12 questions about the gateway to the Welsh capital

Geraint Talfan Davies urges us to get involved in a debate about the main transport interchange in Cardiff and poses key questions

One benefit of the recession is that it allows people and institutions more time to think about their surroundings, rather than be rushed by developers into slapping up the first towers that can turn a profit. Such is the case in central Cardiff at the moment where the central station and the areas to its north and south present the next big opportunity for the development of the capital city.

At present, with the exception of the refurbished central hall, this crucial gateway to the capital and to Wales is a sorry sight. Windy, comfortless platforms, a half-hearted, gum-speckled piazza, soul-less bus station and empty building sites to the north, a cheerless car park to the south, and chaotic taxi arrangements.

But at a seminar in Cardiff last week, organised by the Design Commission for Wales with the support of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, we were offered a possible vision of what might be. It was not a prepared blueprint, nothing that had been endorsed by local council or government, but rather hints of what might be if we ourselves asked the right questions.

  1. What could it be if we put people first?
  2. What is our experience of using the train and bus station, and how could it be better? For instance, do we need a left luggage facility or escalators to the platforms?
  3. How could it be better for pedestrians and cyclists and car and taxi users?
  4. Do the rail and bus stations need to be weather-proofed?
  5. What do we want, not just of a rail station or a bus station, but of a major extension to the city centre?
  6. What kind of public space do we want? Do we want to see a large European style piazza, or do we want to extend Cardiff’s more intimate streetscape into the area?
  7. How should it connect to the rest of the city?
  8. How could we make a safer, greener area that uses the river bank north and south of the railway?
  9. How could we join the areas to the north and south?
  10. To the north how could we better handle the crowds as they arrive and leave the Millennium Stadium?
  11. How should the south side of the station develop, especially if the Brains brewery vacates its site there, as it may well do after 2017?
  12. How can we make it happen and to the quality and distinct character that Wales and its capital deserves?

We want your answers and will pass them on to Cardiff Council. But first, an array of international experts at the seminar offered some pointers.

Professor Stuart Cole, one of Wales and the UK’s leading experts in transport economics and policy, worried that there had been little progress on creating integrated transport interchanges since a Welsh Government Report nine years ago. He cited missed opportunities at Llandudno Junction and at Merthyr where the bus station is entirely disconnected from the train station, some half a mile apart. He thought Merthyr Council’s plans needed to be rethought.

On the plus side, he cited the makeover for Swansea’s railway station and its new bus station, although the two are at opposite ends of the city centre. There are bus connections at the railway station, but even now the signage could be improved. The need for signage and the availability of good information were, he said, crucial. He could not understand why the bus information kiosk in central Cardiff closed at five o’clock, just at the point of peak passenger usage, and why the city’s main information centre was in the Old Library rather than at the central station.

Chris Martin, currently designing the public realm at some Crossrail stations in London, urged us to concentrate on the human scale. Transport interchanges should be designed by prioritising people not transport. Rail stations needed to be more than transport hubs. We had to bring life into our stations. He cited a stations at Madrid that contained a spectacular botanical garden, Copenhagen that contained a food market, and Bombay that was itself a business hub. Nearer home, he pointed to St. Pancras Station that had become a visitor destination in its own right.

John Dales, Director of the Urban Movement, was another who wanted transport interchanges to prioritise people, but the planning of these interchanges should consider the needs of the city rather than just the transport providers. In Cardiff, for instance, he urged us to take into account the considerable area both north and south the central station, to think of its as a major extension of the city centre and to ask what we wanted of that area and how it should link to the rest of the city.

Anton Valk, founder and former chief executive of Abellio, the international subsidiary of Netherlands Railways, said that the city region is the proper context for considering transport interchanges, but worried about the lack of unity in the UK rail system. In his experience of running three rail franchises in Britain, the only thing that linked all his stations was the old British Rail logo. He did not understand why cooperation seemed so difficult to achieve in Britain, although he did point to the welcome exception of Mersey Rail where excellent cooperation with the passenger transport executive has led to the successful development of interchanges and improvements in stations. Cooperation was desperately needed on railways.

