Battersea Park Station: Step-free at last?

Battersea Park railway station just keeps getting busier. It was never a quiet station, thanks to a steady stream of traffic from the Doddington & Rollo flats and the mansions around Battersea park, and some weekend traffic to the park itself. But it got a lot busier from the late 2000s, thanks to rapid development all around the station – with passenger numbers climbing by 10% every year. Pre-Covid the station had hit 2.2 million annual passengers, and was on the brink of breaking in the the top 10% busiest stations in the whole country – creating the rather surprising situation where this fairly little-known local station was somehow getting more passengers than than the grand central stations for entire regional cities such as Lancaster, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Halifax! The pandemic briefly cut those numbers in half, but Battersea Park rebounded fast, and things are set to accelerate even further as the area around the station quickly becomes a forest of new flats, with vast developments on the site of the old Battersea gasholders, in the railway arches immediately opposite the station, and along Nine Elms Lane. And it’s not just flats – at least four large office buildings are also being developed within a few minutes’ walk of the station, as well an 850-bed student hall of residence opposite the Dogs Home, which will heap more demand on the station.

Despite originally being built in a gap jammed between viaducts in an industrial area, rather than an upmarket outer suburb or prominent city centre, Battersea Park is a beautiful and carefully-crafted station that seems to have been designed to impress. And even as Battersea all around it changed beyond recognition, the station kept all of its historic charm – as our photos of the carefully restored ticket hall show, with archways, ornate plaster ceilings and ornate lighting. Unfortunately, in some respects it may have kept a little too much of its historic charm, as access to the platforms relies on a series of distinctly Victorian-era staircases. Rickety, steep, wooden steps – and lots of them! As the railway experts over at London Reconnections note in their very readable article about the station, “the steps leading to platforms 4 and 5… must be just about the steepest and narrowest set of steps leading to any station platform in the country“. And this is where our story starts, because put bluntly – this station is a hazardous nightmare for anyone with mobility issues, and not much fun for those with prams either.

Fortunately there’s a long running project called ‘Access for All‘ to make the UK’s stations more accessible – which ought to see this station improved. The project has been running for years, starting with the most well-used stations with the highest demand – which was why Clapham Junction acquired nine lifts way back in 2011. The particularly poor accessibility of Battersea Park, and the fact that it was in a rapidly growing area with both a significant elderly population, an above average proportion of residents with mobility difficulties, and a quite rapidly growing number of young families,  is probably why it was selected in the programme way back in 2014, alongside 41 other stations (that included Streatham, Peckham Rye and Blackhorse Road). These would see funds allocated during ‘Control period 5‘ – which is railway jargon for planned investments over a five-year period between 2014 and 2019. The Government press notice confirmed that ‘subject to a feasible design‘, the station would see a step-free access built from street to platform.

Now you may be thinking – 2014 is ages ago, and so is 2019 – so what on earth happened after that big announcement? The station is just as inaccessible as it was back in 2014. The problem with all government funding announcements is that it’s one thing to announce funding, but quite another to actually follow through and deliver the goods. And that ‘subject to a feasible design‘ caveat in the original announcement mattered, because Battersea Park is really not a particularly easy station to add lifts to! Platform 1, the unusual one that’s made of wooden planks, doesn’t matter as it was permanently closed a few years ago. Platforms 2&3 – the central ones, pictured above, are fairly manageable as the platforms are immediately adjacent to the station building. A lift would emerge at the very end of the platform, more or less in the middle of the photo above, and somewhere to the right of the stairs in the photo below.

Things get rather more complicated at platform 4&5 (the westbound one) – where the super-steep stairs are right at the southern end of the platform, in a spot where the platform is already very narrow, and with no space to add a lift between the two railway viaducts. This will be a real design challenge: even if there is a way for a lift to go down from the narrow platform there it would end up buried deep in the viaduct and nowhere near the main ticket hall, so unless there happen to be some implausibly convenient old passageways buried in the arches, something unusual will be needed. We can think of two possibilities – neither of them cheap: either extending the new lift from the ticket hall to central platforms 2&3 up further to have a third level, leading to a bridge across to platforms 4&5 and another lift down; or putting a lift in at the northern end of platforms 4&5 (the end far away from the station) that would run down to the road level on Prince of Wales Drive, shown below. This is the cheaper option – as our photo shows, the wooden bit between the two heavy metal bridges is actually the underneath of the platform, so a lift either to the road or one of the railway arches is reasonably doable – but this would create a second entrance and so make the station more complicated to run.

