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NEW STREET REVAMP? KEEP THE CHAMPERS ON ICE

15-02-2008

Gateway

The revamped New Street Station? At least it’ll be somewhere nicer to wait for the delayed trains reckons Steve Beauchampé, who’s in no mood to join the celebrations.

The Government’s decision to contribute £388m of funding required for the redevelopment of New Street Station is not a cause for celebration or jubilation, as the supine local media proclaimed, it is a merely the minimum requirement of a Government whose failure to invest, or to allow local agencies to invest, in public transport infrastructure has blighted and hampered the people of the West Midlands and those who visit us.

And it is only one small step towards providing the region with a 21st Century public transport infrastructure worthy of the name.

Naturally, the usual herd of politicians, business leaders and representatives of unelected public bodies were straight in with their tired, predictable clichés… “a world class station for a world class city/region”, “a Gateway to the Midlands that passengers deserve”, “helping put the city on the commercial and tourism map”, “Birmingham is fit for purpose” (and no doubt someone also used that cringeworthy term ‘open for business’ too) etc. etc.

The Birmingham Mail had the temerity to claim that its not very whopping 7,000 signature petition had swayed the Government rather than the dogged work of the likes of Council Leader Mike Whitby and his officials, Centro and even West Midlands Minister Liam Byrne, “people power has succeeded” they bellowed…yeah right!

From a government who helped fund the £800m plus dead end that is the St. Pancras Station project and poured billions of pounds of public money into Blair’s vanity Millennium Dome and the accompanying Jubilee Line extension, Wembley Stadium and now the London Olympics and it’s transport requirements, this funding is far from excessive, long, long overdue and certainly not a time to doff our caps and fawningly express our gratitude to Central Government.

Speaking of the war criminal, let us not forget that it was Blair himself who promised the people of Birmingham in the summer of 2006 that funding for New Street Station would be in place before he left office, arrant nonsense trumpeted unquestioningly by the local media and since conveniently forgotten.

No, this level of central government support should be the norm, yet it was only agreed after the Council and its partners were forced to jump through hoop after hoop, to prove that the rebuilding would have regeneration benefits for the wider city (as if improving a critical national transport hub is not good enough reason in itself).

Even at the press launch, Whitehall interference could not be kept out. In the vacuous world of New Labour terminology, the idea of calling the place New Street Station or Birmingham Central Station has long been forgotten, yet even the meaningless Birmingham Gateway moniker had to be usurped by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly, arriving in the city like some Dowager dispensing the largesse, who triumphantly renamed it Gateway Plus!

Our local leaders should not be exempt from criticism either. Let us remember that the former Labour Council’s original plans were for a far more modest makeover of the existing station, only re-thought after a slew of complaints by members of the city’s political, business and cultural elite.

Yet as has been pointed out, the project, for all it’s rightly upgraded ambition, does nothing to address the lack of track space both at and on the approaches to New Street and the congestion to both local and national rail services caused by the failure to fund four-tracking of the line between Birmingham and Coventry (and try getting a train between Birmingham and Coventry during public holidays).

Such fundamental problems are not even on the Government’s agenda, and until they are addressed the improvements to New Street will be of limited benefit.

At least the original mundane external designs for the station have been sufficiently vilified to ensure that despite their still being regularly dragged out and reprinted by the local media (‘How the exterior of New Street could look’…claimed the Birmingham Mail on Tuesday) the Council have made it clear that they are simply not good enough.

That such designs were even allowed into the public domain in the first place is worrying; a kind of amalgam of indoor shopping centre, multiplex cinema and bland retail park architecture, if this was an indication as to what some council planners consider acceptable then Birmingham’s reputation as a city of anonymous, indifferent buildings will likely be further consolidated.

Let us hope that the template for New Street’s architectural aesthetic is not Lisbon’s central station. The Portuguese capital was lauded by some in the city as a design model that Birmingham could follow, yet with it’s soulless concrete chasms it is quite simply one of the most wretched pieces of modern architecture that I have had the misfortune to experience, arguably even worse than the current New Street Station edifice.

If Birmingham seeks invigorating contemporary railway architecture, then Berlin, Waterloo, Lillé or Manchester’s Piccadilly should provide far more inspiration.

Nor am I convinced by the idea that the rebuilt station should operate like an airport departure lounge, with travellers held upstairs until their train arrives. This seems potentially slow and cumbersome, and trains have a tendency to be re-platformed at the last minute, while a passenger’s current flexibility to quickly switch platforms when a train is delayed or cancelled (and an alternative service to a destination covered by the original train arrives elsewhere on the station) could be denied or restricted.

Turning to the broader local transport picture, even limited extension of the Midland Metro to Brierley Hill (I remain highly sceptical about plans to bring it onto the streets of Birmingham, replacing the space allocated to numerous bus services with one Metro line) is years from fruition and the restoration and extension of local rail lines and stations through such places as Moseley, King’s Heath, Harborne, Castle Bromwich and Frankley seems a mere pipe dream.

As one of the relatively few Birmingham citizens who lives close to a local rail line, I have been waiting almost six months for the restoration of Sunday services whilst the region’s dominant bus company seem to progressively charge more and care less.

So while the money for New Street is at least progress, and will undoubtedly stimulate investment in schemes in the immediate vicinity of the station (great news for the likes of Starbucks, let’s hope the residents of Stephenson Tower aren’t forgotten), it is nowhere near time to break open the champagne.

See also: “Second To None City Needs More Than New Street

Day To Celebrate As New Street Revamp Approved

And “Whitby Rekindles The Feelgood Factor

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