He stressed that passengers do not like to transfer from one mode to another, compared to the comfort of their cars. He thought it was important in station design to accelerate flows, condense distances and enhance the journey and passenger experience, as had been done at the Amsterdam Bijlmer interchange in the Netherlands. In the context of the electrification of the main and valleys lines in south Wales, he thought coordinated branding would also be of commercial importance.

A vision of how Cardiff  Central station and the surrounding area could be developed was presented by Tony Grist, international Head of Architecture at the consultancy HASSELL, who designed the Qantas Domestic Terminal in Sydney, Australia, named by one design magazine as the best airport terminal in the world. He thought Cardiff should take the opportunity to find ways of ‘healing the city’, of extending Bute Park southwards, re-greening the river bank, connecting cycle routes, and bringing more residential property into the centre of the city to make it live.

He was not the only speaker who spoke of the current difficulty of allowing people to cross from the north to the south side of the station. Some cited the intransigence of Network Rail in not allowing use of an existing tunnel that is normally closed to pedestrian traffic. Tony Grist offered a radical approach which involved excavating the land under the elevated railway at Cardiff station to facilitate north/south movement and allow shops and restaurants to be developed.

Like other speakers, and several of the seminar participants, he came back to the issue of governance, which had to take account of so many players – Network Rail, two rail franchisees, landowners, the city council, and the Welsh Government. There was, he said, a need for strong vision and strong leadership. Others thought that some kind of special delivery organisation would have to be established, similar to the Olympic Development Authority or, closer to home, Newport Unlimited.

On an optimistic note the chair of the seminar, Anna Walker, Chair of the Office of Rail Regulation, reminded us that the UK Government had created a £200m fund that would come on stream in 2014. Over a period of five years this was intended to fund strategic station developments. She was also hopeful that a five-yearly review of Network Rail would produce  ‘more Wales-specific arrangements”.

This was the first of four events being arranged jointly by the Design Commission for Wales and the IWA to celebrate both the 10th anniversary of the Design Commission and the 25th anniversary of the IWA. The next seminar will take place on Friday, 21st September and will deal with the challenge of creating well-designed sustainable communities. The third, dealing with creating good learning environments, will take place on Friday, 28th September. This will be followed that evening by a debate at 6pm, when an expert panel will discuss the idea of Wales – the Design Nation? All the events will take place at the St. David’s Hotel, Cardiff.


Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA

8 thoughts on “12 questions about the gateway to the Welsh capital

  1. “On the plus side, he cited the makeover for Swansea’s railway station and its new bus station, although the two are at opposite ends of the city centre. There are bus connections at the railway station…”

    The makeover of Swansea High Street Station cost £7.5m. It beggars belief that the work carried out cost that much, basically to put a glass screen separating the platforms from the booking hall and re-roof the platforms. As for the bus connections, only the ‘Metro’ service stops outside the station, the infamous bendy bus and associated road system takes all the traffic through the Kingsway, the centre of the city and cost over £10m. It makes the Kingsway almost a no-go area. The bendy bus seats only 37 passengers, and has a driver and a fancy conductor laughably called a ‘customer service host’. It connects the city’s two hospitals. If you’re sick, and have a bus pass, Swansea’s the place to be. The only good thing about the Metro vehicles, costing over £300,000 each is that they are purple, shiny and new. Most of the other buses are old, dirty and noisy. All the other buses stop fifty yards north of the station, where there isn’t even a bus shelter, and no signs directing rail passengers to the stop.

