TONY GILLAN: Sunderland wants a railway station to be proud of
How excited are you at the possibility of £12.6m worth of development at Sunderland Railway Station?
The chances are - not very. For a start there is no promise of the investment. The money is part of a £377m wish list from transport chiefs for the whole of the North East.
That phrase, “wish list”, seems rather nebulous and invites a certain scepticism.
We’ve heard it all before and still don’t have much of a railway station.
The station, which was bombed in during WWII, was opened in its current form in 1966 having previously been a much larger and grander affair. It confirms that not everything was great about the 1960s, especially its architecture. The undistinguished main entrance on Waterloo Street has barely changed in the last half-century.
The brutal truth is that the station, owned by Network Rail, has long been a source of ridicule and amusement among its users. This is exacerbated by the fact that it serves a city with a population of 280,000.
There used to be a plaque in the old ticket office which drew a sniggers from customers who read it.
It said: “Sunderland Station claimed second prize in the 1987 Best Station competition, Medium Station Category (Eastern Region).”
If there was an award for the least prestigious award, this would surely have been in with a shout. People in the queue would wonder aloud who had finished third. To make matters worse the plaque was still on display well into the 2000s. It was amusing, but it was also sad and depressingly symbolic.
Similarly, jokes about sewage leaking onto the concourse early in 2018 were also too crude and obvious to make.
In April 2018, Sunderland City Council reportedly made a bid for £100m of government funding to transform the station. But over the years we have become accustomed to calls for improvement and stories about developments that “could begin in (insert year).” Now we have another one.
In fairness, there have been improvements. In 2010 the walking silhouette display was added, along with a new lift and waiting room.
But the work carried out in 2010 was a mere facelift; and the conspicuous absence of one particular facility is embarrassing to this day.
There are no toilets. If you’ll allow the pun, the station isn’t even bog standard. Nor is there any car parking. The citizens of Sunderland are not proud of this.
It is of benefit to this city that we can now catch a Grand Central train directly to London Kings Cross. The Metro can be handy too (although there are eight other Metro stations in Sunderland). But none of this makes the station itself any better.
So what do we want? More lines and platforms are not really feasible and a complete relocation to another part of the city would be prohibitively expensive.
The latest amount being bandied that could, might, perhaps, possibly, maybe one day be invested is £12.6m. Assuming (very much for the sake of discussion) that it becomes available, what should be done with it?
No one expects our railway station to be transformed into a St Pancras, an Antwerp or even a Darlington. Not for that money. All we realistically ask for is not to be embarrassed.
Just as visitors are often pleasantly surprised to find that Sunderland has miles of Blue Flag sandy beaches (or even a coast); they can also be bewildered to find, literally as they set foot here for the first time, that a place of this size has such a pitiful railway station.
It provides a dreadful first impression and far smaller places have far bigger and better.
If the money really becomes available, then please, please, please make public conveniences the priority; followed by a more reliable escalator. Your own suggestions are, of course, more than welcome.
Whatever development takes place: we’ll believe it when it happens.