Barnstormer (Barnsley Interchange, South Yorkshire, UK)

Before the opening of Barnsley’s new bus station in 2008, this was the entirety of my knowledge about the town:

  1. Kate Rusby comes from there and she’s one of the most genuinely amazing singers I’ve ever heard. She doesn’t sing much about transport though, unless you count being shipped off to Australia as a convict, as you can hear in this sample
  2. In the early 2000s, radical architect Will Alsop (he of London Underground’s North Greenwich Jubilee line station, and the Docklands Light Railway stations at Heron Quays and Stratford) wanted to remake Barnsley as a Tuscan hill-top town, with a halo of light circling the town centre and visible from miles away
  3. The idea of remaking Barnsley as a Tuscan hill-top town collapsed after the developers pulled out in 2005
  4. Its railway station is a very unexciting piece of late 20th Century post-modernism
Barnsley railway station. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Betty Longbottomgeograph.org.uk/p/5324141

Thanks to Jefferson Sheard Architects and the engineering input of Arup, however, I also now know that Barnsley has an eye-catching and award-winning new transport interchange and bus station. Even if Barnsley never quite made the transformation to glowing Tuscan hill-top settlement, the new interchange is a landmark of which the town can be justly proud. Commissioned by South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE),  the interchange brings together bus and train services in the town through the complete replacement of the previous bus station, and a direct footbridge link from the railway station to the bus station building. Indeed, if you arrive by train in Barnsley and want to head for the town centre, the direct route is over the railway station’s footbridge, over the bus stands and out through the bus station itself.

Barnsley Interchange, interior of the footbridge, looking away from the railway station and towards the bus station. Photo by rusty_dragonfly [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

Buses sometimes get treated as the poor relation to train travel when it comes to public transport in Britain. Barnsley Interchange sends a message to railway users passing through the bus station about the quality to which local bus services can aspire.

Barnsley Interchange, exterior. Photo by Badics (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When I last mentioned Barnsley Interchange, in passing, I said it was, “an eye-popping, colourful, approachable and friendly building.” I stand by that. It has a rare degree of charm, friendliness and character for a large new bus station. This is a building type more usually associated these days with minimalist efficiency or somewhat stark monumentality. Not that those approaches are bad ideas, necessarily. Blackburn’s recent bus station, for instance, is a stark, dramatic monument to the area’s cotton-weaving history and is all the better for it.

Barnsley Interchange is just as good, but takes a distinctive and completely different approach. It is dominated by the part of the building which function as its bus station. It takes the form of an enclosed street, something it has something in common with the arguably never-bettered Nils Ericson bus and coach station in Gothenburg, Sweden. Along one side of the internal street is a series of curvy, organically shaped buildings, finished in bright colours. Sky blue, yellow, orange and lime green predominate on the exteriors. They house retail units including a newsagent and food outlets; things you’d find useful at a public transport interchange, in other words. They also contain offices and meeting rooms. There’s a cycle hub at the interchange too, just for good sustainable transport measure.

Inside Barnsley Interchange. Photo by Stanley Walker [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Along the opposite side is tall glass wall, through which passengers access waiting buses. Doors through the glass wall are power-operated, keeping conditions inside the bus station warm and dry, and keeping inclement weather on the outside (of which South Yorkshire has quite a lot, and of which there is more to come later in this article). As you’d hope, there are banks of seats at each doorway for waiting passengers. Running along the top of the glass wall is a service conduit, again shaped organically and finished in bright green.

The two sides of the street are separated by the pedestrian route through the building. Steps and gentle ramps lead up the central part of the building, where escalators, stairs and a lift give access to the footbridge that runs through the bus station and out over the bus stands before connecting to the railway station’s footbridge. The footbridge is fully enclosed as it crosses the bus stands, but is open within the bus station.

Inside the main entrance of Barnsley Interchange. Escalators, stairs and a lift lead up to the footbridge which links to the railway station. Photo by Badics (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The inside of the bus station is remarkably light and airy, thanks to a transparent ETFE roof supported on V-shaped wooden struts. The central part of the building, where the escalators lead up to the footbridge, is the location of the principal entrance to the interchange. Here, the roof curves down and makes a dramatic shape over the doors. There are other entrances to the interchange’s bus station, where extended canopies are clad in copper. Copper covers all the non-transparent parts of the roof, not least because it proved suitable for moulding to the complex curves of the interchange’s design.

Barnsley Interchange’s main entrance. Photo by Stanley Walker [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ETFE has become an increasingly popular material for making lightweight transparent roofs on a variety of buildings. Unfortunately, it hit trouble at Barnsley Interchange one Friday in August 2014 when, as SYPTE’s Interim Director General and Head of Customer Experience David Young put it, “We had huge deluges of rain in Barnsley, the like of which we’ve never seen before.” That’s really saying something for the north of England. Whipping up the kind of alarm on which local news organisations thrive, Young was reported by BBC News’s Sheffield and South Yorkshire department as saying, “With the amount of water sitting in the roof spaces we’re concerned for the safety of people underneath – just in case panels fall out… The key thing is we have to sort the problem and get buses back in the interchange where they should be and the public back. We can only do that when it is safe.”

Despite the doom and gloom coming out of SYPTE, the interchange reopened after… three days. Clearly the situation was less bad than initially feared, and I can’t help suspecting that the interchange might have reopened even more quickly if the deluge had happened in the middle of the week instead of just before the weekend.

That’s been all the drama Barnsley Interchange has caused, as far as I know. Everything else seems to have been good news. It’s a super piece of transport infrastructure: a light, bright and confident building that does what it’s supposed to do and looks lovely while it’s at it. It used a significant number of recycled materials in its construction, and its use of natural light and ventilation furthers its environmental credentials. In recognition of this approach it received an Award for Excellence from the Institute of Civil Engineers, and won SCALA’s Highly Commended Award for Civil Building of the Year in 2009.

Barnsley Interchange, underneath the footbridge. Photo by rusty_dragonfly [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

Admittedly, it’s no Tuscan hill town. But while that concept got no further than a scale model which came home to Barnsley in 2010, the interchange is being happily fabulous day in, day out, and brightening up Barnsley on the dullest of days. Just not ones with rain the like of which we’ve never seen before, if you don’t mind.

How to find Barnsley Interchange

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

Bibliography and Further Reading

Jefferson Sheard Architects’ project page for the interchange, here

SYPTE’s information page for the interchange, here

…and anything else linked to in the text above.

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