Oxford Station concept designs

Response to Public Exhibition 14th – 29th December 2015

10 January 2016

General observations

Although no details are available of the design brief given to the authors of the proposals presented, it is evident that these designs are all based on the Station Masterplan presented first to the general public on 4 December 2013 (i.e. 2 years ago), which envisaged expanding the station on its existing site. The Station Master plan in turn was based on the City Council’s 2005 West End Area Action Plan, which may now be regarded as outdated and which was, in any case, conceived before electrification of the railway system to Oxford, the re-opening of the East-West line to Bedford (and Cambridge), the Evergreen 3 rail link to Marylebone via Bicester Town/Village, and the requirement to accommodate a much larger number of intermodal freight trains from the South Coast ports to the Midlands. It must be questionable whether this is thus the most appropriate starting point for the development of the new station complex.

The prime consideration for the station should be its functionality as a genuine transport mode interchange. Yet all the designs presented could be regarded as offering poorer connectivity between rail, cycle, bus, car and taxi, than the present situation. There is the potential for passengers to have to walk up to c.500 metres from the far end of a platform to either:

(a) reach the far end of another platform when changing trains or

(b) to reach the multi-storey car park.

Architects C note that a station “must be practical. It must be efficient. And it must be easy to use”, but none of the offerings satisfy all these criteria. For example, the need for adequate and appropriately-accessible spaces for:

(a) passengers to buy tickets,

(b) passengers to wait for trains before going down to the cold, and in some cases partially unsheltered platforms,

(c) for meet-ers and greet-ers to wait

appears to have been of secondary importance in designs.

In all cases, the concourses above the rail tracks have to share space with the ticket gates and the necessary train/escalator/stair space providing access to the platforms behind them; it would be interesting to compare these with the increasingly inadequate provision at the present station.

None of the proposals refer to the problems of the Botley Road bridge, and it is not clear whether these are appreciated. Likewise, none of the proposals suggest that the traffic characteristics of the Botley Road or Frideswide Square have been properly understood. The road is a major artery of the city, with substantial vehicle, cycle and pedestrian flows. Frideswide Square is a series of significant road junctions, as well as being the access by all modes to important institutional buildings, such as the Said Business School. Some analysis of all types of traffic flows, and an indication of how the station access and communication routes to and from it is necessary. There is no evidence that this issue, which is fundamental to the development of designs which are likely to be successful has been adequately considered.

From an aesthetic perspective, the ultimate station design chosen must be appropriate for the next few decades at least, and hence timeless to a degree, whilst steering a path between being too futuristically inhuman in scale and appearance, and too ‘rural provincial market town’ in character.

Although there is reference to the need for the station to represent an appropriate ‘gateway’ to the city, this seems to have been forgotten in most of the design details. The only aspect which appears to reflect this need is that of the east entrance to the station, i.e. the view of the ‘gateway’ from the perspective of a traveller leaving the city westwards. None of the proposals makes much of the requirement for the appearance of a ‘gateway’ when approaching from the west, i.e. at the west station entrance, which is evidently regarded as very much secondary. Neither does any option provide evidence of any particular ‘Oxford’ experience when making use of the station or transport interchange.

Apart from the station entrance itself, important considerations are the relationship of the whole station complex with the adjacent buildings, features and open spaces. Clearly, the character of Becket Street will be transformed, but how it functions, and how it will look are important considerations. The main (east side) station entrance will relate most closely to the Said Business School, but other parts of the proposed development will also relate to the buildings on the south side of Frideswide Square. Apart from presenting as a ‘gateway’ to the city, the west entrance to the station also needs to relate to the rather different built form and scale of its surroundings. There is little evidence that all these constraints have been appreciated.

Common to all the options is the large quantity of retail space indicated. The appropriateness as well as the viability of this is questionable, given the issues such as the particular nature of the potential market, the location in relation to other facilities and the elongated layout of all the station complex proposals. Other types of commercial use may be more appropriate.

Individual designs

Some comments below may reflect the lack of space for detail, in view of the evident restriction of the presentation material to just four A1 panels. It is difficult to assess all aspects of every design, since each of the entrants have chosen to provide very widely varying levels of detail, and of very widely varying aspects of the proposals. There is also some confusion evident regarding key details, such as the number of railway tracks to be accommodated.

Option A

Apart from the rather heavy-handed ‘tower’ block, the scale is more human and the frontage of the station square better articulated than with other options, with the suggestion of different buildings rather than a single homogenous block. The design may be characterised as a series of brick boxes, perhaps reminiscent of the 1960’s, with a clock tower. The design does not have the feel of an iconic building, representing anything special about Oxford.

