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Birmingham's coach station saga

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Digbeth coach station can hardly be described as a jewel in the crown on the National Express operation. In fact the complete opposite.

In the past it’s been dubbed a “running sore” for the city of Birmingham and a “shabby and unappealing” arrival point that gives a poor impression to anybody who comes to the city on a coach. It looks more like a bus garage than a coach station, but that’s hardly surprising considering it was built as a Midland Red depot in 1929.

Nowadays it’s a major hub for the National Express network of service. The need for a replacement was realised many years ago, well ahead of plans to revamp coach stations in other major cities. However, while places like Leeds and Manchester now have their new stations, Birmingham is still waiting.

The original plans to provide a modern coach station in the city go back more than a decade when, in a rare ‘Glasnost’ moment, several authorities including, Railtrack, Birmingham city council, a major developer and National Express, decided to work together with the common aim of developing a prime site close to the city’s second biggest rail station at Snow Hill. The plan, at the time, was to build a new coach station that would be fully integrated with both heavy rail and the Midland Metro light rail line which was to have been incorporated into the new building.

National Express was ready to contribute around £4m to the project and there were even rumours that the company was prepared to move its UK headquarters from Hampshire into offices that were to be built above the new coach station. Negotiations were long and protracted, but in the end the plan collapsed following disagreements over funding and a drop in the value Birmingham’s office property market.

National Express' current Digbeth site "looks more like a bus
garage than a coach station".

Following the collapse there was talk of redeveloping the Digbeth site. Millennium Point, a new tourist attraction, was helping to regenerate the nearby ‘Eastside’ of Birmingham. However, in the event a new site was identified. Ironically just around the corner from the original Snow Hill proposal.

One of the benefits of the new site, at Great Charles Street, was that it was owned solely by Birmingham city council and as a result there were high hopes that the time waste on the previous project could be made up and that the city would finally get the new coach station it now badly needed.

Futuristic designs were produced and all seemed to be going well. However, in 2003 regulations came into force allowing longer coaches to be used on UK roads. A maximum of 12 metres became 15 metres and the developers were asked to revise the plans for the coach station.

The revised scheme changed the design of the office floor above the coach station so much that the whole building became, in the words of a council report, “unviable”. National Express, it said, “had a fixed budget for the provision of the coach station”. But that wasn’t the revised plan’s only problems.

Around this time nearby residents launched a campaign against the development. They were boosted by the involvement of English Heritage, which was concerned, that the project would have an adverse affect on the local environment. The design of the coach station was criticised. An architect lecturer working at a local university described the plans as “dire” and stated that if they had been presented as a final year project by one of his students he would not have passed it. With so many problems afflicting the project few were surprised when in early 2004 the project was scrapped. Six years of hard work had once again come to nothing and planners were back to square one.

It was interesting that during the lengthy period it had taken to develop the plans at Great Charles Street, construction work had been underway on a new landmark shopping centre with the redevelopment of the Bullring area of the city. The centre was an instant success, breathing new life into a rundown area which was only a hundred yards or so away from Digbeth coach station.
The new station will have 16 coach bays and a vastly improved
passenger waiting area, says National Express.

As a result National Express again looked at developing the new coach station at the existing Digbeth site. After a decade of getting nowhere the company had, in effect, reverted to its original plan. This time National Express lost no time getting its latest scheme underway. The company appointed award winning architect, Ken Shuttleworth, to design what it called a ‘world class coach station for Birmingham’. The brief, according to National Express, was to create an iconic coach station with a real ‘wow’ factor. The price tag would be around £7m and initially the regeneration project was to have been completed by the end of 2007. However, as with many major projects, timescales have slipped and the new station isn’t likely to be complete mid-2008 at the earliest.

The first stage in the development was announced in January when a planning application was submitted for the creation of a temporary coach station opposite to the existing site.  It will be used while the old coach station is demolished and the new one is built. Now a further outline planning application has been made for the construction of new station. Mike Lambden, head of corporate affairs for the National Express coach division, says: “It’s been a frustrating process. This is the first time we’ve ever got close to a planning application going in. It’s the most positive step we’ve had.” The company is completely rebuilding the coach station, hence the reason for a temporary location.

But what can people expect from the new coach station? By all accounts it’ll be unlike anything passengers will have seen before. Lambden says: "It’ll have 16 bays and a greatly enhanced enclosed waiting area. One of the big things about Digbeth at the moment is that it has a roof over it but effectively people are out in the open.”

The company’s objective is that people stay within the station until they’re ready to board their coach, rather than at present either milling around near the coaches or even in roads adjacent to the facility.  National Express is also anxious to create a landmark for people coming into Birmingham. Its location close to one of main routes into the city will certainly mean that it gets noticed. And unlike some other key projects in the city including plans to upgrade New Street rail station, the National Express proposals are fully funded.

The company also plans to enhance the status of the coach station, which is already one of the most important in the National Express network. Mike Lambden says: “Some of our customers say, ‘I don’t have to go through Digbeth do I?’ That’s one of the things that’s key to us as well. It enhances our reputation nationally as well as in Birmingham.” Along with Birmingham city council there are also plans for a public space with cafes and other facilities. It all adds up to a world class coach station for what’s fast becoming a world class city.

Peter Plisner is the BBC’s midlands transport correspondent.

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