Take a good look. These may be the last photos you’ll see of Birmingham New Street’s £600 million redevelopment before the grand unveiling to passengers in September.
New Street station was only designed to cope with around 40,000 to 60,000 passengers a day. Currently the station receives an average of around 175,000 passengers – that’s 35,000 more than when Network Rail started the refurbishment six years ago.
Passengers were given their first glimpse of what the new station will look like in April 2013 when the project reached its halfway point. The completion of phase one allowed the closure of the old concourse and work to start on the project’s standout feature – its central atrium.
New Street is a station redevelopment on an extraordinary scale. The new concourse will be five times the size of Euston and all of the work has had to be carried out above an operational railway. The project also includes the construction of a new shopping centre, Grand Central, and the largest John Lewis store outside of London.
The former New Street station was built in 1967. At the time, British Rail sold the air rights above the station which led to the construction of the Pallasades Shopping Centre. With little room to manoeuvre, the station remained virtually unchanged for the next 40 years while passenger numbers continued to rise.
The new station has a 60-year design life but there is little room for further expansion beyond that so it was important that the project team got it right this time.
Strength of a Ryvita
‘There’s one big milestone – opening in September. Everything is focussed towards that,’ said project director Chris Montgomery.
New Street has often been described as the largest refurbishment project in Europe. Building a modern station around the skeleton of a 1960s concrete box has not been a simple task.
A huge amount of demolition work had to be carried out to create the new concourse beneath the ETFE bubble atrium roof. The question was whether the structure would be able to support the weight of the steelwork being lowered onto it. The careful balancing act was successfully done but any additional weight has had to be carefully considered, from the glass fronts of the retail units, which have had to be suspended from the steelwork, to the weight of the equipment which will be used to clean the station once it’s open.
Says Montgomery, ’I can’t underestimate just how big a piece of engineering that was, taking out all that concrete above a live operational station. The contractors had to come up with methods that were pretty innovative but also safe.’
Quoting a colleague, he added, ‘The challenge we’ve had is making the pieces of kit work on this concrete slab that’s got the strength of a Ryvita.
‘A 1960s built building; one it was built to different design codes, secondly the quality of workmanship was nowhere like you’d get today.
‘A crack in the concrete ordinarily wouldn’t be such a problem in a multi-storey car park, with de-icing salts on it, those de-icing salts get in the crack, attack the reinforcement, the reinforcement expands, it cracks, effectively the concrete’s useless and we’ve come across that time and time again.’
The quality – or lack of it – of the former station building presented issues throughout the programme. The new New Street is wrapped in a ‘living’ mirrored facade which includes three eye-shaped screens above the entrances. Fixing it to the existing station building wasn’t as simple as drilling a hole and screwing it on. They found that some of the concrete and steel reinforcement had been shaved back which meant care had to be taken so as not to further risk damaging the integrity of the building.
The main engineering challenges have now been solved and the project becomes about logistics. Around 1,200 people are currently working on the sprawling New Street site. Work is underway in all corners of the new station – theatre-style rigging has been installed to allow work to be carried out on the roof and the floor simultaneously. As contractors begin to move in to fit out the station’s retail units, the number of people will almost triple to 3,500.
With the opening just a matter of weeks away, the delivery team is looking at ways of introducing the new layout to passengers and station staff. Virtual reality is being employed to help train staff ahead of the opening and Network Rail hope to put the virtual New Street online, allowing passengers to get acquainted with the vast station. The computer simulated station is the work of one of New Street’s many apprentices. ‘He’s taken it to another level,’ said Montgomery.
Another hope is that better access will stop the station acting as a barrier between the northern and southern parts of the city centre. The development will create new public spaces and the advertising screens will have regular slots for community promotion. When September comes, New Street will be a central part of the city for the first time in over 40 years, not just a dingy burrow beneath it.