A very particular kind of hush descends as the 1253 to Worcester Shrub Hill departs. That hush is the hush of the parkway station between train services, and the station it has just departed from is Worcestershire Parkway. Though one of the best designed parkway stations, and a very attractive piece of transport architecture, the same cannot be said for all its siblings. Parkway stations encompass an enormous gulf in quality and provision of passenger amenities from large and impressive to austere and minimal. It would not be a stretch to suggest that this a surprisingly accurate reflection of the conflicted feelings transport planners hold about parkway stations, and park and ride as a concept in general.
But first we should take a look at Worcestershire Parkway, probably the best looking of Britain’s ‘true’ parkway stations. A giant glass and steel construction somewhat incongruously located in the Worcestershire countryside (of which more anon) and on the crossing point of the Oxford-Worcester and Birmingham-Bristol lines, it is a fine place to wait for a train. On a sunny day, its glass walls warm the internal spaces and the larch wood releases its distinctive scent. Close your eyes and you could be in a Finnish sauna as it starts to heat up.
From the outside, the station somewhat resembles a modern take on Coventry of 1962, with a similar oversailing roof sheltering the entrance to a double height ticket hall. At Worcestershire Parkway, this is flanked by lower buildings at either side which feature vertical windows.
Inside, the passenger routes through the station are legible and easy to navigate. Twin stairways lead up to the first floor, which gives direct access to the southbound platform of the Birmingham-Bristol line. Another stairway leads up to the second floor, an integrated footbridge which in one direction crosses the tracks and drops down onto the northbound platform, and in the other direction provides step-free access to the single high level platform serving the Oxford-Worcester line. Lifts link the three floors and although the layout sounds complicated, in practice it is simple to understand.
Anyway, as functioning properly ought to be a given for a new railway station, much more interesting is how it looks. Thanks to its glass walls and matching glass balustrades, sightlines are long with the station’s structures overlapping and creating some very attractive geometries.
The larch stripwood ceilings give a classy feel to the interior, with recessed lighting further enhancing their appearance. Contrasting with the wood and glass are the pale floor tiles and the pinkish-brown bricks of the lift towers, ticket hall walls and flanking service buildings. Some serious thought has gone into cable management with the runs neatly hidden away, and because the station is still new – it opened in 2022 – it hasn’t had time to be spoiled by too many thoughtless accretions, although the wayfinding signage is a little haphazard at times, and the warning notices are already starting to multiply.
Outside, neat design touches include a large unpainted metal double-arrow symbol and some neat polychrome blockwork on the footways around the building. Really, the only thing spoiling the view when I visited was one of those free newspaper dispensers outside the main entrance, the waste sacks which look as though they were added as an afterthought, and some more clumsily installed warning signage.
The station was designed by Pattern Design, much better known for its work on sports stadia and arenas than railway stations. Bought up by BDP in 2021 and now known as BDP Pattern, its web presence focuses only on its stadia, omitting mention of Worcestershire Parkway altogether as though the practice is embarrassed by its work on a railway station. There is no need to be.
Yet for all its design qualities, the one intangible asset Worcestershire Parkway lacks is atmosphere. When the trains leave, and that hush descends, Worcestershire Parkway might look like a railway station (and rather a nice one), but it just doesn’t feel like one. It lacks the essential character of proper railway stations.
The community rail movement has done its usual sterling work by trying to inject some personality into the station in the form of a beautiful mural in the ground floor lift lobby at the rear of the ticket hall. It’s a gorgeous thing, by artist Alice Baker, exploring the links between people, conservationism and the natural environment.
But on its own, personalisation is not enough. Part of the feel of a railway station comes from the place it serves. When the train pulls out of even a small station you can usually hear the sounds of village life just beyond. Even tiny remote stations like Berney Arms, far from the nearest road, still have a sense of place. The sound there as the throb of the diesel train fades into the distance is that of a very particular and very beautiful hinterland. The wind sighs through reeds, birds sing, water trickles.
The trouble with Worcestershire Parkway, and all the other ‘true’ parkway stations, is that they don’t feel like a part of their local surroundings. Because there are no local surroundings.
At parkway stations, you see, there is no ‘there’ there.
Instead these stations dwell marooned alongside acres of soulless car parks. Around them is no urban activity, no sound of everyday life, nor the sound of the wild countryside. There is just… nothing. You can have exactly the same experience at Aylesbury Vale Parkway, Oxford Parkway, Ebbsfleet International, East Midlands Parkway and many others, and it is profoundly disconcerting every time.
What are these places?
