Stephen Ashton

UK & Europe

For over seven years I’ve been working on the Birmingham Gateway Project - the biggest, and possibly, the most complex refurbishment of a station in Europe - as the engineering director for Atkins. Atkins is the Lead Consultant on the project that is transforming the look of Birmingham New Street Station. Previous to this I have held roles in Atkins on major projects and business management in the highways and rail sectors. Over the years I have gained experience within contracting, consulting and client roles delivering design and construction works within design & build, DBFO, PPE and alliance contracts as well as traditional contract environments.

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The opportunity to learn from each other and to apply this shared learning was invaluable to the successful delivery of the programme of works. What sticks out to me as I look back is how we worked as a team, sharing and owning these challenges as one. We listened to each other, respecting the skills and expertise brought by each party and so pulled together to deliver the solution – we all won to the benefit of the city.

We were not an alliance, such as the Staffordshire Alliance or East West Rail, but we held the principles of working in alliance close to our hearts, as we understood the role of collaboration in successfully delivering complex major infrastructure projects.

This approach is exemplified by the way the team worked together to integrate the old and new structures at Birmingham New Street.  Atkins applied best practice to prove the 45-year old structure was safe to re-model and re-use, when subjected to significant demolition and construction works, all without interrupting the operation of the station and the busy lives of thousands of travellers. 

We needed to prove that the old structure would be able to safely carry the new atrium roof, along with all other modifications to the building’s loading regime. To test these new loads, we established a Global Stability Analysis (GSA) to determine the building’s response through each deconstruction and construction stage, as well as in its final condition.

The great value of the GSA was proven when Mace and their demolition contractor, Coleman, created a 4D model for the demolition sequence of the component parts of the existing build to create the magnificent atrium – the centre piece of the transformed station.

By working as a team, we utilised the GSA tool in combination with Lean Construction techniques to refine the demolition sequence, enabling an 18-month programme to be reduced to under six months.

Transformation has not been restricted to the building. A significant number of jobs were created during the construction process:

  • 116 apprentice opportunities
  • 1,442 local residents were directly employed on site
  • 548 sustainable retail jobs in the Grand Central retail complex
  • 90 jobs for the development of John Lewis.

It is also estimated that the creation of 10,000 jobs in the business, rail and tourism sectors is linked to the development.  This connection with the local community was underlined by hundreds of messages of goodwill written by the public on the hoardings inside the station in the days before its reopening - a sentiment not experienced before by any of the thousands of staff who contributed to this scheme. This station truly belonged to the city of Birmingham.

Now the iconic station with its bright uncluttered and light platforms and cathedral-like atrium above the concourse makes a welcoming focal point for city users. It is helping to regenerate a new part of the city opening up the previously neglected south side of Birmingham city centre to investment and regeneration.

This new station for the people of Birmingham needed to facilitate access to, from and within the station.  Five new entrances and exits provide better means of moving in and out of the station, with improved access for wheelchair users.

The layout of the concourse has meant that the north, south and east areas of the city are now linked, providing a means of navigating the city centre on foot.  Connectivity has improved significantly, with direct links to buses, taxis and the extended tram system, not to mention over a hundred additional cycle racks to cater for the ever growing bike community.

We cannot restrict the purpose of a station to be a transport node, but rather it should be considered in light of the facilities it can offer the city and the community it serves. The opportunity to meet, greet, shop and relax before, during and after travelling is now becoming the expectation of the public – they want to enjoy the experience and it not just be another part of their daily grind. Stations are venues in their own right, even attracting those who do not intend to travel.

No longer just a place to access the railway, Birmingham New Street is a destination in its own right (I understand that within the station you can eat and drink in a different location for everyday of the month!). The success of Birmingham New Street Station confirms a new era for stations, kick-started by the likes of Kings Cross and St. Pancras in London and Atocha station in Madrid: moving forwards, all city stations will have to get into step with these places.

