Sunday, 25 January 2015

St James Street - a new station for Merseyrail?

Last year I attended a planning conference in Vienna. And whenever I visit the city, I'm amazed by the quality, diversity and density of its public transport network compared to what I'm used to from the provincial cities of the UK. Last time I counted, there were 29 (!) tram lines, plus 6 underground lines and more than 100 bus lines for a city of about 1.7 million inhabitants. Here in the UK only London has a public transport system comparable in quality and density to Vienna, though at a much higher cost for the user.
On one of the events, a panel including Andreas Faludi and Klaus R. Kunzmann discussed the international perception of Vienna and it was a rather strange debate. While Vienna's residents like to moan and grumble about the city - often in the form of the local humour "Wiener Schmäh", to many planners and urban policy experts Vienna very much represents the urban development model to aspire to. Still - like in many other cities - also Viennese society is characterised by inequality. But unlike in many other cities, economically disadvantaged milieus are less likely to be socially and spatially excluded. One reason for this, as argued by the panel, is the high share of public sector run and owned council housing, the other reason is the high quality and affordable public transport, run by Wiener Linien.

In the UK there have been attempts to improve public transport provision over recent years, aiming to go beyond the very basic offers of a largely privatised bus network. Some areas like Greater Manchester, Sheffield or Nottingham have developed tram systems, which partly use old disused railway tracks.
Here in Merseyside plans to develop a tram network failed a few years ago, due to lack of support from central government and regional disagreements. Still, Merseyside has a fairly well developed regional railway system called Merseyrail. It's similar to the German S-Bahn or the Paris RER system, and it primarily uses sub-regional tracks, I assume mostly developed in Victorian times. So while it is useful for those living nearby a Merseyrail stop in the vast suburban territories of the region, it's less useful for the inner city neighbourhoods adjacent to the city centre, as the trains simply don't stop there. So, could there be a potential for Merseyrail to fulfil some of the roles of the failed Merseytram project in providing high quality public transport for inner city, often deprived, neighbourhoods? Over the years there have been campaigns to reactivate some of the numerous tunnels and disused railway tracks in and around Liverpool, including this
But given the state of public finances, it's unlike the current Merseyrail system will see major expansion. So what about building new stops on the existing network? There are two possibilities along the existing Northern Line. One would be between the city centre and Sandhills station towards the North. This could be located in-between the Eldonian housing development and Stanley Dock with the adjacent new Titanic Hotel. In the future, this might also give access to the Liverpool Waters scheme, provided this development will ever happen. South of the city centre a new stop could be established at the historic St James Station. While Merseyrail was until recently hesitant to consider any plans in this direction, this changed last week, with the Liverpool Echo reporting that Merseyrail would conduct a study next year on the possible reopening of St James station.

Being curious, I walked down to the historic station to get a better idea of the situation.
This map extract from OpenStreetMap shows the spatial context.
One can see the open tracks in the cutting just South of the main crossing between Parliament Street and St James Place, which is where presumably a new station would be located. The map also shows the adjacent Cains Brewery, currently derelict and waiting for redevelopment.

It was actually very difficult to get a shot from the derelict station and the track, as it is surrounded by high walls. While discussing it on twitter today, @SeanLXIV posted this photo which he took a few years ago.

Still - the following photos give an idea of the spatial context.

The following photo shows a yard used for storing building materials with the railway cutting in the background:
This is the cutting of the historic station from viewed from the South towards the Anglican Cathedral.
There is plenty of derelict land surrounding the site, which may offer potential for new station-related developments.
Just South of the brewery building is a block of buildings, partly used by businesses, partly derelict.
This includes some interesting graffiti for this metal recycling business.
The Cains brewery building is located next to the potential new station. After normal beer production has stopped recently, there are currently plans in development to reuse the iconic building for a leisure/retail development:

This is a shot showing the inside of the disused brewery site:

On the other side of Parliament Street, there is the Baltic Triangle, a mixture of traditional small businesses, derelict warehouses, new and re-used housing developments, and increasingly cultural/creative industries, and leisure uses.The bloggers at SevenStreets have recently questioned if the Baltic Triangle can really become Liverpool's 'Meatpacking District', but still it's fair to say that there is certainly something happening in the area.

One of the key advantages of the scheme would be that it would improve public transport accessibility of this area South of the city centre. If the Cains brewery site is being reused, this will become a major tourism and leisure destination, in combination with other facilities in the Baltic Triangle. Beyond this, the station could improve public transport offers both for the large number of new residents in the Baltic Triangle and for the relatively deprived neighbouring Toxteth. In addition one could consider making this a secondary public transport hub by rerouting some bus routes down Parliament Street which are currently going via Catharine Street from the South of the city towards Liverpool One bus station. This could speed up those buses and provide further access improvement for the area.
But, there are also some challenges. Re-developing a station along an active line inside a cutting is a major engineering task. Furthermore previous attempts at developing new stations inside a cutting/tunnel, e.g. Conway Park on the Wirral, have suffered from poor masterplanning and lack of functional integration into the neighbourhood and the adjacent town centre of Birkenhead. Furthermore European Objective One money, which helped developing the Conway Park station (6 million £ or a total cost of 18 million £ in the mid 1990s), is not available for Liverpool anymore. One can only hope that the growing urban design expertise in Liverpool City council developed over recent years will be applied in this project as well - and that the government in London will consider public transport funding in Merseyside on a similar scale to other city regions like Greater Manchester. What do you think? Comments here or via twitter are welcome.

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