The week it all went wrong was how the Chronicle & Echo described the opening few days of North Gate Bus station a year ago.
Police – including the force helicopter – were called in to direct traffic after the £7million new facility got off to a disastrous start.
At around 11am, queues of buses stretched along the Drapery and passengers found themselves caught in delays of 90 minutes or more. Emergency measures eventually got traffic moving again by 4pm.
This week marks a year since the £7 million facility began operating and although there has only been a handful of traffic snarl-ups since, opinion still remains divided on whether the new station has been a success.
Leader of the Liberal Democrats’ group at Northampton Borough Council, Sally Beardsworth (Lib Dem, Kingsthorpe), said a number of key issues remained. She said: “It’s hardly finished, it is still undergoing work and I still come into town and get stuck in gridlock from time to time.
“It is a greenhouse in the summer and a fridge in the winter.
“It’s light, it’s bright and that’s about all you can say about it. It’s been a real let down.”
Issues have surrounded the bus station in the months since it opened. Temporary barriers held down by sandbag remained in place until October.
In August, businesses near the bus station feared it was only a matter of time before someone was seriously hurt outside the facility, following a series of collisions involving cars and buses on surrounding roads.
And few can deny that town centre traffic has come to a standstill on more than one occasion since North Gate opened.
It is a greenhouse in the summer and a fridge in the winterSally Beardsworth
The most recent incident, caused by a burst water main in Sheep Street a fortnight ago, saw drivers stuck in the Grosvenor Centre car park for up to half-an-hour and buses delayed.
But cabinet member for highways at Northamptonshire County Council (Con, Hackleton and Grange Park) Councillor Michael Clarke said it would be unfair to blame the new bus station entirely for the snarl-ups.
He said: “In terms of the way it has been operating, 98 per cent of the time it has been operating without any major problems. Where we have had problems are due to external factors.” He added that county council work to increase the capacity of the Gas Street roundabout had created strain on the infrastructure around the new station. Those works are due to finish this month.
“If you like we have got a perfect storm of several factors combining,” he added. “And, as we had a fortnight ago, it is inevitable snarl ups will happen. If there had been a burst water main we would have had the same situation with Greyfriars.”
Councillor Clarke said plans were being looked at to put some bus stops in Mercer’s Row to ease congestion on the area around North Gate.
Leader of Northampton Borough Council, Councillor David Mackintosh (Con, Rectory Farm) said, there had been teething issues, but he believed the new station was a success: “I think the bus station has been an improvement on Greyfriars. The important thing is that it is at the heart of the town centre. The Drapery is busier, Market Square is busier and we have seen an increase in footfall.”
The chairman of The Bus Users UK Northampton Group believes, despite some people’s protestations, that North Gate bus station has largely operated ‘according to plan’ .
But he said there was still a lot of room for improvement.
He said bay 15 in the Drapery was not designed for more than one bus at a time and bays 19 and 20 shared one bus shelter, which he said created a ‘driving hazard’.
But he said the year would have been a lot worse for those forced to wait in the Drapery if the winter had been colder. He said: “It is not possible to gauge how snow and ice would have affected passengers’ views.”
Last week Northampton’s Labour group announced it would look to build a bus passenger waiting lounge in an empty unit in the Drapery, complete with live journey boards, if it were to take control of the borough council in May.
But leader of the borough council, Councillor David Mackintosh (Con, Rectory Farm) believes the plan would be hard to deliver.
He said: “The difficulty is the borough council doesn’t own any of the properties in the Drapery.
“There are three on the market, two of which are too small, one doesn’t appear suitable on paper. “It sounds like a great idea, but the practical realities are very different.”
Passengers labelled the North Gate bus station a ‘farce’ on its opening day when many were left stranded in the bright new facility as buses queued around the road network.
Others said they were ‘livid’ at missing appointments and some described their nightmare at being stuck on a waiting bus for up to an hour.
A year later and the adjectives have softened only slightly from the doubters of the £7 million facility, built on the former fish market site.
More than 160 Chronicle & Echo readers took to social media to give their one-year appraisals of the station this week, with the majority of responses tending towards the negative. Many of the passengers whose bus service departs from the Drapery, rather than the new
facility voiced their grievances.
Natalie Corrigan said: “I still struggle to find positive things to say about the bus station and my journey still is frustrating as one bus drops at the bottom of the Drapery and then another is in the bus station.
“It’s been freezing in the bad weather too. There has been no improvement at all since opening.”
Jeannie Tony said: “I think it is totally unfair that some of the town can use the new bus station and other parts of the town have to wait out in the street in all weather, with no decent seats to sit on and breathing in other people’s smoke.
“A bus station should cater for all the town not just some parts of it. It is a joke, far too small.”
While the 20p charge for the toilets has proved unpopular with many, others vented their frustration at buses often using the wrong bays.
Joanne Murray said: “The new bus station is not fit for purpose.
“Buses pull in to any space they can find so you never know where to get your bus from.”
This week the leader of Northampton Borough Council, Councillor David Mackintosh, and cabinet member for highways at the county council, Councillor Michael Clarke, both said that roadworks and traffic accidents outside of their control had been the chief cause of gridlock in the town on most occasions when traffic has snarled up around North Gate.
However, some bus passengers were not convinced. Jamie Brown said: “How come this never happened when Greyfriars was open?”
But not everyone had bad things to say about Northgate.
Billy Brooker said: “Hey, improve the heating and its not that bad. The old one was smelly, dark and depressing. At least Northampton has a bus interchange, some places don’t have the luxury of waiting inside for a bus.”