The first parkway station (although it wasn’t called it) in Britain was New Pudsey in West Yorkshire, opened by British Railways in 1967. Supposedly a replacement for Stanningley station (but disputed by users of the latter) which then closed in 1968, New Pudsey was the first railway station to be specifically targeted at the rapidly increasing number of car drivers in the country. The new station included a huge car park by the standards of the time and was located to ensure easy road access. This was the birth of the park and ride concept, on British railways at least. The idea had been floating around in America for longer than that, since the 1920s in fact.
Not coincidentally, what is generally considered to be Britain’s first bus-based park and ride project opened on a trial basis in Oxford just a few years earlier, in 1964. A permanent scheme followed in 1973, though by then Leicester had opened the first permanent British bus-based park and ride scheme (in 1966). Oxford, Leicester and New Pudsey were the first examples of the rail and bus industries trying to respond to the rising challenge of increasing car ownership and usage that was stealing their markets, by making train and bus services more directly appealing and accessible to car drivers.
Park and ride schemes – for bus or train – are specifically different from typical public transport. For a start, park and ride targets those who are making probably the majority of their journey by car. A key goal is usually to control the number of private car movements into the centres of urban areas, where the negative impacts of congestion and pollution are felt most keenly by people.
Because park and ride schemes are trying to keep cars out of town and city centres, the car parking sites are generally on the edge of town or out of town, as this is the only place where sufficient space is available. And because no-one wants a huge car park built next to them (the kind of NIMBYism I am completely on board with) they are quite often in the middle of nowhere, except that the nowhere is often in the greenbelt or the countryside (as is the case with Worcestershire Parkway) which is then lost underneath the tarmac. The only requirement is easy road access. It is this out-of-town, away-from-people, selection of sites that lends such a strange atmosphere to park and ride stations and terminals. No station, car park or bus terminal would normally be built in such location. Public transport normally serves, well, the public. Park and ride car park sites actively try to avoid the public. That is why they seem so strange as public transport places; they are something quite apart from the traditional public transport experience.
There are subtle differences between rail-based and bus-based park and ride projects. Buses are inherently a more local mode of public transport than rail, and this carries through to park and ride schemes. Bus-based park and ride tends to focus on serving a single town or city, with edge-of-town car parks (usually) linked to a town/city centre by dedicated bus services (usually) of a higher specification/comfort than traditional local buses in the same area (usually).
Rail-based park and ride tends to see new stations built on existing railway lines, with pre-existing train services calling additionally at these new stations, and giving access to a much wider travel area, rather than just a single urban location. In the case of Kent’s Ebbsfleet International (which despite lacking the official title is very much a parkway station, standing as it does in solitude amongst a vast and depressing sweep of surface car parking) that wider travel area was one that covered several countries, until the Covid pandemic caused Eurostar to withdraw services from the station.
The situation gets further complicated when you notice that parkway stations are often served by bus routes, which have been introduced only because the parkway station has been built, while the parkway station has only been built in that location because it was a good place to put the associated car park, rather than because there was any pre-existing traffic potential which bus or train would normally have desired to serve…
One notable parkway station which developed in the other direction is Oxford Parkway, built alongside a pre-existing bus-based park and ride site, and now to some extent competing with the bus park and ride scheme to carry passengers into Oxford. Designed by Carey Jones Chapman Tolcher at the same time as its sister station at Bicester Village, with which it shares many design cues, Oxford Parkway opened in 2016.
Both are located on Chiltern Railways’ upgraded stretch of railway between Oxford and Bicester, which was connected to the rest of the Chiltern Railways network with a new chord to allow the introduction of a new direct service from Oxford to London Marylebone. Although it does parallel the bus based park and ride into the city, Oxford Parkway is of course designed also to give access to the wider journey opportunities provided by Chiltern Railways.
It’s an unusual and distinctive station, with much of the exterior clad in dark blue ceramic slip external wall insulation, the colour chosen to match the corporate blue of Chiltern Railways.
Inside, the dark blue ceramic slips reappear on the walls of a clean and rational waiting area and ticket office with an open plan ticket counter. The only things letting it down are the emergency exit signage which looks like an afterthought, and the application of posters to the ceramic slips in a location I strongly suspect was not intended for them.
But this is getting ahead of the story. Back at New Pudsey, although its station building was tough looking and modestly sized, it was nevertheless a strikingly good quality piece of 1960s design by architect H E Green. Sadly, given its (admittedly slightly unexpected) historic significance, it has since been lost; either completely demolished and replaced, or rebuilt so completely that it no longer bears any resemblance to the original building.
