Architecture inevitably splits opinion. As an analogue child, I find myself smitten with the exquisite Victorian façades that radiate affluence into West Yorkshire’s mill towns. Step out of Huddersfield Station and one steps back 150 years – only the smog and horse muck is missing. Today’s glass and steel erections, whilst often spectacular, sometimes feel cold and digital. But, in constructional terms, we must surely all agree that the Sixties proved to be a particular low point. Too much sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll clearly addled the planners’ minds.

Huddersfield has wool foundations. Wakefield, 12 miles to the east, grew up as an inland port and market town, served by a canal network which spawned huge waterside warehouses. Glassworks, brickyards, breweries, spinning mills – all changed the skyline as industry thrived on the back of 46 local coal mines. Wakefield’s prosperity might have had different roots but it equally shaped the city. Grand civic buildings asserted its position as the county’s administrative hub.

Of course, there isn’t really much manufacturing any more. Yorkshire suffered more than most when government put the Industrial Revolution into reverse through the 1980s. It led to very dark times hereabouts. But serious investment is now helping communities to find their feet again. Wakefield already feels cleaner, brighter, more vibrant. And the time has come for the railway to reflect that, playing its part in a twenty-first century rebirth.

Age of the train

Locomotives first arrived in the city on 5 October 1840, pulling into Kirkgate Station along the Manchester and Leeds Railway, built under the superintendence of George Stephenson and engineered by Thomas Longridge Gooch. Seven years later the route became the major constituent part of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. Dating from 1854, Kirkgate’s main building stands testament to the showmanship of the age, its fine ashlar extending for more than 300 feet. Demolition work saw the station’s roof removed in 1972 but a Grade II listing now affords some protection from such vandalism.


Photo: Four By Three.

With its staff gone, Kirkgate was blighted by a series of muggings and a serious sexual assault, greatly damaging perceptions of it. In 2006, a Council report damned the place as “intimidating, unwelcoming and the smell was putrid”. The unwanted accolade of Britain’s worst medium-large station was bestowed upon it. Scarred by neglect and criminality, it’s hardly surprising that usage fell by 85,000 in the two years to 2012.

But things started to look up in 2009 with a million pound grant from the National Stations Improvement Programme, funding the installation of CCTV, help points and signage. Earlier this year, Network Rail completed a further package of work, removing a redundant spine wall and renewing the platform canopies. Serious traction had already been gained through Groundwork, an environmental regeneration charity, announcing its intention to restore the main building as a community hub, incorporating a ticket office, café and shop, as well as accommodation for local groups and small business ‘incubation units’. People will soon be working at Kirkgate again.

£4.6 million has now been gathered in from the scheme’s diverse sponsors, amongst whom number Network Rail, Northern Rail, Wakefield City Council and the EU, together with the Railway Heritage Trust, Eggborough Power Station and open access operator Grand Central. Completion is likely to take a year.

Out with the old

Further west, below the city’s civic quarter, the vista has been transformed by the emergence of a sleek commercial district. Encompassing a 17-acre site, the Merchant Gate scheme has attracted funding to the tune of £70 million over its first two phases, providing a fabulous new home for the Council, its museum and library, multi-storey parking for 1,500 cars, apartment blocks, speculative office space and a public square. It has a bold visual impact.

At its south-west corner is Westgate Station. More familiar to passengers than Kirkgate, for much of the day it offers two East Coast services an hour to London, between which appear Cross Country and local trains. It opened on its current site on 1 May 1867, built by the Great Northern to a design by Leeds architect James Fraser. Costing £60,000, it replaced the original station – a little to the south – following completion of the West Riding and Grimsby Railway which now forms the East Coast main line to Doncaster. One local newspaper reported that it was “one of the most perfect stations in England – special care in designing the works having been taken…in order that every facility might be given for the easy and expeditious working of the goods and passenger traffic.”

But that Sixties constructional low point wiped away Fraser’s Westgate. Gone was the rich, elegant frontage and pavilion roof; in came a design that echoed the austerity of the times. It was probably regarded as innovative in its day, but we look back now through different eyes. In modern parlance, it’s aesthetically challenged: too cramped to cope with projected passenger numbers, poorly laid out, offering too few retail opportunities and, crucially, no level access to the Down platform except via a barrow crossing. It’s hardly the gateway Wakefield deserves, nor this part of West Yorkshire for that matter.


Photo: Four By Three.

Great expectations

Over the years, many words have been spoken about a new Westgate Station, largely by wishful thinkers. Until recently, no funding had been available. But now taking shape at the northern end of Westgate’s Up platform is Merchant Gate’s third phase – a striking contemporary station on what was formerly the overflow car park. It will become the East Coast main line’s first newly-built station in decades, recognising of course that King’s Cross, Peterborough, Newcastle and Edinburgh Waverley are all beneficiaries of considerable modernisations.

