How Rail Professionals of Indian origin brought Happy Trains to Birmingham

On September 22, 2015, the reconstructed Birmingham railway station opened on schedule at the end of a £750 million-plus, six-year project, much to the glee of Birminghamians

Birmingham Railway StationOriginally built in 1854, the sprawling landmark at the centre of a bustling metropolis had been put through several hodge-podge face-lifts, at the end of which the regular four-tiered structure, with 12 lines and 24 platforms, was often described as an “eyesore” in the press for its old, tired looks, and dirty and dank appearance with little seating or well-lit areas. Citizens thought it gave the wrong image for a supposedly modern-day European station, and wanted a spanking new replacement. Now that their prayers were answered, they were thronging to witness it.

That week Raja Narwari, the India Practice Manager — Rail Solutions (Transportation) of British architecture giant Atkins  was at the station, proudly viewing what his team had helped achieve over the past six years, along with groups from other participating companies. “When I stood in front of the station, and saw happy people taking selfies, it dawned on me, ‘That’s why, I became an engineer!’ We have indeed contributed a piece of history to the UK,” a proud Narwari tells, cheered by his team.

Birmingham Railway Station2Atkins was the lead consultant to the mammoth project called Gateway Plus, which had 3–4 other consulting, and 8–10 construction companies participating. In all, 1,500 people collectively worked on this colossal effort, of which 200 were from Atkins, based both in India and the UK. A majority of Atkins’ Gateway Plus team was drawn from its Global Design Centre (GDC) in Bengaluru.

Their toil has been worth the effort. Glowing and gushing reviews are pouring in from around the world for the Birmingham New Street station. The architectural community has already sat up and taken notice of the strides made in engineering and design with the prestigious New Civil Engineer journal even running a cover story on it.

The Birmingham New Street Station — whose 150 square metre spread occupies three football pitches — has a concourse which is thrice larger than its original, covered by a giant light-filled atrium. With 24 new escalators, 14 staircases and 15 new lifts, people can move easily between the concourse and the redesigned platforms, which can carry up to 170,000 passengers daily.

The small retail establishments that existed in the older station have given way to a slew of new 35 high-end retail brands. The demolition and renovation also included the massive multi-storeyed car park. An old apartment complex within the station made way for an upmarket John Lewis store. The renamed Grand Central retail centre, set above the station, is home to 60 stores across 500,000 sq ft. Bringing in people to experience all these are New Street’s four entrances in place of the original two, opening up the south of the city centre for the first time.

The challenge

Birmingham New Street is a central hub of the British railway system and a prominent rail junction in Europe. It serves as a major destination for Virgin Trains, Areva, and other cross-country operators, besides a hub for local and suburban services in West Midlands. Over 120,000 passengers pass through it every day, with 30 million passengers visiting it annually. A train arrives and departs from the station every 37 seconds. It roughly accounts for 60 per cent of the UK’s overall rail network.

The station’s size was at once a matter of pride and consternation for the project team — selected after a long drawn out search for the best and the brightest brains among engineers and design architects. Simply put, Birmingham New Street could not afford to be shut down even momentarily since all of the UK would gasp for the 60 per cent of lost rail traffic.

When work began in earnest, the first detail that had to be kept in mind was the safety of all of those lives in the station, viz., passengers, visitors, staff, and construction workers, among others. Also, given that the station is located in the busiest part of Birmingham, getting heavy equipment there through the six narrow roads leading to it, without damaging any structures, was a hassle.

In India, people are used to having rail tracks and platforms at ground-level. But in Birmingham, just as it is elsewhere in Europe, the concourse hosting the terminal and public areas was located one level above. The rails and the platform were located below. Underneath the station, lay a series of tunnels.

The challenge was clear. To get the project rolling without disrupting rail operations, the project team had to demolish one part of the station at a time, and then get to the next. Simultaneously, renovation work would commence in the previously demolished section, now cordoned off from the public.

The brainstorming

“The client wanted something fancy, something more premium, and we were going to deliver it,” Narwari says.

“People didn’t want just a station, but a premium experience. Much like what they see at an airport — first class lounges, retail stores, coffee shops, and restaurants — they wanted all those experiences that would cheer them on their onward, long journeys, and we had to create all this, keeping in mind that the station would be open throughout,” says Narwari, who headed the project.

Rajesh Kalra, the elated Managing Director of Atkins India, whose team pulled off the incredible engineering feat, chips in, “We decided to work in steps, first reviewing the plan at hand, and conceptualising the layout model.”

Atkins India joined Gateway Plus at an early stage, reviewing the existing record drawings, building the finite element 3D models, and delivering complex designs.

“Within no time, we were underway with getting our designs in order, since time was of the essence, and we had to stick to our schedule. When demolitions began, we had to contend with thick walls of the existing structure,” Narwari says.

Kalra stresses on the importance of coordination in large projects: “Coordination was everything. Whatever was designed had to be conveyed to everyone in the team, and also to participants from other companies. We have a very sophisticated internal collaboration technology, where each computer we use is video conferencing-enabled, allowing real-time interactions.”

Team Atkins innovates

“We had to come out with clever designs. The biggest fear was about working around the thin concourse with people being kept from harm’s way below. Precision was key,” Narwari says, showing a picture of the large pieces of concrete that had to be carefully moved away.

The team first built a thick platform on one portion of the concourse to work on, and sections of the levels above (mezzanine, lower retail, and upper retail), were all demolished and remade in stages. This process itself took four years.

“We built a new arch roof as big as a football field. In order to demolish the upper stories, we brought in a robotic demolition machine from JCB, which we remote-controlled,” Kalra says. The futuristic arch-shaped atrium did away with the older flat roof. Meanwhile, Atkins used one of the tracks at the station to bring in an engineering train to remove debris from the site.

Several innovative concepts were used. For instance, mirror-polished steel for the external façade came from suppliers in Portugal. Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a fluorine-based plastic, was used to create the glass for the skylight.

Throughout, the team used the state-of-the-art Building Information Module (BIM), which allows one to review the building plans in 3D, 4D, and 5D modes.

“We provided for a lot of public walking space that led to the concourse. A new technology — Intelligent Media Eye — has been installed, which captures expressions of passersby, and through face recognition, suggests advertisements to them on giant monitors,” Narwari says.

Phase-1 of the project was completed in April 2013. The GDC assisted in delivering key multidisciplinary design packages, including those for Navigation Street Footbridge Assessment, North East Corner Ramp Extension, new Lower Mezzanine Level, removal of East Service Spine, and Northwest Corner Entrance.

At the start of the Phase-II, the design team at GDC was ramped up to deliver large volumes of designs for the various contractors working onsite. Atkins India excelled through the manner in which it engaged with clients and contractors.

Time to celebrate

It is celebration time at the Bengaluru centre of Atkins India with its multi-disciplinary staff of 1,400 people — civil engineers, architects, electrical engineers, and geo-technology engineers, among others.

Lang Raman, an architect who worked on the project, says, “I joined the project around two-and-half years ago, when it was already in full swing. The toughest part was communicating all that was drawn and designed, with others.”

Senior Architect Shantanu Banerjee adds, “We researched on new techniques. One of the biggest concerns was environment and green sustainability, and recycling of concrete. We were happy that we were able to bring in a lot of light.”

Kalra has the last word, “It’s all about balancing time, cost, and quality. From an engineering standpoint, there are new ideas and changes that need to be integrated at later stages, but we must be on schedule, and must offer only realistic promises.” Indeed, they were able to do all that and by doing so, have done India proud.


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