New New Street Station

· mumblings ·

Those of you in the UK may have heard that the new, refurbished New Street Station (and the inevitable attached shopping centre) has now opened. It seems to have taken ages. New Street is one of the busiest rail hubs in the country, so there was no way that they could close the station while the work was going on. They managed (and I still don’t quite know how) to completely reconfigure the inside of the station while it was still in constant use. At times over the past couple of years, the experience of moving through New Street station has been a deeply disorientating experience. From one week to the next, corridors would unexpectedly change orientation, exits and entrances would be blocked off or open elsewhere, and spaces would abruptly change shape and size entirely. It felt a bit like being in a really low-budget episode of Doctor Who, only without the Daleks.

I went to have a look at the new station recently, and also to have a poke around the haberdashery department of the new John Lewis store, which takes up much of the new, absurdly-named ‘Grand Central’ shopping centre above the station. I’m not quite sure what to think of it. The glass-roofed atrium which forms the main body of the station is certainly very nice, and a big improvement over the cramped and gloomy ticket hall that it replaces. The outside is, well – shiny. Very shiny. This description by Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian made me laugh out loud:

Above the building’s billowing mirrored skirt still stands the 1960s concrete office block that sat on top of the previous station, while beneath the shiny wrapping still lurks a dingy parade of shops along the street, a William Hill and Betfred clinging on with a newsagent. It is as if someone has tried to wrap the original station with a gigantic sheet of kitchen foil, but didn’t quite have enough to cover it. Which is sort of what happened.

That’s it exactly. Also, that’s always what happens to me when I try to wrap something in foil, so I sympathise. He’s also right about it being a façade. Once you get under the shiny skin, the platforms are the same, grimy, gloomy dungeons that they have always been, albeit with slightly wider platforms and a lick of new paint on the walls. However, I see that as being a perfect metaphor for Birmingham as a city, so in that respect, it works pretty well.

For the record, John Lewis’ haberdashery department was a bit of a disappointment, as it was very small, and tucked away in a corner right on the top floor. As I paid for my few purchases, I was asked what I thought of it, and I said I thought it was a bit small. Apparently I’m far from the first customer to make that observation, so perhaps they’ll have a bit of a reorganisation at some point. In any case, we have no end of great stalls in the Rag Market selling fabric, and the awesome Fancy Silk Store, so it doesn’t matter much.

I should also mention the signage for the platforms. Before I left, Mr. Bsag warned me that they had colour-coded the ‘a’ end of the platforms as the ‘Red Lounge’ and the ‘b’ end as the ‘Blue Lounge’ (or it may have been the other way around). In any case, it turned out to be more complicated than that. New Street has 12 platforms, and because of the volume of rail traffic, and the fact that it is a kind of through-hub for the network, each platform is often used for two different services, each going in opposite directions. This can be very confusing. I remember sitting on a train going towards Edinburgh, when a couple also waiting for the train to depart suddenly realised that they should have been on the train on the other end of the platform, going towards Bournemouth. Oops.

There have always been directions down to the ‘a’ or ‘b’ ends, but once you are on the platform, you can easily just walk along it if you find yourself at the wrong end. Now, they’ve tried to colour-code groups of platforms and the ‘a’ and ‘b’ ends, but in a way that doesn’t seem to make any sense (at least to me). I saw signs for Red, Blue and Yellow Lounges1, and for all I know there were others too. I reminded me of one of the rounds in the quiz show Only Connect, in which contestants have to find a connection between seemingly random items:

Victoria Coren Mitchell (the presenter): So team, what connects 2a, 4b, 6a, and prime numbers between 1 and 12, but only on the third Wednesday of each month?

Team captain: We think it’s the platforms that can be accessed from the Magenta Lounge at New Street station.

Victoria: Correct, well done. For a bonus point, can you tell me how many ticket barriers you have to pass through to get from the exit of John Lewis to the Magenta Lounge?

Team captain: Ummm, is it 2?

Victoria: Bad luck, incorrect I’m afraid, it’s 3, or 5 if you get confused and mistakenly head towards the Taupe Lounge.

Oh, the ticket barriers. They are everywhere. And, as I found to my cost, they respond really slowly to insertion of a valid ticket. I put my ticket in, watched it get swallowed by the machine, and confidently strode forward expecting the barriers to have parted for me like the Red Sea, only to crash straight into them. Perhaps it’s just as well that you get plenty of practice going through them.

  1. And really ’lounge’ is a huge stretch — they are an open area in a corridor with some plastic chairs and a nearby branch of Costa. ↩︎