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.
- What could it be if we put people first?
- 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?
- How could it be better for pedestrians and cyclists and car and taxi users?
- Do the rail and bus stations need to be weather-proofed?
- What do we want, not just of a rail station or a bus station, but of a major extension to the city centre?
- 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?
- How should it connect to the rest of the city?
- How could we make a safer, greener area that uses the river bank north and south of the railway?
- How could we join the areas to the north and south?
- To the north how could we better handle the crowds as they arrive and leave the Millennium Stadium?
- 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?
- 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.