The delivery of beautiful and iconic stations has the potential to move UK infrastructure onto the global stage, attracting people from all over the world. In October 2016, the Birmingham Gateway Project will collect the Global Best Rail Project Award 2016 from the Engineering News-Record in New York. It has also been chosen to represent the UK at the International Association of Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE), where it is nominated in the Outstanding Structure Awards 2017 (OStrA). 

Stations must be designed with a view to how they can catalyse economic growth. Local governments wants to show off their cities and attract industry, business, investment and people from all around the world. Our challenge is how we help our clients through this process of turning dreams into reality.

I believe that Birmingham New Street has now set the bar high and sets a challenge for other ‘stations’ to follow suit – particularly as it sits outside the capital. I note that the development at London Bridge may raise this expectation even higher, but I hope that the major urban areas beyond London take up the challenge to re-define their stations. They too can create cityscapes with world-class public facilities that reflect the future demands of society and how people live in this ever changing and developing world.

So what next? Atkins is applying its experience and knowledge to the delivery of many other projects, to the benefit of our clients. We are enjoying the opportunity to share our knowledge and lessons learned, looking to influence thinking and make a difference by designing and delivering infrastructure for the future. 


UK & Europe,

Looking back over the last seven plus years that I have lived and breathed the Birmingham New Street project I can say that it has been a roller coaster of a journey with some great highs and challenging lows! But now, as we reach closure of the project with the opening of the station and Grand Central shopping centre, not forgetting John Lewis as my friends and family keep reminding me, I can only view this as a fantastic experience and so I would like to share a key lesson I have learnt – projects are about people.

When I first met with the client’s team at the project mobilisation meeting it was apparent that they had a dream that they wanted us to deliver by working alongside them. It soon became clear that the change to Birmingham New Street station was to not only improve the station environment but to give the city of Birmingham a new gateway which would form part of the ongoing vision from Birmingham City Council to redevelop the city and reinforce its place as the UK’s second city. This project was to make a difference to the people of Birmingham.

This project is massive but I am not sure that the project team really got to grips with the enormity and reality of the challenge to transform the tired 1960s building to the iconic structure it has now become until we were all relocated into the project office and began our journey together. The shortage of good records of the existing structure and the constraint of access to undertake surveys meant we were discovering information throughout the construction stage. This discovery meant that the accepted design was no longer appropriate and so the team – Network Rail, Mace, Atkins – had to work closely together to refresh the design to reflect the new information while taking account of the ongoing construction programme and protecting the design concept. Investing time in developing trusting relationships that allowed open and honest conversations meant workshops held to resolve the challenges could be lively and productive. This mind-set of collaborative working and problem-solving whilst retaining technical solutions that protect the client’s dreams is essential as we move forward into future projects such as East-West Rail Phase 2 and HS2.

As the project progressed the input from the multiple stakeholders combined with the client’s passion to make sure their concept was protected by seeking opportunities to refine and adjust the design meant we were having to take on board major changes. This included the introduction of the John Lewis building and the redevelopment of the shopping centre. Atkins was able to respond to these challenges by supplementing the core team with various technical specialists and enhanced design teams based in our offices around the UK and India. Communication and visibility between the Atkins teams, project team and the client was the key, so all who worked on the project understood the concept, the project programme and complexities of the existing environment. The design had to be buildable whilst minimising the impact on the ongoing construction programme including the daily operation of the station and the lively shopping mall. It was good to talk and face-to-face whenever possible. Key members of the Atkins design teams often spent time in the project offices to enhance the communication process.

I believe we did brilliantly to deliver this project. David Balmforth, ICE President, commented at a recent ICE event where Network Rail and Atkins delivered a presentation on the Birmingham New Street project, “This project would have been fantastic as a new build on a green field site, it would have been stunning in that context. To do this on an existing station is absolutely amazing.”

It has been a fantastic journey with the whole project team to see the client’s dreams come true – come along and see for yourself.

Read more about Atkins’ work on Birmingham New Street station in our thought leadership feature, Station masterpiece.

UK & Europe,