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Metro takes centre stage

January 2011

Peter Plisner

After more than 15 years of planning, business case preparation, funding applications and setbacks, the extension of Birmingham’s Midland Metro into the city centre has finally been approved. In a surprise move, the new coalition government gave the scheme the green light as part of its Comprehensive Spending Review. Peter Plisner reports

When plans for the Midland Metro were first unveiled in the mid-1980s, the vision was for a whole network of light rail routes spanning much of the West Midlands conurbation. Twenty-five years on and so far planners have only managed to deliver a single line. Built on a disused railway trackbed, patronage levels have never been as high as predicted.

Plans to extend the line, which runs from the centre of Wolverhampton to Birmingham’s Snow Hill railway station, have been talked about for more than 15 years, but until now have struggled to make it off the drawing board. There had been fears that, with the spending cuts curtailing many ambitious transport projects around the country, the Midland Metro might go the same way. The government had made it clear that it would only fund projects that were deemed a priority. Because the distance covered by the proposed extension was considered to be walkable, many had thought ministers would decide not to fund the project.

To the surprise of many, the money has now been allocated and not only that, the scheme was given national exposure when chancellor George Osborne formally gave it approval as part of his spending review speech in parliament.

Geoff Inskip, chief executive of Metro promoter, Centro, says: ‘We knew the CSR was going to be a tough round of negotiations, so we were delighted to get through. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people here at Centro so it was wonderful news for those involved and for the metropolitan area as a whole.’

Formal approval came after the outgoing Labour government had granted the scheme ‘initial funding approval’ in March 2010. The then transport minister, Chris Mole, had visited the city and pledged a contribution of £81m to the project. But his decision was effectively overturned by the incoming coalition government, which launched a review into all projects that Labour had approved. Fortunately for Birmingham, the new government agreed that the project should go ahead. The original plans for the line saw trams running through Birmingham city centre, with a new terminus provided in the Five Ways business district. However, issues related to funding and concerns about the impact on traffic along some parts of the route led to the line being cut short with trams only going a far as New Street station. It does now mean that the new line will provide a new fast link between Birmingham’s two main line railway stations, something that’s not currently available.

The shortened line, which will have two stops between Snow Hill and New Street, will cost £127m, although part of the price tag includes the purchase of 20 new trams. Inskip says: ‘We need more trams, but also bigger ones that can carry more people. Typically, new trams on the market hold 220 passengers, compared to the 158 capacity of our existing vehicles. Having more of them will also enable us to increase the system’s frequency to every six minutes throughout the day, instead of just during peak times.’

The new fleet will also increase the system’s capacity by 50 per cent. The existing tram fleet will also be 15 years old by the time the new vehicles are due to be delivered. Centro maintains that they are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and will need major refurbishment and renewal. Inskip says: ‘Our appraisal found that it made more sense to buy new trams, especially given the extra capacity and frequency they would provide.’

As part of the expansion plans, the current terminus at Snow Hill station, which uses what was formerly Platform 4 at the station, would be vacated and a new Snow Hill stop would be created close to a new entrance to the station, which is due to open soon. Moving the stop allows the line to be diverted onto a new viaduct and then alongside an office complex that’s recently been completed next door to the station.

Another benefit of moving the stop is that the station will get an additional platform, with heavy rail trains once again running into Platform 4 as they did before the Metro opened.

Inskip says: ‘Removing Metro from Platform 4 at Snow Hill creates the opportunity to reinstate a heavy rail platform to provide extra capacity and flexibility at the station. We will be entering into discussions with Network Rail about exploiting these potential opportunities.’

From Snow Hill, trams would run into Bull Street and then into Corporation Street, allowing access to the city’s shopping district. The route then heads down towards New Street station. As part of a £650m revamp of the station, a new entrance would be created on Stevenson Street, adjacent to the new Metro terminus. Work on the Metro extension will coincide and be closely co-ordinated with the New Street modernisation. Planners have promised to phase the construction in an effort minimise disruption.

The extension is expected to take around two years to build, with work starting on street in 2012. Inskip says: ‘We have been working closely over the last 12 months with the Network Rail project team for New Street Gateway to make sure construction of the two projects are phased and closely coordinated. Infrastructure, such as shelters and stops, will also be carefully designed to reflect those at the Gateway and the proposed new bus interchanges for the city centre.’

All three schemes form part of the Vision for Movement, which in itself is part of Birmingham’s Big City Plan, its blueprint laying out how the heart of city centre should be developed over the next 20 years. Other parts of the project, such as a major extension to the Metro maintenance depot at Wednesbury, will start sooner.

But what of plans to extend the Metro line further to serve the Five Ways business district? Centro maintains that it’s still an aspiration, although the Vision for Movement suggests that the same corridor could be served by bus rapid transit, a system that’s cheaper than trams and considered by some to be more viable.

The vision document states: ‘Metro remains at the heart of the future strategy, first to extend to New Street station and, over time, beyond, to provide access to and from high demand destinations.’ It also suggests that a bus system called Birmingham Sprint will be developed in other rapid transit corridors to support regeneration objectives in the city centre, and provide an incremental step towards the delivery of Metro.

Inskip says: ‘Birmingham Sprint is a rapid transit system, which is quite separate from Metro. It is going to deliver substantial benefits in places where traffic forecasts are not quite high enough to justify Metro.’

Routes along the city’s Broad Street and to the Rail and Air Gateways at Birmingham International are two priorities for early delivery. Although one Midland Metro extension has now got the all-important ministerial green light, there’s still much doubt about what happens to other Metro plans in the region. Centro also wants the Metro to head south to the vast Merry Hill Shopping centre near Stourbridge.

There are plans to run trams out to the airport. The bus-based Sprint programme will help fill the gap left by the nonappearance of light rail in Birmingham, but one big question still remains. After the line to New Street is complete, will anything else be delivered? With the funding constraints we’ll be seeing that, both locally and nationally, over the next five years the answer will probably be no.

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Artist’s impression of a Metro tram passing a re-vamped Birmingham New Street station
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