Costing £8.8 million, support for much of the scheme has come via the Station Commercial Project Facility (SCPF), with a further million each from the Access for All programme and English Cities Fund – a joint venture between Muse Developments, the Homes & Communities Agency and Legal & General. Delivery agent East Coast has appointed Network Rail as principal contractor, with the Buckingham Group acting as the latter’s design-and-build subcontractor.

Notwithstanding this structural relationship, the various parties, including the Council and CJCT, the Merchant Gate architects, have adopted a collaborative approach, coming together to build a business case for SCPF funding. This involved demonstrating that a new station would bring increased revenue, an objective achieved by almost doubling the footprint of the retail facilities and measures to tackle fare evasion. Beyond that there are the less quantifiable benefits that simply come with making the passenger experience more welcoming and secure.

Local stakeholders have contributed to the design process, no doubt helping to ease the proposals through planning. Councillors gave them unanimous approval in January, without conditions. They align with a broader vision for the city, drawing visitors towards an alternative pedestrian route into the centre via the commercial district.

Nature’s guiding hand

Forming the station’s curved spine will be a black glazed-brick wall running across the site. This effectively delineates between the retail and back-of-house areas beyond it and the concourse in front, which has a flowing glazed façade. Leaf-like architectural features, notably the roof lights, are intended to create a sense of “organic growth”. If I’d been more Brian Sewell and less Peter Kay I would have recognised the influence of Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth whose Modernist works are now celebrated at the nearby Hepworth Gallery, one of the city’s big attractions. Let’s agree the concourse will feel bright and spacious.

Any new public building now comes with an expectation of sustainability, both in construction and functionality. New Westgate achieves BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) 2011 Excellent standard – a measure of its CO2 emissions, energy efficiency and water consumption, as well as the use of low/no-carbon technologies. So there’s grey-water harvesting for the toilets and a roof- mounted array of photo-voltaic cells. M&E functionality plays an important role in moving heat to parts of the building that benefit less from the glazing.

Out front, the forecourt area has been conceived as a flexible space, with improved foot access to the multi-storey and taxi ranks. As well as some greenery and artworks from local talent, there’s passive provision for more retail units – perhaps a café with outdoor seating, climate change permitting. Accommodating the free city bus has been a high priority, as well as progressing the concept of an integrated hub with the Passenger Transport Executive.

Breaking ground

Planning consent was quickly followed by site mobilisation at the end of January. Behind the Down platform, space was cleared to secure a compound. Here, piling took place for the steelwork that will host one of the lift shafts and support the new footbridge. No other work is required on this side as the existing structures have recently been refurbished.

The main site was occupied from the middle of February. This was relatively clutter-free, allowing an almost immediate start to the preparation phase, with piles installed prior to erection of the main steel frame in May.

The team is fortunate that few elements demand any interface with the operational railway: it’s largely being treated as a high- street environment. The footbridge and canopies are obvious exceptions, with the former being craned in during an eight-hour Rules of the Route possession in mid-June. Running in parallel, but separately managed as part of the Intercity Express Programme, are extensions to the platforms. One intriguing workstream involved consultation to ensure that glare from the building’s brass trim wouldn’t compromise signal sighting prior to it weathering.

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The structure will be watertight and ready for fitting-out in July, allowing the old station to be decanted into the new one over the three months that follow. Found behind the scenes are mess rooms, office space and a station management centre. On the public side is a customer information point alongside the line of automatic ticket gates, a generous first class lounge and an installation of assorted passenger information technology. The programme is on schedule for an opening in November.

A subsequent phase will bring removal of the existing footbridge, demanding the only disruptive possession. East Coast, which leases the old station, will then release the site back to its owner Network Rail. Negotiations have taken place both with Muse Developments (part of Morgan Sindall Group plc) and the Council around future redevelopment options but, given the economic outlook, there is inevitable uncertainty.

Flying the flag

What’s emerging here is not just a railway station – it’s a cornerstone for Wakefield’s new cityscape. It will become a destination in itself – a place for folk to meet – not just a portal to locations further afield. East Coast sees the approach taken with Westgate and its environs as a blueprint for what could be achieved elsewhere, using redundant railway land for something more socially and economically valuable than car parking.

Living three miles from Wakefield, I’ve seen the Merchant Gate development regenerate what was previously a tired corner of the city. It’s genuinely spectacular, particularly the new Council offices. But I often wonder how such architecture will be judged in a hundred years time. Will it have the longevity of Huddersfield’s Victorian façades? It probably doesn’t matter. Wakefield’s landmark station is about more than just appearances. It undoes a wrong inflicted in the Sixties; it drives urban renewal. The city will soon have cause to be proud of its rail gateway again.