With a horrid shock of recognition, I suddenly realised what Stoke-on-Trent Bus Station reminded me of. As a one-time public transport officer in a local authority I, like most others, often experienced the depressing feeling of being unable to source enough funding to keep an originally good idea going. And it was that. The gulf between the availability of capital funding and revenue funding, seemingly embodied in a bus station in the middle of the Potteries.
Stoke-on-Trent Bus Station is notable for several reasons. It was designed by architecture practice Grimshaw (of London’s Waterloo International Terminal, New York’s Fulton Center, Reading’s Reading Station (if you see what I mean) and Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station). It is a relatively recent example of a local authority – Stoke-on-Trent City Council in this case – building a proper new off-street bus station to replace an outdated one, rather than simply scattering a whole bunch of bus stops across nearby streets.
And it is absolutely enormous.
Arriving into the bus station by, well, bus feels more like arriving at the terminal in one of those airports where buses shuttle you from plane to building. The vast concrete apron of the bus station is about 75m x 75m, and curving around two sides of it is the bus station building itself at 150m or so in length (even I can do that math).
The bus stands stretch away into the distance, marked by v-shaped columns situated between every second stand. There are 22 stands in all, A-X (as usual omitting I and O). Had the bus station been much bigger, it would have run out of letters. As it is, a 23rd stand (Y) is on the road just outside the main bus station, and there’s only one more letter left after that.
There is so much to admire in the architecture of the bus station, which opened in 2013. Coming in at a cost of £15m, Grimshaw have done a wonderful job of creating a high class building; the sort of thing the bus network deserves but so rarely seems to get at the moment. Yet if we are serious about attracting people onto space efficient buses and out of their inefficient and urban environment-ruining SUVs (though, are we serious? Really? Where has all that £3bn promised in the government’s March 2021 Bus Back Better strategy gone? Who actually believes its claims that we’re set to see a massive expansion in bus lane mileage around the country?), major bus hubs like Stoke on Trent bus station should aspire to the same quality of building as railway stations.
From the road side, the bus station’s main design elements are its curved aluminium roof and the Staffordshire blue brick plinth on which the bus station stands. The plinth is a solution to the awkward topology of the site, the bus station contending with some inconvenient slopes. The ribbed roof dips down to mark the location of a long ramp from pavement up to the bus station, either side of it are curtain glass walls with the roof supported by more of the v-shaped columns found on the bus stand side. The silvery roof is eminently the most successful element; curving across its width and along its length. The blue brick plinth is less so, looking somehow cheaper than it probably was, particularly now that the mortar has aged and coloured unevenly.
At the north end of the bus station, amongst some nice placemaking work, is its main entrance. Here the roof extends as a canopy beyond the bus station itself, sheltering a ticket office and bus stands A and B. I’m not sure what the users of buses at these stands have done to deserve their banishment to the exterior, though glass screen provide a modicum of protection from the prevailing winds.
Discoloured by green algae, the brickwork on the ticket office again looks less expensive than I suspect it actually was. The extruded lettering is a nice touch, giving the bus station its official name. You’ll also see it referred to as “Hanley Bus Station” in some places, a legacy of Stoke-on-Trent’s polycentric nature (I threw that in to try to impress my town planner readers) which sees its railway station located in Stoke-upon-Trent with the commercial centre and bus station in Hanley.
The ticket office forms part of the ground floor of a larger block, which is on two storeys for part of its length and contains offices and rest facilities for bus operator staff.
The trees soften the appearance of this more cuboid part of the bus station, and it must be nice to work upstairs and look out into their branches (I grew up in a house which backed onto a wood, and now live in a house in the middle of an urban area, and I really miss seeing trees from my windows). Less successfully, the unusually shaped cycle stands are placed in the open around this office building. It would have been better for cyclists had they been placed in the shelter of the bus station’s extended roof, and encouraged better use to be made of them. There wasn’t a single bike on the stands when I visited.
The main entrance to the bus station also shows off the beautiful slatted wooden ceiling on the underside of the roof. This has more in common with Barajas Terminal 4 than it does with most bus stations. An integrated lighting scheme provides for illumination which doesn’t compromise the appearance of the ceiling.
Inside, the bus station curves and falls away, giving it great visual appeal. Glass curtain walls let in plenty of natural light and allow passengers to see their buses arrive. A tiled block containing a retail unit and toilets caters to passengers’ personal needs, and is positioned between the two runs of glazing on the road side of the bus station. Both ends of the block are marked by short runs of the same wooden slats that make up the ceiling, from which these canopy-like elements are suspended.
As you would expect, sliding doors give access to bus stands when the buses are ready to let passengers board, and live departure information is to be found on screens above. Larger display screens hang from the ceiling and well designed large totems positioned at every other bus stand waiting area carry bus information. The roof of the bus station oversails the glass walls on the bus stand side, protecting passengers from the elements as they move out of the bus station and onto their buses.
The flooring is especially good. No cheap ceramic tiling here. Instead, Irish Blue limestone imparts a real sense of quality.