Detailed observations are as follows:

  • The design shows 8 tracks, two more than usually considered, with two each on the outer sides of the existing platforms, i.e. 2 tracks/platform/4 tracks/platform/2 tracks.
  • The level of the Botley Road beneath the tracks does not appear to have been adjusted to allow for the extra track on the west side.
  • A roof is shown over the whole length of the platforms.
  • Only 7 or 8 terminal bus stands are shown in the bus station, no more than at present. This is clearly inadequate for a properly-conceived all-mode transport interchange.
  • There is “an elevated garden walkway” from the car park to the station entrance but it is not covered, and has no access to the north end of the bus station.
  • There appears to be no drop-off area.
  • The number of and access to cycle parking spaces is not clear.
  • No detail is given of pedestrian and cycle paths alongside the Botley Road beneath the bridge.
  • There is no information about the passenger concourse, a key element of any station.
  • Little consideration seems to have been given to the practicalities of construction of this scheme, over the live and increasingly busy railway tracks.

Option B

Aesthetically, this presents difficulties of scale, appearance and general interest in the design, and appears as a series of glass and concrete boxes; the main station building is a long rectangular box with 14 facets on the south side. The design appears generic, or derivative, with nothing suggesting any special relationship to Oxford.

The authors of this proposal have devoted considerable space to demonstration of possible construction techniques, unlike most other entrants, but at the expense of more detailed explanation of the design principles.

Detailed observations are as follows:

  • There are 6 tracks: 1 track/platform/4 tracks/platform/1 track.
  • The platform roofs do not extend the full lengths of the platforms; it is questionable whether this is acceptable for a new 21st-century station
  • 18 terminal bus stands are shown, and there is a clear covered connection from the main station; this represents probably the best solution of the options shown, at least in this respect
  • A very small drop-off area is shown on the west side of the station.
  • Considerable amounts of covered cycle parking at ground floor level are shown to the south and north of the Botley Road bridge
  • The car park is 4-storey.
  • Cycle and pedestrian paths are shown on each side beneath the Botley Road bridge.
  • There is a reasonable sized ticket office in the c.125m x 20m passenger concourse
  • The proposed phasing of the building is outlined

Option C

This proposal is for a largely glass and concrete solution with hemi-cylindrical roofs over the main part. The appearance is reminiscent of a shopping mall, which may not be coincidental, but does little to identify the building either as the gateway to the city, or as reflecting the special character of Oxford. The proposals at least acknowledge the buildings south of Frideswide Square, though there is little to explain the justification for the indicative designs in the context within which they would sit.

Detailed observations are as follows:

  • There are 6 tracks: 1 track/platform/4 tracks/platform/1 track.
  • Platform roofs extend the full lengths of the platforms.
  • Only 9, open air, terminal bus stands are shown, separated from the station by a large commercial block on the south side of the Botley Road. This bus stand provision is inadequate for a proper transport interchange
  • There is no access route between the bus station and its adjacent commercial block, and the station entrance, other than by crossing the Botley Road at ground level.
  • The graphics present a completely unrealistic view of the traffic conditions in Frideswide Square; if this reflects ignorance, it perhaps explains the previous criticism, of the impracticality of the pedestrian access.
  • No views are provided of the west station entrance, from a standpoint on Botley Road
  • The short stay car park is to the west of the station, the taxi “pick-up” on the existing site, north of Botley Road and associated with the location of the hotel.
  • Cycle stores are beneath the railway tracks adjacent to the Botley Road, but the number and access routes are not clear.
  • No details of pedestrian and cycle paths beneath the railway bridge are shown.
  • The passenger concourse is very small, c.50m x 6m, with retail space dominating; this is likely to be totally inadequate.
  • The car park appears to have 2 storeys; this either implies reduced capacity, or an unnecessarily-large footprint.
  • The concourse is very small, with a very small ticket office; this space appears very inadequate.
  • The extent of tree planting is welcome, but the necessity for this along the railway boundary south of Botley Road seems not only questionable, but a potential liability in terms of leaf accumulation on the tracks, at a critical location, i.e. within a zone of likely high acceleration and deceleration, where adhesion requirements are most acute.

Option D

The scale, appearance and general interest in the design for this option are uninspiring. The design is for a long rectangular block with five tall windows at the east end; the ‘landmark’ building is an 8-storey, 32m high glass and concrete commercial box on the south side of the Botley Road. This design is probably the least acceptable of the options shown, in terms of aesthetics, offering nothing to excite, no apparent relevance to the Oxford context in particular, and a height and bulk likely to prove controversial.

