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New Street is now a railway station of which Birmingham can be justifiably proud

New Street is now a railway station of which Birmingham can be justifiably proud

🕔21.Sep 2015

Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale, who has followed Birmingham’s efforts to modernise New Street Station for 15 years, says the finished product exceeds expectations and will prove to be the most important piece of city centre refurbishment since the new Bullring opened.

Seven and a half years ago I stood at the entrance to New Street Station along with a host of civic dignitaries, MPs and business representatives to hear the then Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly confirm that Birmingham’s dirty, dysfunctional, laughing stock of a main railway station would be refurbished and transformed.

Ms Kelly was, sadly, badly briefed, or perhaps she was not briefed at all, for she got it into her head that the huge New Street Gateway project would deliver more trains and better train services.

That was never the purpose of the New Street scheme. Indeed, it remains impossible to significantly increase the number of trains using the station without major and expensive engineering work and the four-tracking of the West Coast Main Line between Coventry and Wolverhampton – something that no Government has ever shown the slightest interest in pushing ahead with.

There’s a big clue in the name of the scheme – Gateway.

The aim was to revolutionise the customer experience at New Street, replacing crowded waiting areas with vast public shopping malls under glass atriums. And almost eight years after Ms Kelly made her faltering statement, and almost unbelievably £750 million having been spent, Birmingham finally has a station it can be proud of and a venue that will rival any other railway station in Britain, including London.

Trains may still be late or cancelled and passengers still have to descend to the depths to reach the platforms, albeit there is improved lighting and much of the clutter has been removed. But at street level a vast part of Birmingham city centre is now unrecognisable, thank goodness.

The little missed Pallasades shopping centre is no more and has been replaced by Grand Central – an impressive collection of smart shops, cafes, restaurants, and of course a flagship John Lewis store, which will be the largest outside of London.

Entering the main station concourse for the first time, the sense of space and lightness is palpable.

Some 17 million passengers a year used New Street in 2008 when the Gateway scheme was approved, goodness knows how many will use the new station, although the figure will certainly be 20 million-plus. Even so, it seems unlikely that anyone will ever feel cramped and claustrophobic at New Street now.

There are inevitably a few teething problems and design malfunctions. Signs directing passengers to the platform they need are quite small and difficult to spot. Colour coded ‘passenger lounges’ turn out to be concrete spaces with few or no seats. Queues are evident at the automatic ticket barriers. And oddly, given the importance of Grand Central, the view of shops from the passenger concourse is very poor apart, possibly significantly, from a very prominent sign for John Lewis.

One key purpose of New Street Gateway was to improve pedestrian links north and south, east and west, making it easier for shoppers to move between, say, the Bullring and Mailbox, or between New Street and Digbeth. The station entrance-exit at the Bullring side is impressive, but the much-trailed Spanish Steps down to Stephenson Street lead to drab buildings at the back of the Hippodrome and the boarded up Crown pub.

These, though, are minor quibbles. The fact of the matter is that Birmingham, after decades spent talking about improving New Street Station, has delivered the goods. City council leader Sir Albert Bore is correct to point to New Street-Grand Central as a fine example of good partnership working between the council, Network Rail and the private sector. Arguably, it is the finest example of public-private partnership since the Birmingham Alliance came together to deliver the Bullring.

It would be wrong to single out any one individual for praise. On the political side Sir Albert has clearly played a prominent part, while the project was approved by a Labour government and supported by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at a time of acute pressure on public finances when it would have been all too easy to scale back or even scrap Gateway altogether.

There is someone else who ought to be recognised as national media attention turns to Birmingham and its fine new railway station, and that is Mike Whitby, leader of the city council from 2004 to 2012. Not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure, but Lord Whitby kept New Street at the top of the political agenda even when the going became sticky and in doing so sometimes made himself unpopular with ministers. If he had not singled out New Street as a major priority in 2004, we might still be stick with a dingy subterranean hell-hole, which wouldn’t be good at all.

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