    As for Swansea’s new bus station – buses arriving have to queue up to wait for other buses to reverse as they leave, making journey times even longer. The video displays in the concourse only show the timetabled times, not real or expected times of departure. There are no working electronic signs at any of the city’s bus stops, as there are in Cardiff, so passengers have no idea when a bus is coming or if its coming at all – breakdowns are frequent, and buses don’t turn up. The city has had massive cuts in its bus services during the last three years (I estimate by about some 40%) possibly partly to pay for the underused Metro service. The fares are also approximately 25% higher than in Cardiff.

    If I were to place responsibility for the sad state of affairs in Swansea, I would blame the Council for its shortsightedness and abysmal planning failures. This was true of the former Labour administration and its LibDem led successor. The recent return to Labour control does not bode well for the future either, if past performance is any measure.

    With the rail and bus stations adjacent to each other, Cardiff has real potential.

  2. Good article.

    I find myself echoing the views of Tony Grist:

    “…extending Bute Park southwards, re-greening the river bank, connecting cycle routes, and bringing more residential property into the centre of the city to make it live…”

    To me, Cardiff’s greatest (and unique?) asset is the near uninterrupted green lung from outside the city to the centre – it gives a hint in the city of the wilder areas beyond the boundaries. There is quite an abrupt cut-off when Bute Park ends, with just sporadic bits of greenery continuing to the bay, and I would like to see an attempt at continuity of the green space. Major development in the path prohibits this directly, but I still think that any developments for the station should have as it’s foundations an idea of green space and build up from that.

    Regarding point 6.”What kind of public space do we want? Do we want to see a large European style piazza, or do we want to extend Cardiff’s more intimate streetscape into the area?”

    As a small city, I think that Cardiff will always play some sort of architectural catch up to a degree, with it not requiring the same scale of development (and the architectural prestige that usually comes with this) as in larger cities. My thoughts on a European style piazza are such that it would be out of proportion with the station, and also for a city of Cardiff’s size. With regard to intimacy of streetscape: for me, this is what makes Cardiff a ‘liveable’ city, but the intimacy is all out in the distinct village identities (e.g. Rhiwbina, Whitchurch etc.) that make up the city. I don’t know how to capture intimacy for a site adjacent to a station surrounded by land use of a completely different scale and function.

    The approach to Cardiff’s old station façade on the North side is underwhelmed by the large bus station activities and taxi drop offs. Tony Grist makes an interesting proposal regarding making used of the station’s underbelly; to develop this idea, is there potential to make use of this space for some bus operations? Possibly through the construction of a direct bus only road link between the north and south of the station (unless the brewery is in the way?). Cost may prove prohibitive; also what is effectively the tucking away of bus operations wouldn’t do much for bus stop architecture, but it would give a pretty seamless bus train transition, and open up amenity space in front of the station.

    With Cardiff’s newer areas of development (the Bay, Callaghan Square and the like), I am always left with an unsettled impression, that the job is never quite finished: regeneration and the sweeping away of history seems to be a feature with us in Wales. I think that a green focus could go some way towards taking the edge from the modernity that comes with redevelopment.

  3. The railway station is bad – the airport is even worse. Everything is designed to make it the worse possible experience, having to pay to drop off, long distances from car park to lug luggage, terrible transport links, extortionate taxi service that is the only one available, sad food, and a total lack of high quality merchandise that reflects the best of Wales. It is no wonder that it is on it’s last legs.

  4. I visit Northampton very regularly and for years the railway station has been too small/limited parking for such a growing town.The West Northampton Development Corporation have pulled various bodies together and new station is to open in 2014 as part of enterprize zone. The £20 million cost being met by £10 Million from HMG,and £5 Million each from Northamton CC and Network Rail. (See BBC Web Site for confirmation). The whole Bay development was carried out by similar QUANGO, however our socialist masters didn’t like such bodies and off they got booted,however the plaudits for the BAY seem to have been garnered by the political class in general. Who ever you talk to there is deep suspicion that our current political elite are not up to the job in providing a comprehensive strategic plan for the south Wales region and we just seem to be drifting into oblivion. We have created a nightmare in that the quality of AM’s is no different from councillors, however they are having taken over the burden of providing some sort of economic framework/infrastructure without the wit/resources. I keep asking why would any inward investor travel past the Severn bridge to locate in south Wales?. Answers on a post card please??.

