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Old Street station, more like!
Birmingham New Street Train Station
Member Name: davidbuttery
Birmingham New Street Train Station
Advantages: Central location, lots of trains to catch
Disadvantages: Unpleasant platform areas, unwelcoming, information can be poorly placed
When I passed through Birmingham New Street station the other day, there was a display in the concourse showing a model of the latest new and improved proposals to turn the place into somewhere vaguely fit for human beings. It looked quite nice, if indeed you like the idea of a station that's eighteen inches high and made out of plaster! But seriously, forgive me if at this point I emit some hollow laughter, as we've been here many, many times before, and at the time of writing the place is still a tip.
New Street is the largest station in Birmingham, and one of the busiest of all outside London. If you're travelling cross-country, you're very likely to have to change trains here, at least unless you've done as some of my acquaintances have and paid extra to go another way and thus avoid the place entirely! As a Midlander myself, I'm really quite embarrassed that this place is the first experience most visitors have of our region's major city.
I'll start by mentioning some of the things that New Street gets right - and yes, there are one or two! Firstly, in the last year or two it has *finally* brought in a seated waiting area reserved for ticket-holders. This area, tucked away on one side of the concourse, is actually fairly pleasant by the standards of these things. Prior to that, you had either to stand up, sprawl on the floor or brave the platform areas themselves - of which more later! If you're the proud possessor of a First Class ticket then there's an exclusive lounge just for you, but since I never travel First Class I couldn't say what it's like.
I also like the fact that ticket checks are done by people, rather than by those blasted automatic gates that get totally confused if your ticket is anything other than a bog-standard point-to-point one. Unfortunately the powers that be are obsessed with installing automatic gates everywhere to tackle fare-dodging (an aim I strongly support in itself) so it seems quite likely that before too long this annoying hurdle will await you at New Street: not so very far away at Birmingham Moor Street station, they're already installed.
Passenger information is hit and miss. A few years ago the old-fashioned clickety-click departure board over the main entrance from the concourse was removed in order to install lots and lots of adverts to annoy people... er, that is, to offer customers improved commercial opportunities. You now have to go to one of two banks of TV screens situated either side of the concourse, one of them cunningly positioned so that you cannot read it properly without standing in the way both of people going to WH Smith *and* in the way of people visiting the left luggage office or going to the taxi rank out the front.
There is an adequate range of shops and cafés at New Street - a Burger King, a cookie shop, two WH Smiths (one either side of the gate line!) a baguette place and a pub, the Shalespeare, which I've never actually set foot in. As you'd expect, most of the food is overpriced, but it's generally reasonably tasty. In the daytime you can nip up the escalator to the Pallasades shopping centre for some much cheaper fare (there's even a 99p shop if you're desperately short of cash!) but of course this option will not be open to you late at night.
Once through the gate line, you pass into... another concourse! This is actually a bridge over the tracks, but completely enclosed and completely boring. Apart from the few shops already mentioned, the only point of real interest here is that it is the location for the toilets, which now charge a slightly exorbitant 30p a time and are (the gents, at least - I wouldn't know about the ladies'!) only adequately clean and usually slightly smelly. There are also a few payphones, but the free internet terminals of a few years ago are long gone.
Down the narrow stairs to the platforms (the escalators are up only, and the lifts are hard to find) and the full grandeur of this bustling interchange awaits you. If, that is, your idea of grandeur is to be dumped out on to a cold, windy, damp, dark expanse of grey concrete with the exotic aroma of diesel filling your nostrils. It's as though this place were designed in accordance with the "1970s British Rail cliché book"! Catering is generally restricted to vending machines, and the cramped waiting rooms on most platforms are no warmer than sitting on the cold metal benches outside.
Information is actually not too awful. New Street has recently reduced the number of automated announcements (such as the infamous "please extinguish all smoking material") in an effort to get people to pay attention when something comes over the loudspeaker, and I think that does work. There are TV screens on each platform showing the next train, which are a bit small and not all that bright but at least show information continuously rather than, as at some stations, spending half the time telling you not to leave baguettes unattended. (Something like that, anyway!)
Perhaps the best thing about starting a journey from New Street is that, because it is the starting point for many trains, if you arrive reasonably early you are nearly certain to get a seat on most services. Obviously this doesn't apply if you're going to Torquay on a Saturday in August, but generally it does, and for the most part I'm willing to put up with the dismal squalor of the station in order not to have to stand up once I'm on board.
On the flip side, this busyness also makes the place very crowded at times, and this is not a station where it is at all fun to be in a crowd. It's like the world's largest subway, albeit with fewer reeling drunks and a *slightly* better smell, and it's at times like these that it becomes all too apparent that its 12 platforms are simply not enough. Unfortunately, because it is under the city centre, it would cost something like fifteen trillion times as much as the entire NHS budget to add the extra space New Street so desperately needs, and the proposed rebuilding works simply ignore the question of what happens *under* their shiny new shopping-centre architecture.
As you will have gathered, I am not a great fan of New Street station. I use it because I have to, but when put up against most other large stations - or even Moor Street just ten minutes' walk away - it's a disaster area. Ideally it would be torn down and rebuilt from scratch, but even if that's impossible could we at least have some proper lighting, a better ventilation system and a bit more comfort for those of us who are actually using the place for its apparently intended purpose? You really would think that railway users would have some sort of priority in a railway station...
Summary: The heart of Birmingham - in need of a transplant
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