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On Sunday 28th April 2013 Birmingham New Street Railway station had what was called at the time the “Half-time switch-over” when the first half of the new concourse opened. On that date the drop off point closed and entrance to the station was closed to traffic and pedestrians.
The new concourse was one and half times bigger than the old one and was split into two parts to enable the station to continue to give access to the A & B ends separately and to continue to have two exits in case of fire or emergency. Birmingham New Street station is classed as an underground station so therefore different regulations exist when it comes to health and safety including any evacuation procedures.
During the month following the switch-over I among many others were volunteers assisting people with information, guiding them around the new set up and generally supplementing both Network Rail and all the Train Operating Company staff to familiarise users with the new facilities.
Just after the volunteer period was over one of the Network Rail staff who had looked after us said the following about me “David stood out during his time at New Street Station as a Travel Champion volunteer due to his constant enthusiasm and the quality of his customer service. The patience and sincerity David treated passengers with was only beaten by the his knowledge of the railway which would happily share with any passenger who required it. If we require volunteers again we would certainly hope that David would come back to assist us.”
The proposed completion date of the “above platform” work and the big reveal of the Atrium and rest of the station was planned to be September 2015 and at the time seemed ages away.
I was very pleased to be invited back assist and be a part of the opening of the “New Birmingham New Street Station” on Sunday 20th September 2015.
I duly attended the briefing on Saturday 19th September and received my official Network Rail authorisation pass to be allowed “access all areas” and my first stint was to be on the Sunday afternoon for 7 hours.
After familiarisation and a walk around the station with the Network Rail co-ordinator we were told we could work anywhere within the station where we felt comfortable and useful.
You can see from the graphic below the extent of the New Birmingham New Street Station which has been published on the Network Rail site as well as the various training operating companies and in print.
I decided instead of working in the Atrium where a lot of volunteers were working to go up to the brand new Small Brook Queensway entrance. This was a direct route from the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and Moor Street station and I expected it to be busy and unfamiliar to most users.
So the first Sunday open there were many journalists, photographers and visitors who came to look around as well as users heading to and from trains.
For access to the platforms passengers had to pass through the new ticket gate-line through what are now called lounges. The station is divided into three areas so that people can gain access to the correct end of the platforms for easy access to the trains. The “B & 4C” end of the platforms are designated the “Red Lounge”. Access to every platform can be gained this way. The “A” end of the platforms are split into two lounges, The “Blue lounge” is platforms 1 through 5a and “Yellow Lounge” is 6a through 12a. Should a passenger leave the station at the “A” end and need to move from Blue to yellow or vice versa they of course would have to come out of the ticket gate-line but at the “B” end they don’t need to. Some users of the station have criticized this movement but to enable the station to be the way that it is and to allow free public access through the atrium this is by design.
Now the Grand Central shopping area including the “John Lewis partnership store” wasn’t due to open until the following Thursday so only the station was on full view. The one issue before Grand Central opened was the toilets as people seemed to not be 100% happy with going through the gate-line to go to the loo but nothing had changed as you had to go through before in the old station to access the washrooms. The toilet facilities were now going to be free as were the toilets when the Grand Central Shopping area opened.
Aside from the above I spent most of my time on the Sunday directing people to various trains and areas of the station or Birmingham itself. Because I like to use technology to help me in what I do I’d brought along my IPad and connected to the internet to receive a replica of the “Customer Information Screen” that the Network Rail staff use so that I was giving accurate and the most up to date information possible. This together with another website (not illustrated) that I had login access to proved very valuable and helped me speedily give info out.
During the rest of my “Customer Information Liaison Volunteer sessions I decided to continue working from that position as it was fast paced, I seemed to be able to respond quickly knowing the pattern and calling points of the trains etc.
In total I did 39 hours over the 10 days with evening sessions after my main non-rail job. I was sad to see it end really but a deadline was set for volunteers to finish and additionally employed Network Rail staff were continuing as well as all the Train Operating companies staff working throughout the station.
It was a pleasure working alongside other volunteers from the various TOCS & Network Rail staff including some that had come down from Liverpool, Manchester and other Network Rails stations. On one session a member of Virgin Trains staff who was working alongside me asked me which train company I worked for because of how I was operating with speed, knowledge & efficiency as they put it as I was a credit to the organisation. They were really embarrassed when I said that I didn’t actually work for any rail company or Network Rail but thanked them for compliment.
To top it all on the day before our volunteer period was over I was told that I’d made the network Rail Connect internal web site but they called me a “Railway Legend”, I’m not sure why as I was only doing what I love in utilising my knowledge in a useful way and at the same time getting much enjoyment out of being able to assist. This was even at times when under pressure with so many people coming through and some who had been into the new public establishment outside and had a few too many making them a little unstable shall we say.
Now you are probably wondering what I think about the station myself having had the chance to not only work it but use it as a regular passenger. Despite what some critics say who haven’t even visited but wrote about it from photographs and television coverage, I say it will be a huge success. I like the Atrium and does give the wow factor. Without the Grand Central Shopping area above though I don’t think it would have worked as you only have to walk around up there to see how much space has been generated within this £750 million development. The “John Lewis partnership Store” has made the biggest impact as that was the most asked about shop when I was volunteer. It’s going to take a while to grow on people I’m sure and anyone who has never visited the station before will be impressed.
Of course the general aim and what people wanted was to only go down onto the platform when it was almost time for their train and hence the waiting areas and facilities in each lounge area as well as the many and varied refreshment facilities in Grand Central above and part of the station.
Although work still continues at platform level to make them decluttered and more open it will take some time but is already taking shape. In some areas you can now see right from one side of the station to the other as building structures have been removed, lighting replaced and additional seating added. Of course there is also more access via lifts, stairs and escalators than ever before. There are teething troubles which has been documented in the press and social media about the escalators but these are being sorted out by the suppliers and manufacturers.
Unfortunately track capacity in and out fo the station couldn’t be widened due to the building and ironworks during the rebuilding of the City in the 1960’s (as I’ve been reliably informed). A train enters, leaves or moves within the station every 37 seconds during peak time so inevitably there can be some issues. With the re-signalling work that will take place in a few years then this may improve the current flow but I’m not a Signalling and telecoms engineer so can’t really comment on that much.
Overall when you look at what Network Rail and its partners have achieved in the 5 years plus whilst keeping the station running is amazing and with most work hidden from public view as well. Without all the hard work of the committed professionals, operational staff and ultimately us the travelling public, what was the original dark and dingy concourse, that barely coped with the substantial increase in passengers over the years would not have transformed into a light and airy place fit for the 21st century and beyond.
It won’t suit all people and they say you can’t please all the people all of the time but I’m sure it’s gone some way to at least inspire or win over many people that Birmingham is now the place to visit and not bypass.
As I complete this it has been reported that Birmingham New Street & Grand Central have just passed the 1 millionth shopper mark so that says something in less than a month of opening. See the Mace Grand Central video here of this news and more facts and figures.
And finally if you are a social media user and use twitter you can receive twitter updates from Network Rail Birmingham New Street @networkrailbhm