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New Year at New Street

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The New Year. A time of plans for the future, broken resolutions, and The Rail Engineer’s annual visit to see the latest developments at Birmingham New Street Station as the Network Rail and Mace partnership continue to develop one of the country’s most significant stations

First, a quick recap – or you can read issue 75 (January 2011) page 27. The current Birmingham New Street Station was opened in 1967 after a complete rebuild. The 12 platforms are below ground level in slightly curved box. Above the platforms, on a large concrete slab, sits the passenger concourse at one side and a multi-story car park on the other. Above the concourse is the Pallasades shopping centre.

New Street is the country’s busiest station outside of London, and it is getting busier. Being largely underground, the platforms cannot be extended nor can more be added. They are already operated as A and B platforms, in fact there is even a C, so the only way to enhance capacity further is to get more trains in and out more quickly. And that means moving more passengers on and off the platforms more quickly.

Currently, there is one access to each platform from the concourse, and that concourse is quite small, low ceilinged, and has no natural daylight. In short, it is a bit crowded and depressing. What is needed is a larger concourse, a higher ceiling, and some daylight.

Someone came up with the simple solution – knock through the wall into the car park next door, and expand the concourse into that. Now the car park floors don’t have much headroom, as you’d expect in a multi-story car park. So the next simple solution was to take out the first floor completely, leaving a double-height area. That should do it.

But what about letting some daylight in? Simple once again – drive upwards through the middle of the Pallasades shopping centre right through to the roof and put a transparent dome on top to let the light in.

All this would leave the exterior of the station untouched and still sixties concrete. So the suggestion was to clad it all in shiny stainless steel to reflect the sky.

Don’t you just love these simple plans?

But in essence that is what was agreed. First stage, take out the first floor of the car park (all 7,000 tonnes of it) and build a new concourse in there with escalator and lift access to the platforms. Second, move the concourse into the new area and close the old one, gut it and rebuild it, while at the same time removing two floors of the Pallasades shopping centre (20,000 tonnes) and constructing a dome on the roof from ETFE (Ethylene Tetra Fluoro Ethylene) – the material used for the Eden Project in the UK and the Beijing Olympic Aquatics Centre, nicknamed the “Watercube”.

Last year

So the Birmingham New Street Redevelopment project was born. At the time of The Rail Engineer’s second visit, last year, the removal of the first floor of the car park had just been finished. The concrete had been cut up into handy-sized pieces, still weighing 10 tonnes or more each, and moved on a bespoke rail arrangement sideways out of the building. A forest of bright-orange props and stays from RMD Kwikform kept everything supported and in balance while the work was going on.

One snag was that the main service spine for the whole station runs just behind the wall of the existing concourse, so one of the main tasks for 2011 was to relocate that into the roof of the new concourse area.

Outside, the 20-story residential Stephenson Tower would have to be demolished to make room for the new scheme. However, the design for the new Birmingham Gateway, as the revised New Street is being called, included two new towers. These were to be free-standing, multi-use blocks with retail in the ground floor, offices above, and residential above that. With the current low demand for office and retail space, these towers were not to be built as part of the station development..

Also in Christmas 2010, it had been planned to take out and replace the Navigation Street footbridge. However, the weather had been so bad with temperatures down to -15°C, that it had to be delayed until Christmas 2011.

Work had started in de-cluttering and resurfacing the platforms, with BAM Nuttall working on Platform 1.

So that was the situation a year ago.

By 6 January 2012, much had changed. After months of careful planning, the Navigation Street footbridge had been replaced, much to the relief of the engineers. If they had missed doing it this time, perhaps due to more bad weather, they would really have been in trouble with timings.

However, the steel framework was lifted into place on Boxing Day with no problems. A temporary fire-proof lining had been added so that passengers were already using the new bridge and were protected from the ongoing work to add the cladding to the outside of the frame. When that is complete the lining will be stripped out and the finished bridge exposed.

Stephenson Tower had gone – well, almost. All that was left was about one story high of scaffolding. Due to its proximity to the station, the tower couldn’t be knocked down so it had to be taken down, in effect folded inwards on itself with the rubble going down the lift shafts and being taken away at the bottom. A time consuming process but just about complete.

However, there had been two major changes to the design over the year. In December 2011, designers Atkins had been winding down. The major work had been done, and a team of just 10-20 people was envisaged to keep an eye on the project and sort out the inevitable wrinkles. Now, however, the team was still 130 strong – and busy. What had changed?

New for 2012

In February 2011, John Lewis Partnerships announced that they will open a new store in Birmingham – at Birmingham New Street. This was a major change in the plan for the station, and needed a lot more detailed design work.

Of course, these announcements don’t happen overnight. The design team first became aware of the possibility back in 2009, when Project Chicago looked at the feasibility of adding a major store to the development. This was to have been on the north east corner of the station, but after a time everything went quiet. Then the plan was back on again, but now moved to the south west.

The two proposed separate tower blocks were deleted, and an extension designed. The façade will be continued around the store and, because it is taller, extended upwards. However, the upper layers will be transparent rather than stainless steel to allow light into the store.

Atkins is doing the structural design of the new store and the way it interfaces with the station. Atkins Engineering Director Stephen Ashton explained: “This has been a significant piece of design for Atkins. There was always passive provision for a major structure in that area – the two towers development. But they were separate from the station and John Lewis is integrated. So we have had to take out some of the south west corner of the building and add on three levels above the Pallasades.

