As part of a large-scale regeneration of Newcastle’s city centre, its Victorian station is undergoing a revitalising refurbishment. Here, Alex Vafeiadi of Atkins tells Jack Wooler how the firm was able to bring all the stakeholders together to uplift this major gateway, while retaining a sense of local authenticity
With passenger numbers growing continually – 8.4 million recorded in 2016/17 and a further 38% increase expected by 2023 – Newcastle Central Station, originally completed in 1850, was forced to expand.
Following this realisation, Newcastle City Council have taken the opportunity to revitalise the station’s Victorian design to match its stature, introducing a new and improved canopied entranceway, while retaining visible signs of the original platforms (which have always served the master railway terminal for the area) and complementing the range of historic buildings in the central conservation area of the city.
Part of the wider Newcastle Central Gateway project, the improvements to the station are intended to improve pedestrian and rail passenger experience in and around the station. Its other key aim is to solidify and improve its function as a gateway to three central areas of Newcastle surrounding it; the Stephenson Quarter, Forth Yards and Quayside
The council hopes that these works will not only improve life at the station for passengers, but contribute dramatically to the wider revitalisation of the area, which is undergoing a number of regeneration works including new homes, public realm, business spaces, as well as leisure and recreation facilities.
As lead consultant for this wider project, one of the most important roles for Atkins was in bringing together the wide range of stakeholders involved – including major players Newcastle City Council, London North Eastern Railway and Network Rail, as well as local specialists in town planning and heritage, and interested local people and businesses – ensuring all parties were communicating effectively, and satisfied with the final result.
According to Alex Vafeiadi, senior architect at Atkins, it was this role especially that allowed the team to truly unlock the development potential of the whole area, creating “a welcoming and connected station, which links seamlessly with the public realm improvements and surrounding city centre neighbourhoods.”
Newcastle Central is merely the latest addition to Atkins’ portfolio of regeneration in the North, with transport schemes including Sheffield Station and the Leeds Station masterplan all part of its repertoire, alongside other leading roles on HS2 and Transport for the North.
As such, it was in no small part because of this experience that Atkins was commissioned by Newcastle City Council to develop the project, which, in the first phase alone, saw a total of £24.5m invested.
The practice was reportedly introduced to the project at the initial stages, right through to the recent stage three – when the practice published its last report on the project – on the realisation of the ambitious brief to create “a new gateway for Newcastle.”
As the principal railway station for both this key city, and, arguably, the wider North, Vafeiadi tells me the project’s stakeholders were aware that any restrictions in accessing the station would in turn restrict the wider growth of the area.
“To combat this, we had to make sure we were creating something central to the city,” she says, “and provide a catalyst for the growth of the entire area – bringing wider economic benefits and employment opportunities.”
A warm welcome
Practically, the new design offers a range of functional improvements to the station, including the improvement of traffic movement around it, the enhancement of pedestrian and passenger experiences, as well as access through it to the nearby developments.
The capacity has of course been increased, being the initial goal of the project, which itself raised a number of design challenges that required “ongoing consultation.”
The team were also required to reduce congestion through design, achieved in a number of ways, not least by relocating vehicle movement around the site, and in “rethinking” the car parking to best suit both pedestrian and vehicle traffic – the main vehicle interface with the station previously shared space with a busy pedestrian gateway.
“The design intent was to provide generous public space which is attractive, high profile and welcoming,” says Vafeiadi, “framing the sense of arrival, and guiding users away from areas designated for vehicles, while maintaining sightlines in and out.”
The practice specified an expansive, canopied entrance to deliver this welcome, Vafeiadi describes how the new design allows for a “seamless flow” between the surrounding neighbourhoods and the station, as well as shortening journey times to key areas of the station and avoiding cross-traffic.
The works also include an expansion of the shopping and leisure offered within the station, hoping to draw in users that are travelling to stay a little longer, or even invite those who are not travelling to utilise the facility – all considered in the rising capacity the station had to be fit for.
As a Grade II listed building, Vafeiadi tells me the project had to be designed to “rigorous” standards in order to receive planning consent, ensuring that its materiality be sensitive to the historic site, while revitalising other aspects of the design where achievable.
“All the materials we considered for use in the project were primarily focussed on their suitability within this historic context,” explains Vafeiadi.
