When New Street’s £600 million overhaul is completed in September, passengers alighting in Birmingham will discover a much brighter, much bigger, much more modern station. There will be lifts and escalators linking all platforms to concourse level for the first time, significantly improving accessibility and passenger flows.

It won’t just be passengers who will spot the difference. Frontline staff will arrive to work to find a station that bears little resemblance to the one which has sat in the centre of England’s second city since the 1960s.

New Street station was only designed to cope with around 40,000 to 60,000 passengers a day. Currently the station receives somewhere in the region of 175,000 passengers – 35,000 more than when Network Rail started the refurbishment six years ago. Reconfiguring New Street to cope with this has required an enormous civils programme – all of which has been carried out above an operational railway.

The original concourse is being replaced by one five times bigger than London Euston’s. A mirrored cladding now hugs the exterior, pulling the existing station buildings together. And inside, the layout of the upper level has changed completely.

Passengers were given their first glimpse of what the new station will look like in April 2013 when the project reached its halfway point. The completion of phase one allowed the closure of the old concourse and work to start on the project’s standout feature – its central atrium.

The project is now entering a critical phase, as the team races to get it completed. Rail Engineer was invited to see how far the project had come before the media was locked out ahead of the grand unveiling.

To help the transition, down the road at Network Rail’s Meridian House office, one of the project’s apprentices has developed a virtual solution from the same computer modelling software used to plan the construction. Using a pair of cardboard goggles, which you can buy off the internet for less than £5, the programme can be run on a smart phone. It is allowing station staff to tour their new environment as it will look when it’s finished, rather than as a building site. Taking it further, Network Rail is using the software to create short films showing passengers how to use the new station.

Logistical challenge

The former New Street station was built in 1967. At the time, British Rail sold the air rights above the station which led to the construction of the Pallasades Shopping Centre. With little room to manoeuvre, the station remained virtually unchanged for the next 40 years while passenger numbers continued to rise.

The new station has a 60-year design life, and, other than widening some of the platforms, there is little room for further expansion. A renewal of the signalling system around New Street will begin once the station redevelopment is complete but, ultimately, that is it for generating additional capacity. This time, they have got to get it right.

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The main engineering challenges have now been solved and the project becomes about logistics. Around 1,200 people are currently working on the sprawling New Street site.

Work is underway in all corners of the station – theatre-style rigging has been installed to allow work to be carried out on the roof and the floor simultaneously. As contractors begin to move in to fit out the station’s retail units, the number of people will almost triple to 3,500.

“There’s one big milestone – opening in September. Everything is focused towards that,” said Network Rail project director Chris Montgomery.

Like being a dentist

Led by Network Rail and principal contractor Mace, New Street has often been described as the largest refurbishment project in Europe. Building a modern station around the skeleton of a 1960s concrete box has not been a simple task.

A huge amount of demolition work had to be carried out to create the new atrium space beneath the ETFE (Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene) bubble atrium roof. The question was whether the structure would be able to support the weight of the steelwork being lowered onto it.

The careful balancing act was successfully done but any additional weight has had to be carefully considered, from the glass fronts of the retail units, which have had to be suspended from the steelwork, to the weight of the equipment which will be used to clean the station once it’s open.

Chris said: “I can’t underestimate just how big a piece of engineering that was, taking out all that concrete above a live operational station. The contractors had to come up with methods that were pretty innovative but also safe.”

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Quoting a colleague, he said: “The challenge we’ve had is making the pieces of kit work on this concrete slab that’s got the strength of a Ryvita.”

Adding: “A 1960s-built building; one it was built to different design codes, secondly the quality of workmanship was nowhere like you’d get today.

“A crack in the concrete ordinarily wouldn’t be such a problem in a multi-storey car park. With de-icing salts on it, those de-icing salts get in the crack, attack the reinforcement, the reinforcement expands, it cracks.

Effectively the concrete’s useless and we’ve come across that time and time again.”

The quality – or lack of it – of the former station building presented issues throughout the programme. The new New Street is wrapped in a ‘living’ mirrored facade which includes three eye-shaped screens above the entrances. Fixing it to the existing station building wasn’t as simple as drilling a hole and screwing it on. They found that some of the concrete and steel reinforcement had been shaved back which meant care had to be taken so as not to risk damaging the integrity of the building any further.

Chris Montgomery said that it was like being a dentist. X-rays had to be taken before each hole could be drilled to check for reinforcements.

Once all the holes had been drilled, an impression was taken which could be used by the manufacturer to create a bespoke base plate that the facade could be fitted to. This process had to be carried out for every section.

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Recycled fishing nets

An effort has been made to make New Street a leading light when it comes to retro-fitting existing stations with sustainable technologies and systems. New Street will be the first Network Rail station to get its power from a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant, which will feed waste heat through a 1.5-kilometre system of pipes into offices and shops around the station.

But they’re not all hi-tech solutions, some are quite simple, a little unusual even. Floor tiles made from recycled fishing nets, for example, as well as 98% of concrete removed being recycled.

Fundamentally though, the project is about capacity and accessibility. Better access will stop the station being a barrier between the northern and southern parts of the city centre.

This aim will be helped further by the extension of the Midland Metro tram network. When September comes, New Street will be a central part of the city for the first time in over 40 years.