The journey of Birmingham New Street Station

Last Sunday saw the grand opening of Birmingham’s refurbished New Street Station, the busiest railway station outside London. The project which has been 5 years in the making with a workforce of up to 3,500 and costing £750 million will mark a huge achievement for the City.

The original station was designed and built during the 1960’s, becoming Birmingham’s concrete landmark, making way for a depressingly dark and dingy subterranean station. Originally built to serve 60,000, it’s currently visited by 150,000 passengers a day, causing congestion and plenty of reversed smiles. It’s also the biggest rail interchange in the UK, sitting at the heart of the rail network.

However, rail users will now be welcomed by a gloriously streamlined and imaginative structure, with a new concourse for passengers and an atrium the size of a football pitch, flooded with natural light from a translucent roof made from the same material used at the Eden Project in Cornwall.

The station can now handle up to 300,000 passengers a day. Escalators and lifts to the platforms have now been installed, as well as 43 shops and a 250,000 sq ft John Lewis store.  It’s the first full line department store to open in four years and represents a £35m investment by John Lewis in the City.

Subjective opinion on  the visual aesthetics aside, the accomplishments have to be congratulated, for what might have appeared to be the insurmountable task of keeping the existing station fully operational whilst construction took place on the new one. Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail has said:

“Rebuilding one of the busiest stations in the country without impacting on passengers’ journeys has been a major challenge, but I’m extremely proud to say that Network Rail and our partners on this project have done just that.”

The removal of 6,000 tonnes of concrete and the ability to construct a new station in two phases over an existing structure is no mean feat, particularly when you consider problematic factors such as; site access, the discovery of asbestos and construction in a very tight space.

Britain does big projects well and this is no different. But some early reactions from passengers have been mixed, with concerns over poor platform lighting, no seating and a station which is hard to navigate. So shopping centre aside, has the commuting experience been improved? Possibly not, this might just be an example of ‘style over substance’. But you have to admit, as vanity projects go this one certainly puts Britain on the map as an engineering powerhouse.