Sleek new interchange design delivers the best of both worlds

A striking blend of modern architecture and heritage transport infrastructure makes Altrincham Interchange something of a destination in itself. Ray Philpott reports.

Atruly integrated transport interchange where it’s possible to access several different modes of transport with minimal effort is fairly rare.

For more than 30 years, travellers using Altrincham Interchange in Greater Manchester, have been able to hop off a bus and catch a Metrolink tram or mainline train with relative ease.

Now, the passenger experience at Altrincham has just got even better, thanks to a £19 million redevelopment driven by Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM). What’s more, the visual splendours and architectural heritage of the town’s 1881-built railway station the interchange is based around, can once again be clearly seen and enjoyed by those using the facility.

At the heart of these improvements is the new bus station designed by Architects AHR. They have created a spacious concourse, linking easy to use bus bays to the historic booking hall and new footbridge to the metro and rail services.

The beauty of the concept is its transparency. From the outside it’s possible to clearly see the red brick and stone facade of the station – for so long hidden behind rows of bus stop platforms and islands.

AHR’s Regional Director, Michael Gardner, sums up the objectives and challenges.

“Historically the previous linear shelters had reduced headroom with low lighting levels and they obscured views of the station building. It was important to ensure people could easily navigate the new interchange and move quickly between the different modes of transport.

“Overall, we aimed to improve the connectivity and to create lighter, airier, more passenger-focused spaces with enhanced waiting facilities where passengers would feel secure.”

Alistair Branch, AHR’s project leader, adds:
“We needed to make the heritage building visible, not just from within the concourse but from the approaches and road outside, and at night, too. Our brief included cleaning and restoring the heritage buildings, including the historic Grade II-listed clock tower landmark at the front of the interchange.

“The clock tower, which is near the main road, forms part of the original grand approach and has been re-timbered, had its attractive clocks restored to their former glory and been set in its own landscaping so that it can be fully appreciated.”

Aesthetic values

AHR’s design is essentially a glass and steel building with a long, organic, curved facade featuring doors accessing a series of uncomplicated drive-in/drive-out bus bays.

The concourse roof is supported by two rows of steel columns and cantilevered back from the facade towards the historic building, while lightweight ETFE roof lights run along its length, enabling daylight to flood down without extensive supporting structure. The rear row of columns stand away from the historic station facade to avoid diluting its aesthetic qualities.

Branch says:

“The new, simpler arrangement for bus opera- tions in part shaped the building’s organic, curved plan-form, we deliberately gave the concourse clean lines so that it does not compete with the historic building, which we wanted to respect.”

Glass fins are suspended from the back edge of the higher concourse roof descending to the front edge of the Victorian roof lower down. Gardner adds: “The fins don’t actually make contact with the historic roof – the lower edges hang a few centimetres above it – but provide a visual separation, a ‘soft’ boundary between the two roofs.

“The idea is that it enables people to appreciate the clean lines of the new architecture while enjoying the roof-lines of the heritage building. Getting the levels right was quite challenge to preserve those sightlines.”

The roof is finished with Kalzip standing-seam roof, and plastered internally in white to reflect light, while the sof- fit over the bus stops was clad with aluminium cassette planks, utilising a secret fix system. All-LED lighting systems have been used to minimise energy use – with strategically placed uplighters built into the paving to create a solid wash of colour against the Victorian structure, turning it into an attractive night-time feature.

Within the building a separate brick enclosure houses travel facilities, a baby changing area, toilets and staff offices and, on the first floor, access to plant. The bricks reflect the existing heritage structure, but are not a pastiche of it.

External ‘Conservation Smooth’ paving runs from the front of the building through to the concourse itself and some of the paving has been decorated with transport-themed art created by Bikenhead-based cammdesign.

Logistical challenge

Overall, the project taken time to compile, with planning initiated in 2008, construction beginning in 2013 and completed in 2015. This is was in part due to the large number of stakeholders involved in the project including TfGM, Trafford Council, Network Rail and local pressure group the Friends of Altrincham Interchange.

“Rebuilding around a fully working interchange and working within a fairly constrained site while having to keep all three transport modes running was a challenge. It meant designing the building to be delivered in phases to enable this to happen – although, to the public, it was delivered as one whole project,” adds Gardner.

Things had to happen at certain times, in particular installing the new linking footbridge over four platforms.

Gardner says:

“The architecture of the bridge is driven by the need to crane it into place in two large segments in a single possession – or closure – of the railway lines.

This meant it had to fit first time. Each section weighs in excess of 20 tonnes and was lifted-in pre-clad to minimise further work that had to be done over the live railway.

“It’s basically a large box section girder and the architecture is driven from a structural perspective but the idea of a simple elegant box works, especially considering the architectural theme of the rest of the project.

“Many heritage railway structures were engineering based, and people see the beauty in that. I like to think we’re creating the heritage of the future,” he concludes.

Only time will tell – but what is certain is the new interchange, with its skilful blend of old and innovative new, is a catalyst and sparkling showcase for Altrincham’s ongoing redevelopment.