In normal circumstances, this slight engineering headache feels like the sort of problematic project that would have been quietly shelved soon after the first estimates! But fortunately we’re not shouting in to the darkness here in arguing that it still needs to happen, as we happen to have an influential ally – in the form of our local MP, Marsha de Cordova. Marsha is maybe a rare example of an MP who has a deep personal belief in the issue of accessibility, with a powerful track record of campaigning – indeed she was working for disability charity the Thomas Pocklington Trust when she was first elected an MP, and then served as shadow Disabilities Minister, and later Minister for Equalities, until 2021.

As a fearless campaigner for making buildings accessible to all, she was not at all happy that both the stations in a part of her constituency with a well-above-average share of residents who need help with mobility were woefully inaccessible. Her 2017 election campaign focussed on getting the project done – and just a few months after being elected as MP she successfully called for a debate in Parliament called “Step-free Access: Battersea Stations” whose text is available online, including this quote:

Battersea Park station and Queenstown Road station are both in Queenstown ward, which has a higher proportion of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions than does the constituency as a whole. Yet their local train stations are not accessible to them. […] Why is what I have described important? We must not underestimate the significance of barriers. Step-free access to stations can mean the difference between the ability to lead a fulfilling and flourishing life seeing friends and family and going to work, and being left isolated at home, unable to travel and excluded from participation, from leading a fulfilling and flourishing life, and from the world of work. That is the reality for far too many disabled people.

She noted that £47 million had been cut from the funding for the ‘Access for All’ funding’ project, and called on the government to restore that funding, and to put in the investment needed to build an inclusive railway, including accessible stations in Battersea.

Two years after this debate, at the end of the 2014-2019 ‘control period’ of spending, nothing had happened on the ground. But just two days before the end of the financial year there was good news, when step free works for Battersea were again confirmed – presumably because a ‘feasible design’ for the lifts had been found, and no doubt helped by the likelihood that Marsha would make a great deal of noise about it if the government tried to drop the project! The project had now slipped from Control period 5 to Control period 6 (2019-2024).

The Wandsworth Council press release also noted that ‘The council is also working with Network Rail on a comprehensive package of improvements at Battersea Park Station, to cater for increased passenger numbers as more people move to Nine Elms alongside new businesses.’ Wandsworth didn’t give a lot of detail but his was a significant development – as behind the scenes a little-noticed part of the local Transport Implementation Plan confirmed that they had allocated £21 million of funding to “Improvements to Battersea Park Station“, which would come from a mixture of the “Community Infrastructure Levy” and “Section 106” – both of which are essentially funds that developers of the new blocks of flats have to pay towards upgrading the local infrastructure around new developments. £21m is one of the largest allocations of the developer funding anywhere in the Borough (which does make sense given that most of the money was being raised from developments in the Nine Elms area) – to put it in context, the huge 2011 accessibility upgrade at Clapham Junction (which added lifts to all 17 platforms) only cost £14.5 million at the time! Coupled with Network Rail’s own funding this should allow significant improvement.

Unfortunately we understand that the delivery of the lifts at Battersea Park Station was significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic – which caused unavoidable delays to the project which prevented the project from moving to the next stage of design. As the UK economy took a dramatic turn for the worse, inflation started to push up the cost of materials significantly, which will not have helped the project either. A particularly problematic factor is the increasingly (and surprisingly) hostile approach the current Conservative government has taken to London itself – having seemingly given up on London from an electoral perspective, and with a determination to direct all new public spending towards its new friends in northern ‘levelling up’ constituencies. This will not have led to a particular enthusiasm for improving London’s transport. The graph below shows the funding per person that was awarded in the most recent round of ‘Levelling Up Fund‘ grants, which probably says all you need to know abut why London’s infrastructure is struggling.