It is undoubtedly an impressive building. But look more closely, and it is clear that things are not quite right at Stoke-on-Trent Bus Station. It is educative to compare the publicity shots of the bus station which appear on Grimshaw’s project webpage, with the reality of eight years later.
There is no anti-pigeon netting on Grimshaw’s publicity photos, but today it shrouds the suspended wooden canopies at either end of the retail/toilet block. Did you notice it on the photo earlier? Netting has also been strung between the back-to-back information screens suspended from the ceiling, where it is now collecting cobwebs and dust. Many of those screens themselves are not in working order and there is no indication that the problem will be rectified or has even been noticed.
Meanwhile, the large totems are no longer displaying the bespoke full size information posters to be seen in the publicity shots. Instead, small posters clearly designed to fit in typical pole-mounted bus stop timetable cases are used, giving the impression that there is a lack of care and attention to the presentation of passenger information. Mops and buckets are abandoned in corners of the bus station instead of being put away properly.
This is a bus station where the day-to-day management and maintenance seems to be getting away from Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
That’s why it reminds me of my time as a public transport officer. There were so many occasions when a government grant funding or developer contributions became available to allow the council to set up of a new transport initiative or a new piece of transport infrastructure. But invariably, after a few years, it became clear that there was no money to keep those initiatives running, or the infrastructure well maintained. Developer-funded bus services would launch in a fanfare of publicity, just to fizzle out and disappear after a few years when the developer contribution was exhausted. New transport information schemes would be lauded for the difference they would make to existing and new passengers, until it became clear that there was no money to keep them updated. Generalised information would eventually be posted instead, probably directing passengers to a website for information, which was fine if the passenger in question could use the internet and/or could acquire a signal.
If you’ve ever heard a transport planner bemoan the availability of capital funding (those are the monies you’re allowed to build or buy things with) versus the lack of revenue funding (those are the monies you can use to pay for upkeep and maintenance), that is what they mean. And even capital funding is much harder to find today than it was when I was a transport planner 15 years ago, despite greater acknowledgement of public transport’s important role in heading off the climate crisis. I can’t be certain that the scarcity of revenue funding explains the slightly unkempt appearance of Stoke-on-Trent Bus Station but it seems a likely explanation.
It’s not even clear if all that tatty anti-pigeon netting is even working. “Absolutely vile,” said one bus station user in a Google Review (as the Stoke Sentinel reported while filling some column inches last year). “Pigeon poo all over the seats so unusable.” And there were plenty of other complaints about the bus station too.
One of the justifications for the building of Stoke-on-Trent’s new bus station was to allow for a £350m redevelopment of the old bus station and the 1960s shopping centre (notable for some extremely groovy Y-shaped concrete columns and a roof formed of transverse barrel vaults) to which it was attached. “The opening of this facility is a landmark moment for the city and marks the start of change in Stoke-on-Trent,” said Pete Price, Stoke-on-Trent City Council Assistant Director Technical Services, when Stoke-on-Trent’s new bus station opened.
That change hasn’t gone quite according to plan, as a blow by blow account in the Stoke Sentinel explains. By 2018, the redevelopment plans had been abandoned and when I visited Stoke-on-Trent Bus Station in November last year (over lunchtime, as you do), the old bus station site across the road was gearing up to open as one of those temporary Winter Wonderland attractions. In a post-Covid world, the chances of a major commercial redevelopment must be even slimmer than they were before, and there’s a distinct need for a bit of levelling up on this site.
Indeed, it is Stoke-on-Trent Bus Station itself which now looks set for change as Stoke City Council plans to spend £1.4m (on top of the £15m the bus station cost just nine years ago) to remodel it, allowing the introduction of a number of cross-city bus routes. From the sounds of things this will require the reconnection of Lidice Street to Lichfield Street, letting buses run under the bus station canopy extension at the north end. What are described as “super bus stops” on-street and external to the bus station, will serve the new cross-city bus routes. I’m not wholly convinced. The only thing I know about on-street bus stops is that they tend to be a lot less super than the sort where you can wait inside a £15m bus station, pigeon poo notwithstanding. And it is hard to find much evidence of progress with this idea since it was announced in January 2021. I suspect it has been subsumed into Stoke City Council’s Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP), one of the BSIPs required by Bus Back Better from all English local transport authorities. By all accounts the costs of the collected BSIPs vastly over-subscribe even the £3bn originally promised by Bus Back Better to fund them, let alone the vastly reduced sum which now appears to be actually available. This also has a familiar ring from my job of 15 years ago as promised government funding pots for public transport mysteriously disappeared before local transport authorities had the chance to actually spend them on anything.
So much though I admired Stoke-on-Trent Bus Station, I was ready to leave it before too long and get back to my much happier current day job. ■
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BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING
For a more user-centric opinion on Stoke-on-Trent Bus Station you are recommended to read the reliably excellent Bus and Train User blog, the article “Three Staffordshire bus rides” in particular, not least for the chance to see how not to do bus stations at Leek.
…and anything linked to in the article above.
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