Detailed observations are as follows:

  • The layout of tracks is inconsistent: in one case 1 track/platform/4 tracks/platform/2 tracks, in another 1 track/platform/3 tracks/platform/2 tracks. The Botley Road level does not appear to have been adjusted for the extra track at the western end.
  • There are full length platform roofs
  • 12 terminal and 4 through bus stands are shown, but the meaning of the remark “removing the transport interchange from beneath the corner building to increase connectivity” is not clear.
  • The substantial area of the bus station, with no development above, is perhaps wasteful of the limited space available
  • There is a clear link across the Botley Road at first floor (not concourse) level.
  • The taxi rank is on Becket Street, where congestion may be experienced.
  • Some limited cycle parking is shown beneath the eastern entrance but this is clearly inadequate.
  • The passenger concourse is c. 110m x 20m – more realistic than in most other proposals.
  • A 4-level car park is shown with a “green” wall, but its height and proximity to the west edge of the Becket Street carriageway still suggest the probability of an unhappy ‘canyon’ effect.
  • There are raised pedestrian and cycle paths beneath the railway bridge.
  • There is no attempt to provide a ‘gateway’ to the city, when approaching from the west.

Option E

Aesthetically, this is perhaps the most ‘human’ in scale, with ‘boxes’ in which vertical lines dominate, one with a modern clock tower. Again, however, any particular relevance to Oxford is not apparent.

Detailed observations are as follows:

  • 6 tracks are shown: 1 track/platform/4 tracks/platform/1 track.
  • The view from Frideswide Square appears to have neglected to show the Botley Road or its descent beneath the railway bridge.
  • The platform roofs do not cover the full length of the platforms
  • There appear to be only 6 bus stands, clearly totally inadequate for a proper transport interchange
  • The justification for planting trees along the railway eastern boundary with the bus station is not clear, especially in light of the absence of planting proposed anywhere else.
  • A “covered and sheltered route” from the station is claimed.
  • No drop-off point is identified.
  • There is no information at all about the passenger concourse.
  • The taxi rank on Becket Street is very small, and will lead to conflicts with the buses.
  • No details are given of the cycle parking apart from a widened underpass beneath the Botley Road bridge.

Option F

With its almost futuristic arches this is possibly the most interesting as far as the elements facing the Said Business School is concerned; concerns have been expressed that the design might appear dated quickly, though echoes of precedent historic railway architecture could preclude this. The designs do seem to have relevance for a major public building, and a major transport interchange, although it is difficult to see how they might reflect or be inspired by the special character of Oxford. The square commercial box to the south of the Botley Road, however, hardly constitutes a landmark building.

This presentation focuses on visual images, and hence the practicalities of construction are not discussed.

Detailed observations are as follows:

  • 6 tracks are shown: 1 track/platform/4 tracks/platform/1 track.
  • The platform roofs only cover a small length of the platforms.
  • The bus station is separated from the Botley Road by commercial buildings: “the transport interchange is split either side of the Botley Road to provide much needed breathing spaces between transport modes”. This is incomprehensible.
  • No covered walking access from the car park or the bus station to the trains is provided
  • The taxi rank and drop-off points are on the existing sites but much smaller.
  • No details of the multi-storey car park are provided
  • The cycle parking appears to be beneath the taxi rank, and small.
  • No details are shown of pedestrian and cycle paths beneath the railway bridge.
  • The concourse is very small, with no ticket office shown, or even space for one to be accommodated.

Conclusion

The limited land area available in the Station Masterplan is well shown up in the many and varied failings of these outline designs. It may yet be that re-consideration of planning over a much wider area (Station, Oxpens, Osney Mead) will lead to the realisation that a new station at the Oxpens could overcome most of the limitations (including much of the need to build the station over an operational railway) and offer better architectural and commercial opportunities than the present site.

None of the information supplied includes costings or indications of funding streams, and thus the degree of realism represented, though it is clear that delivery of any option will be dependent upon strong commercial involvement. Whether the mix of business and retail space assumed is appropriate, and viable, or likely to generate the interest required seems debatable.

Of the proposals currently presented, it is clear that none meets all the requirements adequately, in terms of functionality, compatibility with context, aesthetic characteristics or iconic status.

Regarding simply functionality, perhaps Option B has fewest faults, whereas Option F is the only one which looks as though it might meet the criteria for an iconic design. It is thus evident that any ultimate design solution must take inspiration from the positive elements of each option, and mitigate or eliminate the negatives. Before any of these options is pursued seriously, very much more detailed consideration will need to be given to all the criteria which the station development will be required to meet.

Oxford Civic Society
December 2015