In central Birmingham, on opposite sides of the Bullring Shopping Centre, you will find two stations.
One is New Street, a depressing hole of a station that epitomises all that is wrong with 1960s planning. It’s dark, confusing to navigate and filled with diesel fumes from idling Voyagers. It’s so bad that Arriva Cross Country’s winning franchise bid, in 2007, included a promise to encourage passengers to change trains elsewhere if possible. A long-overdue refurbishment is in progress, but it will be several more years before tangible results are delivered.
Fortunately, the railway landscape in Birmingham is not quite as bleak as it might appear. Just a short walk away from the hellish underworld of New Street is a shining example of how it should be done.
This is Moor Street, Birmingham’s second station in terms of importance, but definitely first in terms of architecture.
Moor Street has had a chequered history. It was singled out for for closure in the 1960s but ultimately reprieved when it was realised that there was insufficient capacity at New Street to handle all of the diverted trains. The station was therefore retained as a terminus for local services. However, the original station buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair and ultimately taken out of use in 1987.
Fifteen years later, however, the station’s fortunes were somewhat reversed. Chiltern Railways was keen to develop its service from London Marylebone to Birmingham as a rival to Virgin’s services from New Street. However, the existing terminus for these services, at Snow Hill, was somewhat inadequate, lacking both capacity and ambience.
The solution? Redevelop Moor Street, bringing the original station buildings back into use and reinstating the disused terminal platforms.
The station is Grade II listed, so a modern redevelopment was thankfully out of the question. Instead, the powers-that-be went for an extreme retro look, returning the station to its 1930s appearance (albeit a slightly romanticised, Brief Encounter version of it). You’ll find a lot of replica embossed metal signs, pointing finger icons and GWR logos indiscriminately placed anywhere.
I should emphasise that I’m not a fan of nostalgia for the sake of it. Railway stations are, above all, places to catch trains. Any steps to improve the ambience are welcome, but should not get in the way of the primary function. Moor Street gets the balance more or less right. It just about avoids the “1930s theme park” feel of many a preserved railway line, and works as a functioning 21st-century station. There are concessions to modernity, in the form of electronic information displays and ticket barriers, but they are tastefully incorporated into the station layout.
The “old-meets-new” feel is accentuated by the presence of an old GWR steam loco, standing as a static display in platform 5 (which is, at the moment, still disused). A few metres away, one of Chiltern’s modern trains sat waiting to depart for London Marylebone.
I popped back outside to get my sign photo. Standing on a busy street trying to get a decent self-portrait while ignoring the strange looks from passers-by never gets any easier.
If I look annoyed in this picture, that is accurate. My original plan for this trip had been to visit Bordesley, a desolate station in inner-city Birmingham, served by one weekly Parliamentary service and the occasional football special. However, a wires-down incident at Crewe put paid to that – I arrived in Birmingham 90 minutes later than planned, far too late to reach Bordesley.
Fortunately, I was able to salvage the rest of my itinerary, and Moor Street was a more than satisfactory consolation prize. I needed to catch a train towards Stourbridge, so I headed for the through platforms.
I was somewhat cheered up by now, and the arrival of a brand-new Class 172 train to take me through the Snow Hill tunnel lifted my mood even further. To Stourbridge, then, and a chance to experience an odd little railway curiosity.