It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, or at least it has been for Wakefield’s contrasting railway stations. Writes Graeme Bickerdike
Westgate has a shabby chic vibe influenced by a Sixties redevelopment that no doubt felt fresh and innovative in its day. It’s no longer up to the job expected of it.
Cut through the gloom though and a success story emerges: passenger numbers there have risen by 500,000 in seven years, reaching 2.7 million in 2011/12 on the back of East Coast’s half- hourly service to King’s Cross and an abundance of Cross Country destinations.
On the city’s other side, Kirkgate’s grand frontage stands testament to Victorian showmanship and Seventies blight. Back in 2006, a Council report damned the place as ‘intimidating, unwelcoming and the smell was putrid.’ Three years on it had bestowed upon it the unwanted accolade of Britain’s worst medium-large station.
Scarred by neglect and criminality, it’s hardly surprising that usage has fallen by around 40,000 in each of the past two years. 2013 should though see fortunes turned around for Wakefield’s stations.
Age of the train
Locomotives first arrived in the city on 5th October 1840, pulling into Kirkgate along the Manchester & Leeds Railway, built under the superintendence of George Stephenson and engineered by Thomas Longridge Gooch. Seven years later the route became the major constituent part of the Lancashire & Yorkshire.
Kirkgate’s main building, in fine ashlar, dates from 1854 and extends for more than 300 feet. Demolition work brought the removal of its roof in 1972 but a Grade II listing now affords some protection from such short sightedness.
Westgate opened on its current site on 1st May 1867, built by the Great Northern to a design by Leeds architect James Fraser. Costing £60,000, it replaced the original station – a little further south – following completion of the West Riding & Grimsby Railway which now for ms the East Coast Main Line southwards to Doncaster.
The façade-rich, elegant and Italian in style, comprised three sections, the central one, standing out from the wings, being covered by a pavilion roof. Out front, a large glass canopy sheltered the horse-drawn carriages from which the wealthy would alight. Today, the bland Sixties erection that replaced it commands little aesthetic value. What were they thinking?
Things can only get better
With its staff gone, Kirkgate effectively became a no-go area for women after dark. A series of muggings and a serious sexual assault did little for its reputation. The local paper stirred up a campaign under The Station of Shame banner.
Step out of the main entrance and the first thing to confront you is a derelict pub. The need for local renewal has not been lost on anyone; funding however has proved an obstacle.
Things started to look up in 2009 thanks to a million pound grant from the National Stations Improvement Programme, funding the installation of CCTV, help points and signage. Earlier this year, Network Rail completed a further package of work, removing a redundant spine wall and renewing the platform canopies.
But 2011 saw serious traction gained when Groundwork, an environmental regeneration charity, announced its ambitious intention to restore the main building as a community hub, incorporating a ticket office, café and shop, as well as accommodation for local groups and small business ‘incubation units’. Yes, people will be working at Kirkgate once again.
Funding, to the tune of £4.6 million, has now been gathered in from the scheme’s eclectic mix of supporters, amongst whom number Network Rail, Northern Rail, Wakefield City Council and the EU, together with the Railway Heritage Trust and Eggborough Power Station.
Open access operator Grand Central, which in May 2010 reintroduced services from Kirkgate to the capital after a 32-year gap, have also put their hand in the corporate pocket. Completion is likely to take a year.
To the west of its centre, Wakefield is undergoing a transformation. The Merchant Gate scheme, encompassing a 17-acre site in the city’s commercial district, has attracted an investment of £70 million over its first two phases, providing a new home for the Council, its museum and library, a multi-storey car park, contemporary apartment blocks, office space and a public square.
Now taking shape is phase three, a state-of- the-art station at the northern end of Westgate’s existing platforms. Working under contract to East Coast, which manages the station, the redevelopment will be built and owned by Network Rail, and delivered in collaboration with Buckingham Group Contracting.
Costing £8.1 million, the Department for Transport (DfT) is financing much of the project through its Station Commercial Project Facility, whilst the remaining million is coming from the English Cities Fund, a joint venture between Muse Developments, the Homes & Communities Agency and Legal & General.
Westgate’s eye-catching plans were endorsed by the Council in January. Located alongside the new 900-space car park and accessed via the Inner Ring Road, the open forecourt layout will bring improved integration with local bus services.
A flowing glass frontage faces onto this area, introducing light onto the concourse beyond. Once inside, the ‘back of house’ nucleus is off to the left – offices, plant, storage, travel and information centre; to the right is the now obligatory food and retail emporium.
Between the two, ticket gates will manage flows to and from the platforms, with a footbridge and lifts linking to the northbound side where refurbished customer facilities are already in place.
Collect your thoughts
Says Phil Verster, Network Rail’s Route Managing Director, ‘Whilst the old station is undoubtedly a striking building, passengers at Westgate will be well aware that it is no longer fit for purpose. By moving passenger facilities to a new purpose-built building we can improve the journey experience in a sensible, cost-efficient way.’
East Coast’s Tim Hedley-Jones insists that, ‘The completion of the new station will provide a stunning new gateway to a city which is really going places – a key destination for both business and leisure travellers. East Coast’s frequent and fast services between Wakefield and London are a vitally important part of the economy of the city and the West Yorkshire region.’
Work on the new Westgate Station is scheduled for completion in October. As Dickens might have asserted, ‘It is a far, far better thing.’