Birmingham is steeped in railway history, the city was the northern terminus of the first inter-city railway from London. Growing demand for rail services in the 19th century led to the creation of a station which was the largest in the country, Birmingham New Street.

The first link with London

Curzon Street Station Plaque – Image: Secret Pilgrim from Flickr

Birmingham’s original passenger station for Birmingham was at Curzon Street, which opened by the London and Birmingham Railway in 1838. It was joined next door by a station for the Grand Junction Railway and a short distance away from another for the Birmingham & Derby Junction Railway.

Curzon Street Station – Image: Steve Cadman from Flickr

Curzon Street was the northern terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway Line and was designed by Philip Hardwick to echo his grand arch at Euston. The station was quickly overwhelmed by ever-increasing rail traffic as Birmingham grew to become an important hub for industry and commerce, and the station became inconveniently situated at the fringes of the growing city.

After the merger of the London & Birmingham and Grand Junction Railways into the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) in 1846, it was decided a that a new, centrally located station would be built. It would become known as Birmingham New Street and an agreement was made to allow this new station to be used by the Midland Railway, which had incorporated the Birmingham & Derby Junction Railway in 1844.

Construction of Birmingham New Street

The original Birmingham New Street station was designed by Edward Alfred Cowper and constructed by Messrs. Fox, Henderson & Co, who had also built Paddington Station and the Crystal Palace.

When construction of the station was completed, Birmingham New Street had the largest single-span arched roof in the world, being 212ft wide and 840ft long and covering four through platforms and four turntable roads for marshalling trains. Because of the station’s large size and location in the centre of the city a footbridge was built to provide public access from one side of Birmingham to the other.

Queen’s Hotel around 1920 Image: John Alsop Collection

New Street was initially opened to passengers in 1851 and went on to be officially opened in a low key manner on 1 June 1854. The Queen’s Hotel was opened on the same day and designed to meet passenger demand for accommodation in the city. Designed by William Livock, it was a four-storey building with an original 60 rooms in a plain, Italianate style which gave New Street its general appearance. Curzon Street then closed to passenger trains and became primarily a goods station.

Station Extension

By the late 19th century, an extension to New Street was necessary and it was decided that both the LNWR and the Midland Railway who shared the station would contribute towards the construction work. The extension was designed by Francis Stevenson, Chief Engineer for the LNWR and made on the south side of the station for the use of the Midland Railway, while LNWR services occupied the original north side of the station.

Birmingham New Street in 1885

The plans integrated the whole of Great Queen Street (Queen’s Drive) which became a carriageway through the centre of the station and the number of platforms increased to 15. The extension nearly doubled the size of the original building and New Street became the biggest station in the country at over 12 acres when it opened on 8 February 1885.

Queens Drive from the East in 1962 – Image: D J Norton – Dennis John Norton

Further enlargements were made in the early twentieth century when the LNWR extended the Queens Hotel, which was doubled in size after the addition of a new West wing in 1917.

West Coast Main Line Modernisation

Redevelopment of Birmingham New Street in 1965 – Image: Image: D J Norton – Dennis John Norton

In World War II New Street suffered significant bomb damage which led to extensive work being done to the station structure, including replacing the roof and the remodelling of the public footbridge. Other improvements were planned, but its city centre location made a major rebuild difficult and costly. However in the 1950s, the decision was made to modernise the West Coast Main Line, and this included New Street station. The nineteenth-century station was demolished, along with the Queen’s Hotel in 1964.

The second New Street station was designed by Kenneth J. Davies, planner for British Railways London Midland Region. The remodel included a concrete deck above the platforms which was supported by 200 columns. British Railways sold the air rights above the station which allowed the construction of the Birmingham Shopping Centre (now known as the Pallasades) on top of the concrete deck.

Stephenson Tower in 2006. Image: Erebus555 from Wikipedia

The new station was designed with 12 through platforms and the inner ring road was linked to the station at deck level rather than having the Queens Drive carriageway running through the centre. The development also included the Stephenson Tower, a 20 storey office and accommodation block. The new station opened in 1967 and coincided with the electrification of the line between Birmingham and Euston.

The redevelopment of Birmingham New Street in the 1960s

Telecommunications and signalling were also modernised with the opening of a new signal box which centralised the control of train movements in the area. This box was designed by Bicknell & Hamilton and W.R. Healey the British Railways London Midland Region Architect and was completed in 1964. It is now a Grade II listed building.

21st Century New Street

Today Birmingham New Street is the busiest station outside London with over 170,000 people using the station every single day.

In 2006 Network Rail announced a major regeneration scheme for Birmingham New Street and work on the station started in 2010. Alongside the station redevelopment, the shopping centre above the station was upgraded and opened as Grand Central alongside a flagship John Lewis department store.

The redevelopment was completed in 2015. The new concourse is three times larger and is enclosed by a giant atrium, allowing natural light throughout the station. The redevelopment has transformed the experience for passengers, improving links to and through the city centre and is a catalyst for growth for the local area’s economy.

Facts and figures

  • Over 170,000 passengers a day use Birmingham New Street, nearly triple the 60,000 a day it was designed for when it was last rebuilt in the 1960s. The new station can now handle 300,000 a day.
  • Birmingham New Street is the busiest station outside London, and the busiest interchange station in the UK with a train leaving the station every 37 seconds.
  • 60% of rainwater harvested from the façade is used to flush all the toilets in the station.
  • 10,000 lorry journeys were saved off Birmingham’s roads throughout the redevelopment of the station by using trains to transport waste material.
  • 1,000 workers were on site, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and increased to 3,500 in the final months of the redevelopment project.

Thank you to Network Rail for making many of the stats and historical information available to create this article and the fantastic photo contributors who have allowed tens of thousands of people to have an insight into how the city once looked.