“We have also had to alter some of the other plans to accommodate the new store. For example, British Transport Police were to have had accommodation in the Hinterland (New Street-speak for the basement / service area) but we have now had to move them to the upper retail level.”

John Lewis is a major change, but isn’t the only one. The original design called for the new service spine in the car park area to be constructed on site. However, delivery partner Mace brought a plan to Atkins for it to be of modular construction, built off-site by NG Bailey and then simply assembled after arrival. Each module could be tested in the factory, and while the cost was similar the assembly times would be much quicker. Atkins went along with the plan, but the design had to be integrated into the original scheme.

Another change was at platform level. Currently, there is ducting in place to extract diesel fumes, carry them up the height of the building, and expel them above the roof. These were to be replaced with new extractors but using the original ducts. However, Mace suggested using impulse fans, hanging from the ceiling over the platforms, to blow fumes out either end of the station. Atkins and NG Baileys are working together to implement this design change which includes the re-design of the power distribution of the power supplies from the roof down to platform level.

Stephen Ashton anticipates that all these design changes will be complete by the end of March. However, that may not be the end of it as the project team will be instigating “Project Bluebird”, a cost containment exercise to prevent over-runs and ensure that the most cost-effective designs and processes are used.

Ongoing work

Everything has to be planned and calculated to the nth degree. As Chris Montgomery, Network Rail’s Project Director, told The Rail Engineer: “If we get things wrong, we have the opportunity to completely mess up the network. This is the biggest interchange in the UK and every Cross Country service goes through here – around 400 of their train crew are based here. A train leaves on average every 37 seconds so if we get it wrong, it goes wrong in a big way.”

On top of that are the passengers’ impressions of Birmingham. Around 75% of business visitors to Birmingham arrive by train, as well as 65% of all first time visitors to the city.

Funding for the project, currently at around £600 million, comes from several sources, and each partner has their own aims for the projects, which Chris Montgomery called “Key Requirements”. For example, the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, contributed £100 million and their key requirement is jobs for local people.

So the project has opened the Birmingham Gateway Construction Academy, connecting with local colleges and offering both apprenticeships and mid-term training. One hundred training modules a year are being offered, from apprentice sessions to executive briefings.

Richard Thorpe, Mace’s Project Director responsible for New Street, is pleased with the results this training is having. “This project is long enough for us to put young people through a complete apprenticeship during the lifetime of the project,” he commented. “So instead of them having to change from one worksite to another in the course of their training, they can join us here at New Street and leave fully-qualified.”

Extra employment won’t just be available during the building of the station. Chris Montgomery estimated that the long-term effect would be 1,000 new jobs, 650 of them with John Lewis. Many of these will have been long-term unemployed.

Approximately 1,000 people are working on site at present, ramping up to a peak of 1,200 by the end of March. Project management is about 140, 60% Mace and 40% Network Rail, but working as one integrated team with no duplicated roles.

With so many stakeholders in the project, including investors, retailers, TOCs, even local taxi drivers, 30-40 staff each keep in touch with an allocated group of stakeholders. There is a monthly stakeholders’ briefing.

Work in progress

Looking around the station, what is happening right now? Martyn Woodhouse and Paul Dalton, both Senior Project Managers, were pleased to show off the latest developments.

The Navigation street bridge is in, and being clad. The brackets for the stainless steel façade are going up along Stephenson Street – the mountings are all in place and the brackets themselves, each one different, are now being attached. The first elements of the façade itself should be in place by April.

Birse Rail has won the contract to refit platforms 2-11, and are busy with platform 10. Only one platform face at a time can be taken out of service to keep sufficient capacity on the other 11 platforms. General decluttering is taking place, waiting rooms and other old buildings are being removed and lift shafts and escalator accesses installed, along with new paving. David Higgs, foreman on the project, was most enthusiastic about the work taking place.

The service spine modules are arriving in the old car park and are being hung from the ceiling – all 260 tonnes of them. They have to be installed in a particular order to avoid eccentric loading of the building. Construction is almost complete and, when all services have been transferred, the old spine can be demolished.

The first stages of demolition of the void up to the roof have just started. Behind some blue plastic safety netting, men with jackhammers are attacking the concrete slab above them. Soon a new forest of orange RMD Kwikform supports will appear to hold everything together. In the shopping centre, hoardings are in place and retail units are being relocated. It looked like Poundstretcher was the last one still operating!

At one end of platform 1, the old Lamp Block has been demolished and a smart set of new prefabricated offices installed. These now need to be clad externally and fitted out internally before they can be handed over to those 400 Cross Country employees who are currently in temporary accommodation next to the site of Stephenson Tower.

Over the road, the boundary wall on Hill Street had been decorated with large murals by local artists. These were painted on the roof of the car park and then fixed permanently to the wall, brightening up the area.

There are 80 individual contractors on site, not counting sub-contractors, and all have plenty to do as this is one of the largest refurbishment project in Europe. To put things in perspective, Chris Montgomery described it as “costing half the price of Wembley Stadium and being delivered in a year less – but we have to stay open for matches every day!”

The new concourse is due to open in December 2012, just in time for our next visit. We’ll be back…

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  1. my father was site agent for wimpy`s on the construction of the car park! he will be very interested to read this update.

    regards, nigel allard.


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