“We were absolutely clear that we wanted to keep the traditions of the and focus of the original station,” she continues, “Using materials that already feature across it where possible, and choosing those which complement them if not, always retaining the important aspects of the building.”
Heritage style railings, for instance, were specified to match the existing railings on the platform edge, and to reduce the visual impact on the pedestrian routes out of the station a simple balustrade was specified – with the precedent again already being set for its use in other areas of the station.
Alongside these restorations and enhancements, Vafeiadi tells me that material specification was also harnessed to “visually separate and link different areas,” such as public and private, and inside and out.
She explains that a “simple” palette was chosen here to ensure the entire project remained cohesive, users feeling as though they are in one place throughout the pedestrian routes from one side of the building to another.
High quality natural stone was also used in the hard landscaping elements around the station, with green “softening” forms with tree plantings around them.
“With this simple, effective palette of materials and colours, we have achieved a sense of legibility, as well as reflecting the buildings that surround it,” says the architect.
A wider context
Continuing on the site’s renowned context – being surrounded by a host of historic and well-known buildings, many of them graded – Vafeiadi tells that avoiding any negative impact on this context was a key focus for the stakeholders from the outset, with the three surrounding development areas previously mentioned all falling within the “urban core plate” for Newcastle, working to elevate the area while retaining what “made it special in the first place.”
Considering how this impacted the team, the architect says: “While the scale varies from building to building, really, the design process remains the same – you just need to consider the impact of the whole masterplan instead of just focusing in on one area, while also taking into account different areas, how they are integrated, and how they interact with each other.”
As such, she says, the team had to take a “holistic approach” to the design across the station in order to “set the scene for future phases.”
Through frequent meetings with the various stakeholders – with Historic England taking a central role – design workshops were held to ensure that there were no negative impacts of the upgrades on access, use and aesthetics of its surroundings on all sides of the station, including on future parts of the masterplan itself and any emerging concepts the team introduced.
One such challenge here – particularly in meeting the future endeavours of the wider project itself – was in proposing temporary materials to cover areas that would later be dedicated to future stages of the masterplan.
According to Vafeiadi, the team was “somewhat limited” on its specification of the materials used in these areas, with the stakeholders aware that they would not be in place in the foreseeable future.
“In some of these areas, during works we had to propose temporary materials such as a timber screening, which could form the barrier between the pedestrian and service areas at low level,” she explains.
This reportedly not only saved time and costs, but presented the opportunity to create some public art relating to the station’s history and location.
Another key area of the brief was sustainability – ensuring that there was as little environmental impact of any additions as possible, while improving any aspects where achievable.
“We considered the project’s sustainability from the outset, Atkins focusing largely on the material choices – making sure that all of our proposals considered first their environmental impact and sustainability properties – something we always feel is important to discuss from the onset of every project.”
One particular element that is most notable to visitors to the station, and one that Vafeiadi is particularly fond of, is the green wall proposed along the pedestrian route adjacent to the local playground to the north of the station.
“Not only did this create an attractive and soft area of the facade,” she says, “but it also provided sound and air pollution absorbing properties,” especially important with its proximity to the playground.
Stand-out stakeholder contact
When discussing her experience on the station, and working in the transport sector in general, she says the project “definitely stands out.”
She particularly enjoyed the challenge of complementing the historic surroundings around it: “On all sides are these buildings of great importance, and ensuring we maintained a visual relationship with all of them while enhancing the station’s presence as a gateway was a real challenge.”
The architect believes that this has been achieved however, with the city “able to reflect that,” with “every visitor able to see it as a part of Newcastle,” somewhere not just to “walk by, but to actually stop.”
She attributes much of this success to the long and healthy relationship between the stakeholders, all being heavily involved from the initial stages of the wider development to every stage since, Atkins’ outputs and ideas being seen, read and discussed frequently, not just by the council, the planning department and Building Control to ensure compliance on the complex project, but also by local businesses and historic experts helped ensure its impact remained a positive one.
“Being the lead consultant,” says Vafeiadi, “we were the people bringing all these stakeholders together, addressing their concerns reactively, and delivering something that everybody could be
She concludes: “From the service lines to the back of house, everyone played an integral part in these meetings, making sure that throughout the process all could utilise the station and its surroundings as they did before, but with a new front, a new vision.”
“Being a part of this team, and working on something so important, has been something I’m truly proud of.”