But Marsha, and Battersea Park, weren’t going to give up that easily. Marsha has kept up her pressing of the Department for Transport – for example asking this Parliamentary question last autumn, which didn’t get much of an answer but which is at least one of the ways an MP can keep things quietly on the agenda:  

Marsha: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, when the planned upgrades to deliver accessible access at Battersea Park Station will start which have been deferred from control period 5 of Access for All funding. Kevin Foster (Transport Minister): The project at Battersea Park station to provide a new step-free accessible route is currently in the detailed design phase. Further updates will be provided in due course.

We understand that Marsha also wrote to Network Rail about this in October – which is always helpful, because an MP writing is much more likely to get a proper answer than you or I would – and was informed that they are working with Govia Thameslink Railway (who manage Battersea Park station) to deliver the detailed design phase of the project. Now we know the project had already missed the deadline for the 2014-2019 funding window, and it is clearly getting worryingly close to the end of the next one too (which runs from 2019-2024) without any notable progress on the ground – so a particularly good bit of news was that they have included Battersea Park on the Access for All project list for the next budget round, ‘Control period 7’, which runs from 2024-2029. Fingers crossed it won’t take until 2029 – but it at least means that the budget won’t just ‘time out’ if , as currently looks likely, new lifts are not fully delivered by next year.

So where does this leave us? Well it looks like this project is still on track, more or less. It’s taken ages, it’s been hit by Covid, by inflation, by technical headaches, and by an increasingly hostile environment in Westminster to London boroughs. But the funding’s been preserved by hook or by crook, proper design is going on, and at some stage we can expect a tender for the works, and for a planning application for delivery. There’s a large pot of cash from local property developers waiting to be spent on the station, and we know that the planned road layout upgrades to Nine Elms Lane have left a gap at the station, to not overlap any road changes that are associated with these works. We’ll keep you posted when we hear any further updates.

In the meantime we can thank our MP Marsha for keeping at this like a dog with a bone, because this is exactly the sort of project where a tenacious MP with a strong belief in the cause can badger Minsters and senior officials to make a difference and keep a complicated project alive – and she has told us she will continue to use her voice to ensure we have accessible and inclusive transport. We can also thank Wandsworth Council, for working behind the scenes with TfL to keep this going even as it repeatedly missed delivery deadlines, and especially for negotiating a healthy amount of funding from local property developers to wards the upgrade.

But the gradual unlocking of the accessibility puzzle at Battersea Park also raise the interesting case of Queenstown Road station next door. It’s almost as bad as Battersea Park when it comes to steep steps – as our photo above shows. Admittedly it only gets about half the passenger numbers of Battersea Park – but that’s still a million a year! Quirks of its layout also means that it may be slightly cheaper to convert to step-free access, needing only one lift. Maybe unsurprisingly, Marsha has been campaigning for it to also receive step-free access. In May this year, alongside other local stakeholders, she called for it to also be made step free – and used her influence as MP to meet the then Rail Minister, Wendy Morton. This had some success: Based on her making a case, an application was been made for Queenstown Road to also be included in Control Period 7 – although we do not yet know if it will be successful. Back in 2019, when Wandsworth Council allocated £21m towards upgrade work at Battersea Park station, a much smaller sum of £350,000 was also put towards “Improvements to Queenstown Road Station“, which we presume is linked to the plans we have often reported on to add a second entrance.

Speaking of which – some works have now started at Queenstown Road. There seem to be a mix of work that is aimed at improving the building and preparing for that second ‘back’ entrance to the station (which as we have previously noted will make the station rather easier to get to from the north and the east, as well as creating a useful link between the two stations), and separate work that is associated with the fit out of the former coffee shop for reopening after several years of it being abandoned. This has been a very long running process too, but it is good to see some work now underway. As ever – we’ll keep you posted on developments, and if you can offer any additional insight leave a comment below or get in touch.

This entry was posted in Planning, Politics, Transport. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s