The fine Edwardian station at Wemyss Bay has long been ahead of its time. Let me explain.
Back in the early 2000s, when I was working for a county council’s public transport department, we used to worry a lot about multi-modal transport. Those were the heady days of transport secretary/deputy prime minister John Prescott, the 10-year Transport Plan, and modal shift targets (can you believe?) for transferring travellers from cars to public transport. The idea behind multi-modal transport and multi-modal interchange improvements was to try to ensure public transport could offer something approaching the door-to-door convenience of car travel. Admittedly, a bus-train-bus journey wasn’t going to be quite as convenient as a car journey, but it was certainly better than telling people to let the train take the strain, and giving them no clue as to how they might get to the railway station without driving there.
We spent many hours scratching our heads over what to do in large towns with a conveniently central bus station, and an inconveniently un-central railway station some distance from the town centre. Should the bus station be moved to the railway station? That would inconvenience the majority of bus passengers, who were using the bus to get into town. And how could we make bus and train timetables dovetail effectively? We never did square those circles, and anyway it didn’t really matter in the end because the 10-year Transport Plan imploded, then the money started to run out, the recession hit, and then it was all about transport for economic growth with a bit of carbon reduction thrown in as a sop to environmental interests. If you could do the latter by making traffic move more quickly through town then you didn’t even really need public transport at all and you could spend an increased share of a declining transport budget on road improvements. Which was music to the ears of many councillors, who just wanted their potholes filled and didn’t understand the point of public transport, except perhaps for train travel to London’s Square Mile.
The integrated multi-modal public transport offer vanished in a puff of car exhaust. But Wemyss Bay station has been providing seamless multi-modal interchange between train and ferry since 1903 in its current form, and since 1865 in an earlier one. And that’s not the only way the station has proved to be wise beyond its years.
Designed by architect James Miller and engineer Donald Matheson, the station was rebuilt because of a need to provide additional platforms and improved ferry facilities. The first station was built by the Greenock to Wemyss Bay Railway to open up access to the island of Bute on the other side of the Clyde via paddle steamer connections. The venture was a great success, prompting the Caledonian Railway, which had absorbed the Greenock to Wemyss Bay Railway and the paddle steamer operation (see here and here) to undertake the 1903 rebuild.
Matheson had recently returned from the United States, where he had witnessed the latest thinking in crowd-handling. Curved plans seemed to assist passenger movement, so Wemyss Bay has curved platforms which lead into a concourse area before passengers are swept along a curved covered walkway stretching down the ferry pier. It was an idea ahead of its time, as the Friends of Wemyss Bay station explain in this news story.
It’s a beautiful station that has survived essentially intact and unaltered from 1903. The glazed canopies over the platforms, concourse and walkway to the ferry are supported on fabulous metalwork, as you’d expect from a station of that era. The curved planform of the station resulted in an unusual semi-circular ticket office being installed, and the roof follows a 180-degree curve around it. It’s one of the most spectacular sights at any of the smaller stations on Britain’s rail network, and better than anything at quite a few of the larger ones. Here it is:
If you think it looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because it prefigures Foster+Partners’ Great Court remodelling at London’s British Museum:
Admittedly the Great Court has a 360-degree roof, but the concept is identical. I told you Wemyss Bay was ahead of its time.
Outside, the station is finished in mock half-timbering and harling, and has an impressive Italianate clock tower. It’s complemented by a station house and some railway cottages in the same style, also assumed to be by Miller.
The line to the station was electrified in the late 1960s, Wemyss Bay once again proving to be in the vanguard of the modern. In contrast, rumours now swirl in the rail industry that the government is about to give up on plans to electrify the London-Sheffield Midland Main Line (yes, readers from abroad, we’re seriously considering the continuation of a diesel-operated inter-city main line well into the 21st Century).
Wemyss Bay station suffered from a degree of neglect during the second half of the 20th Century, but luckily has its own Friends group, as mentioned earlier, who have done a stirling job keeping an eye on it. The Friends have converted the old First Class waiting rooms into a second-hand bookshop, reintroduced the floral displays for which the station used to be famous, and created a garden on a disused siding.
Fortunately for lovers of railway architecture (and if you’re not, what are you doing here?) Wemyss Bay station was the subject of a multi-million pound restoration scheme which was completed last year. The pier has had £6m spent on it, and the station another £4m, as befits a Category A listed building; the station house and railway cottages are C-listed. This has fully restored the glazed roof, seen the structure of the station fully repaired, and also included a repaint in the brown and orange colours the Caledonian Railway used for its stations. The National Railway Museum in York donated an original Caledonian Railway bench for the concourse area.
Today, it is Caledonian MacBrayne which operates the ferry service from Wemyss Bay station to Rothesay on Bute, rather than the railway company. But the timetables still dovetail with the intention that you can travel from Glasgow to Rothesay (or the other way round) as an integrated, multi-modal public transport journey. There are even two bus stops just outside the station, just for good measure in integrated transport terms.
And as final proof that no matter its age, Wemyss Bay station still has one eye on the future, it’s just received some electric vehicle charging points in a project undertaken by local train operator ScotRail.
How to find Wemyss Bay station
Bibliography and Further Reading
The Friends of Wemyss Bay Station’s website, here, which I shamelessly plundered for many of the details in the article above. They’re doing a grand job. Buy something from their shop when you visit.
…and anything linked to in the text above