The North West Transport hub: is Waterside Railway station really closed to trains?

I wouldn’t be much of a railway enthusiast if I didn’t want to see trains returning to the inside of the original Waterside station.  It’s an iconic image: a train, perhaps headed by a steam engine, with the carriages stretching back into the darkness of what is actually a well lit area, but don’t spoil the atmosphere.  Something which has not been seen in Northern Ireland since Waterside station closed in 1980, but can be experienced at Dublin Connolly when the Steam Enterprise runs or during the RPSI’s May railtours.

It was therefore with some surprise that we learned that when the station reopens, it is intended that the main platform will be alongside the train shed, rather than underneath the overall roof. “Why?” was the cry. “Why can we not have trains enter Waterside station exactly as they did for 128 years?”

Indeed.  Why can’t we just turn the clock back to 1980 and continue as if nothing had happened?

The sad truth is that we can’t.  The regulatory framework has changed, and the Disability Discrimination Act is only the start of it.

The first key point is that the 1852 Waterside station building is no longer a railway station.  As soon as the present station opened, the old building ceased to be a passenger building.

Existing passenger buildings get exceptions.  To this day, diesel trains run under the overall roofs at Dublin Connolly, Edinburgh Waverley, and countless stations across Ireland and Great Britain.  Curved platforms are built on existing tracks.  The 1995 Great Victoria Street station was built with curved platforms which taper to quite narrow towards the outer ends.

And that was 1995.  The Belfast hub platform drawings are straight as a die.  The Railway Group Standards have changed; they are not set in stone, and deviations can be justified, but this is near impossible in new build situations.

Let’s start with practicalities.

Fitting a train in

The train shed is 63m long, which in former times would have been enough for 3 carriages.  However, present standards require 33m dead space – the train must stop 5m short of the buffers, there must be 20m overrun behind the buffers, and there must be 8m of circulation space for passengers before any structures.  Again, this is all for new builds, and if other terminal stations don’t comply with the 8m circulation space, it’s because they were under old standards.

Therefore only 30m is available for trains – or other uses.  One and a bit carriages.  The only way to get more of a train in is to extend the tracks right through into the middle section of the main building.

Fitting passenger and staff facilities in

Consarc’s publicly available designs show that the ground floor of the original station building will be entirely taken up by the Active Travel offices, a café and a newsagents, with small offices available upstairs.  The ticket office, toilets and staff facilities take up considerably more of the train shed than is available in the main building – it is possible, I understand, to repurpose the upstairs of the main building, but of course this is less ideal for persons with reduced mobility, and would substantially decrease passenger space.

Consarc have suggested that 15m of the available 30m of train shed could be used for trains, and 15m for passenger facilities, but this runs into the same problem.  The level of passenger facilities required would still require an extension or the use of the first floor.

Clean air

This is an issue which dogs stations in GB – air quality in Edinburgh Waverley is known to be terrible.  The designs therefore only show part of a carriage coming into the train shed, which means that the exhausts will be outside – but this doesn’t apply to special loco-hauled trains.

I looked into extract ventilation systems and the impact on the train shed.  I was told that the existing roof structure would not be able to support the weight of an appropriate system, and a secondary steel frame would have to be erected to spoil the look of the train shed.  Fundamentally, the designers are concerned about the public health risk arising from diesel fumes, including when two trains are started up in the morning.

Platform geometry

Fundamental point: you can’t do much about existing platforms and tracks.  There usually isn’t room to move tracks around within the existing boundaries, and when Irish Rail realigned the tracks at Portarlington, they provided new platforms on straight track to meet the same standards as the UK adheres to.

This does however come back to the reality that this is a new station – you can’t rely on what was done 40 years ago, if you stop doing it.  The biggest point is that if you can reasonably provide platforms on track with a curve radius of 1:1000 or less, it is not in order to pursue other solutions.

I am told that platform width within the train shed would vary between 5.2m and 3.8m for the platform nearest to the road, and 7.1m to 6m for the main platform if they were brought into the shed.  The minimum desirable for Translink is 4m, with a preferred width of 6m, which is well over railway group standards, but as I’ll discuss on Accessibility, the wider the better.

