Overground and Underwhelmed

Stage 1 of the £598m New Street Station redevelopment opened last week. The Birmingham press were impressed, the Birmingham Press wasn’t. Steve Beauchampé reports.

New New Street Station Birmingham

People forget very quickly. The vox pops of travellers using the concourse of the ‘new’ New Street station on its second day of operation last week were full of praise…and full of the oft-repeated remark that the old station was ‘dark and dingy’. In places of course it was, but it also had a relatively large, well lit (though artificially so) atrium with a perfectly well lit (artificially so again) walkway giving access to the A and B ends of all twelve platforms, once the ticket barriers had been negotiated. The experience was fairly charmless and perhaps unnecessarily stressful, but only when passengers made their way to the platforms did things become dark and dingy.

They still do. That the rebuild leaves the platforms largely untouched has long been recognised, so these shortcomings must remain outside criticism of the Phase 1 works unveiled last week. And approximately halfway through the overall project the full impact and ramifications of these changes cannot yet be understood and appreciated. Yet even with these caveats, my first impressions (and my second, third and fourth ones too) were not good.

New New Street Station Birmingham

Enter via doors in Navigation Street and say goodbye to natural light. I had expected a wide, uncluttered space leading to the ticket barriers, but instead a long corridor leads towards the access doors to/from Stephenson Street and then right to new concourse. Essentially, this concourse is an elongated (and reasonably wide) walkway spanning the width of the platforms before emerging at Hill Street, at the point where the access road to the former multi-storey car park stood (Phase 1 of the project basically involving turning this car park into the concourse, although it’s more complex than that).

But the source of greatest disappointment is that the entire concourse area is so bland, so featureless. This really could be any modern transport interchange anywhere in the western world. Given that arguably the main complaint about the old New Street Station was that it offered visitors a very poor first impression of Birmingham, one would have expected the use of materials, textures and colours to present something unique and memorable, something that says “This Is Birmingham, this is who we are and this is something of our culture”. A mural, artwork, video wall, digital posters… come on, is this expanse of arid, lifeless, metal surfaces really the best that can be done with a near £600m budget?

Transforming New StreetThere are also spatial and layout issues: teeming with people throughout the day, at no point does the new concourse open out (retail units prevent that) to offer a natural meeting place. It also feels unbalanced; platform access is via barriers opposite Platform 3, rather than in the centre as they were in the old station. Thus, passengers arriving at Platforms 9-12 and wishing to exit at the Hill Street vehicular drop off points face a very long trek. Escalators leading to/from a very long temporary corridor to the Pallasades and Bull Ring shopping centres are positioned close to these ticket barriers, and the whole area feels hectic. Meanwhile, ticket machines and sales counters, instead of being placed near the ticket barriers, where the retail units are, have been positioned further along and somewhat out of sight. Concourse light levels are also unnecessarily reduced by a wavy ceiling design that prevents the full impact of the lighting from reaching the concourse.

Things should improve once the extended concourse opens in 2015 and people can spread out a little, and when natural light finally hits the station via a new atrium. But this atrium will be much further across and this light will impact little on the recently opened space.

The biggest immediately resolvable problem however concerns signage, both for those arriving and departing. Signs are too small and often positioned at shoulder height, making them hard to read when a regular flow people move in front of them. One easy solution would be to put platform numbers above the stairwells to each platform. Sure there are numerous staff members around to assist customers, but most are fulfilling these duties temporarily, probably just while things bed in. More departure boards are also needed, including one at the aforementioned Navigation Street entrance, with large digital clocks placed alongside each of them, the absence of timepieces being particularly irritating.

But for all that these issues are bad, there is one very big plus. The opening of the newly constructed pedestrian walkway leading from Stephenson Street, behind the Odeon cinema to St. Martin’s Queensway, near to the Rotunda. Superbly and imaginatively landscaped, this presents a welcome cut through across a busy part of the city centre, as well as providing the shortest journey between New Street and Moor Street stations. If only the thinking that had gone into this could have been repeated elsewhere in the Phase 1 works.

Main photos by Steve Beauchampé