Out with the old and in with the new

Tracey Proudlock on September 25, 2015

Frequent business traveller and wheelchair user, James West, reviews accessibility at Birmingham New Street station following its much-publicised £750 million refurbishment.

"Persons needing assistance please wait here until the train has departed"Dark and dirty platforms, confusing signage, an absence of natural light and a horribly utilitarian aesthetic have long conspired to make Birmingham New Street, the nation’s busiest rail station outside London, comfortably its most disliked.

As a native Brummie tired of bemoaning the archaic facilities, it was therefore with great hope and expectation that I rolled through New Street’s shiny new doors for the first time this week.

On first impressions it’s big, it’s bold and it’s bright. You might even go as far to say it’s beautiful with its huge atrium and striking exterior cladding. But would the user experience match the sensory welcome?

My visit started in the station’s bright and welcoming NCP car park, which I was told offers disabled parking spaces and step-free lift access on every level. I was unable to verify this on the day having only seen spaces on levels one and two and experienced a few issues with non-functioning lifts. There are sadly no discounts in operation for Blue Badge holers.

The car park lifts take you into the Grand Central shopping complex, which sits above the main station concourse. A short wheel through the shops to another lift then takes you to the station proper, a light, bright and welcoming atrium thronging with people. It’s an impressive, open space and a far cry from the claustrophobic, low-ceilinged rabbit warren that was its older self.

There’s certainly no denying it’s big and getting one’s bearings takes a while, even for a native like myself. Mercifully, given the size of the place, it’s impressively flat and step-free save for a few gently graduated slopes. Some ambulant disabled passengers may find they struggle with the distances involved but thankfully the abundant signage and departure and arrival screens throughout make the task of finding your way to all the platforms and main facilities straightforward.

My first port of call was the mobility assistance area where staff were on hand to guide me through all the facilities on offer. As you would expect of any major transport hub fit for 2015, these are comprehensive. There are free accessible toilets (Radar key required), including a ‘changing places’ toilet complete with hoists and supports for people accompanied by a support worker, personnel who can escort you through the station and onto your train, lifts to every platform and ramp access onto trains where needed.

General facilities throughout the station have also been engineered with disabled visitors in mind, with lowered phone boxes, cash and information points and automatic doors throughout. For added peace of mind, you can also call a special mobility hotline 24hrs in advance of travel to pre-book assistance.

Birmingham's New Street StationAt the heart of the station is the bank of arrivals and departures screens that is so crucial to making for a stress-free journey. These were noticeably lower and easier to read than at similarly large stations like London Euston where you can find yourself craning your neck to check train times. Furthermore, announcements over the public address system were comprehensive and crystal clear, without being overly repetitive. Perhaps most impressive of all was the large number of staff on-hand to answer questions and point people in the right direction, though it will be interesting to see just how long they remain after the initial launch period.

Platform access is through a series of automatic gates, with wider opening barriers for wheelchair users and pushchairs. Beyond those, two accessible waiting rooms complete with wheelchair only areas provide an alternative to waiting on the platform. These are especially welcome given the platforms themselves remain the same size as they were pre-refurbishment, although now all bar one are accessible by lift.

The old New Street was never a place to linger but that has all changed with major provision for food and drink outlets and a reasonable amount of free seating. Previously, the notion of holding a business meeting here would have got you laughed out of town but there’s now an abundance of options for a quick catch up over coffee or longer business lunch.

Shoppers are well catered for too, with a bank of high-end fashion and lifestyle retailers sitting above the concourse alongside a four-storey John Lewis department store, the retailer’s biggest outside London. Once again, access to all of these units is step and lip free.

It’s not of course without its faults. Some lifts were out of order on the day I visited and not all of the helpers were as clued up as they might have been as to where the various facilities are. That said today’s New Street is a world away from its ghastly predecessor, offering a warm welcome to able and disabled travellers alike.

James WestSo often in the past I have struggled my way through this station, desperate for a seat, a working lift or accessible, clean toilet. That was no way to start or finish a busy working day.

What a difference £750 million can make.

James West

Photograph of New Street Station by Sunil060902 (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons