Calling All GM Stations: A Look at TfGM’s Action Stations Plan

How Action Stations aims to transform Greater Manchester’s railway stations

Calling All GM Stations

Greater Manchester has 97 railway stations. Many of them are unstaffed with some lacking any disabled access at all. Most of the City Region’s stations are managed by its principal rail franchisee, Arriva Rail North’s Northern franchise. Stockport is managed by Virgin West Coast; Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria, by Major Stations. Stalybridge station is managed by First Transpennine Express.

With various franchisees (and Network Rail’s Major Stations), this has meant a dilution of the Design Research Unit’s work for British Rail and many of its successor. Northern use the Gotham typeface instead of Rail Alphabet; TfGM use Pantograph, a neat sans-serif typeface which plays a major part in the Metrolink’s corporate identity.

The product’s far from constant; disabled access is patchy at best; the ambience at some stations is intimidating. Don’t get us started on staffing levels and the amount of cover in waiting shelters. If you’re travelling on your own, personal security can be a major issue – even with CCTV cameras.

Altrincham Interchange is one exception to the rule: it is managed by Transport for Greater Manchester. The ticket office, as well as selling National Rail tickets, is also a TfGM Travelshop. It has seen some redevelopment with a new footbridge and lifts. The bus station now has six stands – half the number of its 1976 predecessor. Almost every corner of the station is utilised with the long-serving newsagent shop and a café bar on the Metrolink platform.

Though the redevelopment had not been without its hitches (chiefly the lifts), TfGM could take over all but one of Greater Manchester’s railway stations. This is part of a 2014 devolution agreement co-signed by members of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Should the Government agree to the proposed transfer, all of Greater Manchester’s railway stations will return to public sector ownership.

This, quoting from a TfGM press release, is in response to stations not allowing for “long term customer focus and planning and stations and [that] their facilities have not evolved in line with customer expectations”. Since privatisation, Stalybridge station has benefited from a new ticket office, the addition of two platforms, improved access for disabled persons, and better waiting facilities on the Manchester platform.

Further up the line, Mossley station has benefited from the extension of its Manchester platform and improvements to its car park. Its biggest stumbling is disabled access – rather the lack of it. A wheelchair bound Mossley passenger, wishing to go to Huddersfield has to change at Stalybridge before heading northward. On the way back, no problem.

This is also true of Greenfield station. A trip to Mossley would require the same gymnastics for a Huddersfield journey. If he or she wishes to go to Mossley, the 350 or 354 buses (space permitting) are more effective. Other than that, a choice of a taxi or a LocalLink journey if he or she lacks private transport. The geology around the stations pose a real test for the civil engineer.

A Case For Change

Some of the issues faced by passengers aim to be addressed by a funding application. Known as Case For Change, a successful Department for Transport bid could unlock a £400 million funding package for TfGM. This could include existing funding streams and additional investment within Greater Manchester, covering two decades.

As well as improving the overall environment of the City Region’s railway stations, there is potential to maximise the use of its existing infrastructure. To use a British Rail phrase, all to do with “sweating the assets”. By means of improved car parking, additional housing, and commercial development. Another part of the plan is the integration of railway stations into the community. This is expressed in Transport for Greater Manchester’s Action Stations prospectus.

Action Stations

With the exception of refuse tips and fracking wells, there is nothing more dispiriting than a derelict railway station building. Or a station with very minimal facilities, that has been vandalised. The Action Stations prospectus has one visionary plan: greater use of the station for community facilities as well as its principal use.

In the report, it cites of the precedent of Irlam station. Over a decade ago, its imposing yet derelict Cheshire Lines Committee station building gave travellers an unwelcoming site. In the last year, the building has changed beyond recognition. This was thanks to a partnership with TfGM and local charity, The Hamilton Davies Trust. Plus Northern Rail, Salford City Council and a host of other partners.

On the 26 March 2015, it was reopened with its new look facilities. This includes upgraded car parking and a cycle hub; also enhanced landscaping along its entrance. Irlam station could be the first of many, especially where existing buildings could be brought into community use. This could mean railway station buildings being used for:

  • Healthy living projects: gymnasiums, vegan restaurants, childcare facilities;
  • Cultural schemes: theatres, community cinemas, art galleries, artists’ studios;
  • Small businesses: incubation/start-up units, conference facilities, meeting rooms, training centres;
  • Retail markets: local markets for farmers’ produce, bric-a-brac, general retail markets.

The use of railway buildings for non-railway use is far from new. It dates from the start of the railway age with bookstalls. Community usage is a more modern idea, though one that requires partnership (as seen with the Irlam model).

The Irlam model is suitable for any stations where the station building is underused. For unstaffed stations where the main buildings are bus shelters, this offers a blank canvas for integrated commercial development. A mixed use scheme could be a panacea to improving Hyde North or Flowery Field stations. This could complement the off licence next to the Manchester platform of the latter station.

In the report, there are case studies of potential partners, either for business development or community use. It cites the Coin Street Community Builders as one example of the former category. The London-based community trust, near the OXO Tower and The London Studios (of LWT fame) has a social enterprise model. They have transformed a largely derelict 13 acre site into a vibrant community hub with retail and residential premises. For social business partners, Turning Point and The Big Life Group (best known for The Big Issue magazine) have been hailed as possible candidates.

With additional use, some of Greater Manchester’s more forbidding railway stations could be vibrant community hubs. Some redundant platforms could be reinstated for use as an occasional market. There is already a precedent on the Tyne and Wear Metro where part of the southbound platform of Tynemouth station has weekly markets.

How the Action Stations concept could work in Tameside

At present, only Stalybridge and Guide Bridge stations are used for purposes further to their main use. Stalybridge, most famously, has the buffet bar on the Yorkshire platform. On the same platform, there has been previous attempts to establish an art gallery, coffee shop, and a barber’s shop. These establishments, occupying a unit right of the main exit, have had no success. The Buffet Bar is in very rude health and retains its iconic status. Compare and contrast with late 1980s plans to close the bar and convert it to a florist!

Guide Bridge lost its palatial buildings on its most southerly platform, which included a buffet bar. In December 1984, remodelling of the station saw its platforms cut from four to two. On its Glossop platform, part of the station buildings will open as a heritage centre for the Woodhead Line.

In Broadbottom, a former goods shed was converted to non-railway uses in the mid-1980s. The buildings on the Glossop platform became a public house, which has now closed. There is potential for this building to become offices, or as part of a cluster of business startup units flanking the car park.

Most of Tameside’s stations are unstaffed with Mossley, Hattersley and Newton stations retaining staff on a part time basis. Ashton-under-Lyne station has part time staff, though longer ticket office opening hours (Sundays excepted).

With the rerouting of Hattersley Road West to serve Hattersley station, its building could form part of a neighbourhood centre. This could replace the present one on Honiton Close, or become an additional centre as part of a mixed-use development.

Hyde North has potential for improvement, with ample space for disabled friendly footbridge access. The approach to its Manchester platform could be enhanced by a new build facility including office space and meeting rooms. Probably a good place for startups, so long as additional infrastructure (shops, in other words) are considered. Colleagues could nip across Dukinfield Road to The Village for a posh coffee or a swim.

If you travel by train to Hyde, the approaches to Hyde Central and Newton (for Hyde) are far from being a suitable gateway to the town centre. The two stations’ proximity to the M67 motorway makes for an attractive location for light industrial use – expressed by incumbent buildings. Could improved pedestrian and disabled access to Hyde town centre from Hyde Central help the town’s cause?

Fairfield and Flowery Field stations are both in residential areas. Potentially, being able to walk or cycle from nearby houses should be key to their success. Complementing the nearby off licence, the station could be part of a neighbourhood centre. A convenience store of any description could be a godsend for residents on Booth Road. This should be complemented with a cycle hub and a café for weary cyclists using the Fallowfield Loop (based along the Manchester Piccadilly avoiding line into Chorlton-cum-Hardy).

Ashton-under-Lyne station already has Cycle Hub facilities, one of two in the town centre. The station could benefit from a remodelled pick up point for taxis and cars dropping off or picking up, as well as the obligatory coach park for bus replacement services.

As well as a new footbridge or a couple of lifts, Mossley station has potential to be a community hub for Bottom Mossley. Possibly with the restoration of the building on its Manchester platform. This could be a suitable training centre for basic numeracy and literacy courses. Or a neighbourhood cinema known as the New Empire (yards away from the original Empire’s location off Old Brow).

The most awkward station to consider for the Action Stations plan is Godley. The station off Mottram Road and Sheffield Road seems to be out on a limb. At least in terms of community facilities other than a cycle hub at the bottom of the embankment. Its stepped ramp, at both sides, makes the station inaccessible for wheelchair users and less physically fit passengers.

Denton station has great potential and, managed properly, could get at least 90,000 to 140,000 passengers a year. This could be achieved by moving the railway station to the opposite side of the M67 motorway. Doing so would see the station complementing retail and commercial premises (the Sainsburys superstore; Premier Inn; various offices; and KFC). The case for upgrading its service from one train a week to once an hour would be justifiable.

2017 and beyond

What’s more, the plans championed in Action Stations are compatible with the 2040 Transport Strategy. So long as the balance between commercial and community development is right, Action Stations could succeed.

There is one concern: is there any guarantee that future development plans could stand in the way of any rail-based expansion? How long will the community initiatives last at each station? The possibilities are endless, and a world away from the era when modernising railway stations meant replacing a fine building with a bus shelter.

What are your views on the Action Stations plan and Transport for Greater Manchester’s proposed management of all railway stations in the Greater Manchester City Region? Feel free to comment.

References:

S.V., 23 March 2017.

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