New Pudsey was followed by Bristol Parkway in 1972, the first station with the “Parkway” title. Although “parkway” as a term is now indelibly associated with rail based park and ride schemes it really has nothing to do with parking at all. Like the “~gate” suffix for scandals it is a word that has accidentally accrued a whole new meaning it was never originally intended to have.
Bristol Parkway station was named after the nearby M32 Bristol Parkway motorway, itself named because it ran through open countryside on its way from the M4 motorway and into north-east Bristol. But with its vaguely American sound (America has parkway roads but they are a rather different proposition), it somehow became assumed that Parkway was an imported word that meant giant parking lot served by passenger transit. So it was that Alfreton and Mansfield Parkway in Nottinghamshire opened in 1973 with the same suffix and many more parkways have followed in the years since.
You’ll have noticed mention earlier of ‘true’ Parkway stations. These are the new-build stations on new sites with their consequential strange atmospheres. In other cases, Parkway status has been engineered onto existing stations and locations. Didcot station opened in 1844 but was redefined and renamed as a parkway station in 1985. Its character is nevertheless much more that of a typical railway station, with its long history of serving Didcot itself. The nearby GWR-branded multi-storey car park which fulfills the station’s parkway role is though one of the most depressing sights on the railway network to a passenger transport advocate, a hulking admission that the public transport industry seems to be on the verge of giving up trying to persuade people out of their cars in the first place.
Of the new build parkway stations, although Worcestershire Parkway is probably the most attractive, Liverpool South Parkway (opened 2006) is on an even more epic scale. Built on the crossing point of a double track and a four track railway line and replacing separate stations on each of the two, it incorporates six platforms as a result. In addition it has a substantial bus interchange in front of the main building including services to nearby Liverpool John Lennon Airport, as well as its large car park at the back.
Its appearance owes something of a debt to regional airport terminals, too much so for it to be a truly beautiful piece of railway architecture, though it is undoubtedly a functional and efficient one.
Nevertheless, some of its details are delightfully unexpected, such as those which seem inspired by shoji, the dividers used in Japanese architecture with translucent sheets over a lattice frame. Quite what they are doing there is another matter. Architect Jefferson Sheard’s project webpage is silent on the matter.
Despite the drama and scale of stations like Liverpool South Parkway, Oxford Parkway and Worcestershire Parkway, a survey of Britain’s parkway stations will soon turn up examples of the completely opposite approach to station design. To explain why, it helps to consider what to do if you find yourself with the need to keep a group of public transport planners entertained (perhaps you have found one such, bored, at a party). A good solution is simply ask them to decide whether park and ride as a concept is a good or a bad thing. Not only will they not agree with each other, but most of them will not even agree with themselves for any significant length of time.
Positive arguments put forward for park and ride are that it is better for people to travel at least some of their journeys, especially into constrained urban areas, on public transport rather than in cars. It is also suggested that exposing car drivers to good quality buses or trains might tempt them to make more journeys by bus or train in future, promoting modal shift. If park and ride is done properly (‘if’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting here) then for every car parking space opened at a new edge of town park and ride site, an equivalent space should be removed from town centre car parking provision. Given that car parking is one of the worst wastes of valuable space in town centres this is an environmental and economic win, with parking space turned over to more productive use.
However, there are plenty of arguments against park and ride as a concept too. For instance, people might drive longer distances to reach park and ride sites than the journeys they made into towns before those sites opened. They might drive to a park and ride site whereas previously they would have caught a bus or a train all the way, having been put off driving only by the final leg of their trip on congested town centre roads. If the money spent building a new park and ride facility and its associated services was spent improving the traditional public transport network, then maybe people wouldn’t need to drive as much in the first place because they would have a better public transport alternative? And anyway, why should car drivers get highly specified buses as a reward for driving most of the time, when regular bus users have to put up with lower specified buses? That doesn’t seem fair. Park and ride is barely public transport at all; it’s a sop to car drivers.
This dichotomy of views is reflected in the design of parkway stations (and also in the architecture of bus-based park and ride schemes, which I’ll have to come back to another time if you ever want this article to end). Just as transport planners can’t decide whether to be pleased or embarrassed by park and ride projects, so parkway station designs vary between high quality buildings with plentiful passenger facilities on the one hand, and soul-crushingly basic stations with the scantest of shelter and little apparent thought given to the aesthetics of the station on the other. These are the stations that reflect the shifty embarrassment end of the range of opinion held by public transport planners; the ones that grudgingly acknowledge the role of park and ride but have no wish to celebrate it, and certainly seem to have no desire to reward the car drivers who patronise them.
Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, tourist honeypot that it is thanks to its links to William Shakespeare, is exactly the sort of town that struggles to cope with the car traffic it attracts. I would propose a thoroughly radical solution to this problem, which perhaps partly explains why I’m no longer working as a transport planner. Sans that, part of the actual solution was the provision of a bus based park and ride scheme from a site on the northern outskirts of town in 2006. This was followed by the opening of Stratford-upon-Avon Parkway station alongside it in 2013. Although (like Oxford Parkway) to some extent competing with the bus service, Stratford-upon-Avon Parkway was designed to take traffic off the wider trunk road network by allowing local car drivers to access train services across the Midlands.
The station features the scantest of passenger facilities and is, to be honest, a truly depressing place to wait for a train. One can almost imagine the transport planners who came up with the idea trying desperately and unsuccessfully – in the vein of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth – to wash their hands of the idea they had had, and visiting their discomfort instead on the station’s users.
Another in the minimalist milieu is Sutton Parkway in Nottinghamshire, taking its name from Sutton-in-Ashfield but in reality plonked down amongst fields and the sheds of nearby industrial estates. I love the Nottingham-Worksop Robin Hood Line, one of late British Rail’s greatest reopening schemes, but Sutton Parkway is bleakness in built form. “One of the most basic Parkway stations on the railway network” is how one observer (Chatterton, 2021 (p94)) described it with its small Macemain + Amstad shelters and, well, very little else.
The Robin Hood Line has a slightly complicated relationship with park and ride. Not too far away in Derbyshire, Alfreton and Mansfield Parkway opened in 1973 and was only the second station to have the “Parkway” title in its name, as mentioned earlier. It was, however, only considered worthy of a CLASP building from the start. Summed up as “the railway station at its most minimal” (Lawrence, 2018 (p220)), it was a rare example of the use of the prefabricated CLASP system for a station building outside British Railways’ Southern Region. The Southern Region bought into the CLASP idea wholeheartedly if not always successfully in the 1960s and 70s, and to the lasting regret of many of its passengers. It is hard to claim that Alfreton and Mansfield Parkway was any better.
Its long name was due to an attempt to give the town of Mansfield a railway station it could call its own. Thanks to the Beeching cuts Mansfield in the 1970s was one of the (if not the) largest towns in Britain without a railway station. Despite the new station’s name, Alfreton and Mansfield Parkway was some nine miles away from Mansfield itself. Happily for Mansfield, the reopening of the Robin Hood line, Sutton Parkway included, took place during the 1990s and gave Mansfield its town centre station back. At this point, Alfreton and Mansfield Parkway lost the “and Mansfield Parkway” part of its name in favour of simply Alfreton.
It retains its parkway car park and continues functioning as a parkway for those in the know. But its passenger facilities have never seen a significant upgrade and its now badly-dated CLASP building lingers on, reminding park and riders that in this case the railway might be willing to cater to their custom, but it doesn’t have to make them feel good about it.
Park and ride has spread around the world to countless other countries since the 1960s and 70s and just as in Britain the design of park and ride facilities runs the gamut from the quotidian to the innovative. Planners and designers are apparently still struggling to decide whether car drivers should be punished or rewarded for using such schemes. Next time, The Beauty of Transport visits an overseas example of the latter – in Denmark. ■
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Chatterton, Mark (2021): Parkway Railway Stations: A History of Britain’s Park and Ride stations. Gresley Books: Horncastle
Lawrence, David (2018): British Rail Architecture 1948-97. Crecy: Manchester
Jonathan Manns’ piece in Town and Country Planning on the history and application of park and ride is especially good
More about the ceilings at Worcestershire Parkway
The history of Leicester Park and Ride
…and everything else linked to in the text of the article
3 thoughts on “My Favourite Parks Are Car Parks (Worcestershire Parkway, Worcestershire, UK)”
That a lad from Aston University should deme to partially quote Gertrude Stein… Her reference was, simply, that Oakland, CA where she grew up was not the place she remembered. However, as her father did run the streetcars in San Francisco, you might be forgiven. Totally agree with your cynical assessment of Parkways- rail or road.
Well, if you’re going to borrow, do it from people you admire…
The original business case for the station had two aspects – 1) improving access to Worcester from the Birmingham to Bristol line, via interchange onto the Oxford to Worcester line or the existing passing bus services, and 2) to improve access to rail services for M5 corridor Worcestershire without having to drive into Shrub Hill. Interestingly plans are being progressed for major residential (including schools etc etc) and employment developments focused on the station, so it may end up being a Dutch-style scheme of transport links first then developments.