  5. One of the key questions that needs to be answered in considering the future development of Cardiff Central station is who arrives there, and for what reason, and who else might be attracted to come with better facilities. When the nature of these flows is known it will be easier to decide on the best way forward. Transport interchanges are much loved by transport economists but the number of people who require to transfer to a bus at Cardiff Central station is probably quite small. Cardiff residents are quite likely to be picked up by family or friends or to take a taxi – it was never much fun waiting for the half hourly bus service to Penylan or Llandaff in the old bus station. Business visitors will not feel confident enough in their knowledge of bus services to risk anything other than transport by taxi or car and sports event visitors will equally have little or no requirement for buses. Interestingly, the distributed bus terminus system now operating in Cardiff seems to have worked well – cutting out the congestion caused when a large number of buses descends on one bus terminus, as used to be the case. Cardiff bus passengers who now can catch their buses from stops on the various loops the buses take, all of which pass reasonably close to the station, seem not to experience any inconvenience.
    Nor do commuters and shoppers working in the city centre need a big central bus station. The city centre’s main office employers – Admiral, Lloyds Bank, British Gas, the various firms of lawyers – and the city centre’s shops are all within walking distance and many of those that aren’t can be accessed from Cardiff Queen Street station. There is a case for some bus and long distance coach services to run from the Wood Street area inasmuch as they can then draw on some common services – such as information provision, refreshments – and the station is a good place to locate these. The main role which a redeveloped station ought to provide in the future, however, is as the distribution point for people wanting to catch the greatly improved train services which electrification of the Valleys Lines should bring. The gateway to Wales aspects of the station, important as these are, and the need to connect with buses, should be secondary.
    In many cities the big central transport interchange has already become something of an anachronism. Smart cities now have Parkways or similarly styled suburban stations which recognise the fact that people will often want to drive their car to a station and leave it there while they undertake a day trip to London or some other centre. In London, too, the idea of stations delivering passengers to one point, such as Paddington, Liverpool Street, Victoria, Euston, St. Pancras or Kings Cross, is now being supplemented by through services. Thameslink (which is currently being greatly expanded to embrace new chunks of Eastern England in its catchment, and Crossrail recognise that people would prefer not to disgorge at a big Victorian station and change to another transport mode but would prefer to progress on closer to their ultimate destination.
    In Cardiff’s case the big out of town retail and office developments at Culverhouse Cross and at St. Mellons cry out for stations (as the IWA’s Cardiff Metro report recognised). These could receive passengers either travelling directly or changing at Central on their way to work or shop. Such stations could also serve as Parkways feeding in carborne longer distance travellers who could connect with the mainline at Cardiff or Newport.
    Priorities at Cardiff Central should be better retail – the station is well behind other big city stations such as Manchester Piccadilly and Temple Meads in this, weather protection on the platforms perhaps through an enclosing of the tracks, and before this happens a few sparrow hawks to scare off the station’s highly aggressive seagulls. The spirits of both visitors and regular commuters would also be raised if on leaving the station’s north side they were confronted with a green space once the bus station is moved to the east side of Wood Street.

  6. The new bits of Swindon and Reading stations look much worse than the old bits, don’t they? Cheap, trite and tacky looking. Please leave Cardiff station alone. It doesn’t need to be ‘improved’. It’s quite bad enough already. Certainly don’t touch it while money is tight; one shudders to think what the result would be. An extension to Bute Park is all right. Even architects can’t make too much of a mess of trees and grass.

  7. I disagree that having Cardiff buses dispersed around the city centre does not cause inconvenience. How about those people who have to travel across town to get from home to work? If you have to change buses that is rather inconvenient. I feel that access to public transport has not been thought out at all.

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