Accessibility

The train shed is 63m and the main building about 9m, which means that if trains were brought into the train shed, passengers would have to travel 45-50m further to reach their train on the main platform.  It’s actually true that Platform 2 will be closer to the front door under the proposals to use the train shed, but this is for only one train a day.

This is a problem for accessibility.  The wider the platforms, the better for disabled persons, and they’re also operationally useful for a railway company, besides making it easier for large numbers of passengers to circulate.  Shorter walking distances are also better for disabled persons, and consequently also for parents of young children.

Car parking

Fundamental point: if you want people to get the train, you have to give them somewhere convenient to leave the car.  It is increasingly clear that having to get a bus to the station to take the train onwards simply does not cut it – the very success of park and ride can be attributed to the ability of drivers to leave their cars near the bus stop and take a single bus or train to their destination.  Every leg of that journey makes driving more attractive, simply because driving is always a journey of a single leg.  No changes, no waiting.

We already know that Translink intend to divert at least some Foyle Metro services via Waterside station, because that will increase attractiveness substantially compared to having to change at Foyle Street Buscentre and again onto the train, but any public transport hub (outside Belfast city centre) needs a place for drivers to leave cars to fully reach its potential to persuade travellers to change travel mode.

Fencing

One of the objections is to the paladin fencing intended to protect the railway from trespassers.   Paladin is a brand name for a particular type of weldmesh fencing designed to to be anti-climb and at the same time to be reasonably attractive – it and similar fencing have long replaced chainlink fencing and galvanised steel palisade fencing as the preferred security solution.  It’s also see-through, but the reality is that the security of railway lines requires it, and not just because there is an obligation in the UK and Ireland to fence off all railway property – to see the grafitti and other vandalism carried out on stabled trains proves its need.

Is there an alternative with more decorative railings?  Possibly, but decorative railings are more easily climbed, and may need to be higher and therefore more obtrusive.

The building itself

The middle of Waterside station was blown up by the IRA in 1975, and a glazed section was installed by the new owners of the station in 1985. So why not replace the glazed section with something to the original designs?  Into The West have cited the example of the Grand Opera House (with its new addition, curiously) and the Derry Guildhall, not that I’m sure that these are actual parallels.

It’s doable.

Consarc have said:

Planning and Listed Building Policy and Guidance is that new interventions should be ‘of their time’ with new work
being legible. The contemporary approach is therefore appropriate to meet this policy…

The new form is easily understood, legible as a continuation of the building’s story as well as being reversible in a
reinvented building which preserves all remaining historic material and adds another layer of history.

Historic Buildings Unit are cited as being in favour of the approach taken, which Consarc notes will allow “a new accessible entrance to be formed which allows natural light and visibility through to the former railway shed behind.”

Would I like the old building restored?  See above.   However, the proposed inset can also be seen in the context of Coleraine station and how it was made to fit alongside the railway station.  I can live with it, and the restoration of the existing building will lead to accessibility problems.

The cost and realities

What’s a few more million when you’re already spending £27 million?  The answer is that the higher the bill, the greater the risk that the cost will rule the whole lot out, and we are always subject to the final sign-off by the Minister.  Will a Direct Rule Minister sign it off?  If the Assembly is restored, will a new local Minister sign it off?

And will historic building consent be forthcoming – in other words, if Derry City and Strabane Council come down on the side of Into The West, what happens if DfC refuse to support the required changes?

When I saw Jim McBride at another meeting last Wednesday, he was considering judicial review if Derry City and Strabane Council should come down in favour of the existing plans.  The real risk is not just the cost of alterations being unjustifiable, not just the cost of legal fights (see also the A5 and A6), but the very great risk that the scheme could be abandoned due to the cost and hassle, and the existing building refurbished for continuing use.

None of us want that, but the risk has to be recognised.

The bottom line is whether bringing trains into the train shed is compatible with the broader aims of the scheme, including modal shift.  Right now, I don’t think it is.

Thank you to the several people who have helped with my thinking about this article.

Andy has a very wide range of interests including Christianity, Lego, transport, music, and computers. Anything can appear in a post.

Andy tweets at @andyboal

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