The high-speed line, if it goes ahead, could have a transformational impact on Birmingham. But are the station designs and the line’s bigger dreams ambitious enough? asks West Midlands mayor Andy Street
It was hailed as the successor to Concorde, the Channel Tunnel, the Thames Barrier and the new Wembley Stadium. Yet somehow over the last 10 years, we have lost the grand vision of the High Speed 2 rail project.
With the stories of cost overruns and people’s homes and businesses being demolished to build the line, it has become too easy to forget the power of HS2 to make the Midlands and the North richer. The arguments put forward around economic growth, jobs and productivity benefits, though they are true, don’t on their own have the power to inspire.
Those of us who support the project are losing the battle for hearts and minds. And that’s pretty poor going, given that as a nation, we have for decades indoctrinated generations of children with a curriculum of Thomas the Tank Engine, Brio and Hornby. With Boris Johnson’s review of the project, it’s time to put the vision back into HS2.
Hs2 181009 curzonst image1
Firstly, we’ve got to make sure everyday rail commuters into Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, London and the rest see the improvements to their local services that HS2 makes possible. Here in the West Midlands, when the intercity fast trains shift on to the HS2 line, we can open up landing slots at Birmingham New Street for more local commuter trains. That means we can reopen lines that were closed under Beeching, and build new local stations in places like Moseley, Aldridge, Castle Bromwich and Willenhall. And what’s more, there will be fewer delays for everyone in the Midlands and the North when there’s a trespasser on the line at Willesden Junction, because the separate lines will mean that delays in one place don’t spread to the rest of the network.
Secondly, we’ve got to look at the stations along the line again. Now I have to be careful here, given I once had to apologise for calling Gare du Nord in Paris ‘the squalor pit of Europe’. But, at the moment, the designs at Curzon Street in Birmingham and Interchange in Solihull have all the quirkiness and charm of Stansted airport’s baggage drop-off area.
Of course we need to get a grip of the costs, and one way we can do that is by turning the HS2 stations into hives of new offices, shops, restaurants and new apartments which will be able to advertise the shortest commutes in the world.
The station designs have all the charm of Stansted airport’s baggage drop-off area
We can knock billions off the price tag, if we get the private sector to pay for these developments. But in our rush to save cash, let’s not lose the opportunity to create some architectural and regeneration magic while we’re at it, as has been done brilliantly around King’s Cross in London.
Thirdly, let’s take the opportunity to revisit some of the most exciting visionary parts of the project. We should reinstate the plans to link HS2 to Eurostar, so we can run direct trains from Manchester and Birmingham to Paris, Brussels, and beyond. In a world where we are all more aware of our carbon footprint, and when the door-to-door journey times are competitive, train beats plane hands down. And what better way after Brexit to show that we will continue to be good neighbours than by giving our French, Belgian and Dutch friends a way to travel directly to Villa Park and Old Trafford by train?
Hs2 site looking across to selfrdiges credit swampy167 shutterstock
The final thing we should do is ditch the name. Nothing has done more to reinforce the image of men in suits, with their Apprentice-style wheelie suitcases, whizzing down to London for ‘a senior corporate client executive stakeholder meeting’, than the name High Speed 2. It completely misses the point about the benefits for everyday local commuters.
And more than just missing the point, the name HS2 has all the panache of an RfP, an xls file or an MDF offcut. No one talks about High Speed 1, but everyone knows what Eurostar is. And like the famous Renault Clio adverts, Eurostar has that aura of French élan and sophistication. We need a new name.
There is no better time to invest in infrastructure that will serve Britons for hundreds of years
To reinvigorate the project, we need to get the British public back on board. That means cutting costs, getting a grip of the project management, and making sure local people feel the benefits in their area. And we should signal this new chapter by coming up with a brilliant new name that captures the project’s historical vision and ambition.
When Winston Churchill wrote about the prospect of a tunnel between Britain and France in 1924, he hoped that it could be ‘a notable symbol in the advance of civilisation’.
On 13 December, there will a copy of the Oakervee review of HS2 on a desk somewhere in Number 10. There is no better time to borrow and invest in infrastructure which will serve Britons for hundreds of years to come. The prime minister can be a visionary and secure a place in history by writing a big red tick on the front cover, bringing back the project’s original vision and forging ahead with HS2.
Andy Street is West Midlands mayor and former managing director of John Lewis
Comment: Is Andy Street right about HS2
Philip Singleton, former assistant director of city centre development at Birmingham City Council
Birmingham certainly knows how not to do stations. The 20th-century versions of New Street, Snow Hill and Moor Street struggled in the minds of the architects that shaped them, who must have spent some time in bunkers during the Second World War and somehow, perversely, found comfort in them. Daylight and civility were written out of their briefs.
In the 21st century, public money along with private money, such as S106 and the hovering creature that is John Lewis, helped transform New Street Station into a proud space with light flooding into most of it, while Moor Street took a Victorian aesthetic and applied it to a pocket of place-making. Yet the city is still struggling with a vision for Snow Hill Station. I have said repeatedly that when you work on the scale of station revival, you are making a part of the city. We need to wait and see if they get that.
So, what to expect of HS2? The design of the station itself needs to really gather its skirts and gently embrace parks, streets and the wider city. I am really not sure it does just yet. I know there are new plans to create a decent forespace. In Birmingham we’ve had some global firms designing second rate buildings too often, so we need to be very demanding of the teams that place their ideas before the people of Birmingham. The best stations connect thoughtfully with their cities.
Bob Ghosh, founder and director of K4 Architects and specialist member of Birmingham Conservation and Design Review Panel
Grand infrastructure projects somehow need to transcend the political divide and survive government short-termism.
It was a relief to see mayor Andy Street on the HS2 review panel. He will have done his best to articulate the substantial benefits to the West Midlands economy, including the catalytic effect of the new stations at Solihull and Curzon Street in central Birmingham.
The images of the Curzon Street terminus show a dramatic, finely engineered roof structure, reminiscent of Victorian station engineering masterpieces. But the mayor is right to interrogate how the station’s edges will work. This will be critical to the project’s long-term success. The main entrance will open out on to a grand square, linking to New Street and Moor Street stations. However, the real test will be how the spaces below the (elevated) track level will work and how these will connect into the intricate network of streets, canals and metro lines.
I’m confident the design-review process and constant scrutiny from both the Combined Authority and Birmingham City Council will keep the pressure on the design teams to create something remarkable. However, the continued depletion of council resources will certainly not help.
All the new station designs will have to withstand inevitable rounds of value engineering but certain elements will have to be protected – a difficult challenge, given the already spiralling costs.