city isn’t London, then they would be expected to whistle for the funding to get some much needed transport infrastructure improvements. The London-centric bias of Railtrack and subsequently Network Rail really does stick in my craw – and will continue to do so until they – or the government – can show that it really IS committed to solving the age old problems of capacity and traffic management in our provincial centres with some properly-conceived and intelligently-funded proposals that aren’t just a load of empty promises written on what amount to nothing more than glorified toilet paper disguised as official documents.

    To this very day, the inherent failings of our government-affiliated transport bodies are all too clear to see. The London-centric (still!) bias in their allocation of funds even more blatantly so. When London won the 2012 Olympics Bid, my heart quietly sank. For the sole reason that I KNEW that all of the billions of pounds of private or public funding for infrastructure improvements would be sucked up by that project alone. And was I proved right. Tens of millions that were earlier earmarked for important – some would say even more crucially necessary – improvements at rail bottlenecks such as New Street suddenly vanished without trace, diverted, it seems, into appeasing the whims of the south east corner once again. London Euston, Kings Cross, St. Pancras, Crossrail, heck – even Marylebone (extra platforms) suddenly found themselves awash with cash to be spent on their respective improvements. What about poor Birmingham? Zilch!

    Put it this way, in the case of the latter (operated with services run by Chiltern Trains), the Birmingham counterpart at Moor Street had its old terminal station restored and ready for reconnection to the main network after being severed in the early 90s. The platforms are still awaiting the connection some 7 years later, and all this is the responsibilty of Network Rail. How can it possibly take THIS long for Network Rail to restore a short section of track and have it linked to the signalling on the main line? The situation simply defies belief! (Currently the bay platforms at the newly-restored Moor Street (c.2002) are being taken over by weeds and, if we’re really lucky, a visit from Tony Robinson’s Time Team surely awaits.)

    Likewise, the expansion of New Street addresses one aspect (the concourse capacity – the ‘cosmetic’ if you like) but in no way does it address the more important issue: number of platforms (‘structural’) – which in turn is dependent on the expansion of track capacity leading in and out of the station. Network Rail famously shot itself in the foot / scored an own goal in the early 2000s when they were approached by the developers of the new Bull Ring project and asked whether they wanted to increase by two tracks the eastern approaches, which would have facilitated this expansion in the number of platforms. If they did, then the developers would leave a corridor clear to allow for this. Incredibly – and something which has effectively killed off any hope of expansion in this way – they said no. It’s frankly astounding that even after a commercial developer with the common sense to plan for future requirements approached Network Rail, giving them the opportunity on a plate, they turned it down!!

    This arrogantly ignorant way of thinking effectively sums up Network Rail’s attitude to things in that they never seem to plan for the long term – always for the short to medium term. It seems to escape their minds that if opportunities are not seized when there is a suitable window – if only on the grounds of cost – then eventually it will be far more expensive to carry out the changes at a later date. We have seen this all too clearly with the way the West Coast Main Line has haemorrhaged vast amounts of money over the last decade or so, and even now there remain operational problems. Because of a complete lack of joined-up, logical thinking!

    If further proof were needed of the attitude towards Birmingham and the fact that it seems to be regarded as a secondary city, then the Trent Valley widening that was recently completed says all you need to know. Which route is busier and sees more traffic: the Trent Valley between Stafford and Rugby via Lichfield and Tamworth or the Stour Valley between Stafford and Rubgy via Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Coventry?? True to form, it would appear that widening the TV route was of far more importance than the SV – urban – route. Costs probably have a lot to do with this. But let’s face it, it’s always the same excuse – too costly to widen the Wolverhampton – Coventry route to four track; too costly to greatly expand New Street station by building deep level platforms for suburban services such as Cross City lines 1 and 2; too costly to build a new station on the Eastside to act as an international terminal for possible Euro trains, etc…

    But since when has it ever been ‘too costly’ for Network Rail (and Railtrack before it) to spend billions expanding and re-engineering at great inconvenience to the travelling public, any railway route or major station that happens to be in London. THAT is the big question.

    I sincerely hope my extended contribution here raises a few eyebrows because I am speaking from the heart here, as somebody who is totally frustrated and utterly fed up with our government’s non-committal stance on improving / financing our railway infrastructure in any UK regional city that isn’t the capital – especially as far as our so-called ‘second city’ that is Birmingham is concerned.

    What Birmingham is getting right now is not good enough. Sure, the plans for the new station concourse look striking enough, but at the end of the day, it’s just a glorified cosmetic makeover to the tune of half a billion pounds that will do absolutely NOTHING to address the crucial capacity issues that are of more importance below street level. Network Rail, like the government it so closely resembles in all aspects of its running, simply prides itself on the age old adage of ‘all spin and no substance’. Birmingham as a city deserves better. But when will it ever?

  • Neil Dyble

    As someone who grew up in the Stafford area, and looked forward to seeing the ‘bright lights’ and bigger shops of Brum in my teenage years, my first experience of New Street, like many others I’m sure, was completely underwhelming.

    Following the simple rule that pride in a city’s railway station is proportional to how high above ground it is, Birmingham’s station fails miserably with it’s subterranean crypt full of diesel fumes, which is devoid of any light – natural or otherwise. Am I the only one struck by how the revitalised St Pancras station’s imaginative use of articificial light could be a boon for Birmingham?

    I’d love to arrive back in Birmingham by train in the similar way to the experience of driving ‘above’ the city via Spaghetti Junction. It’s ironic that pollution-belching cars got one over on trains in this respect.How times have changed.