Andy Street’s £15bn West Midlands Transport Plan: An Analysis
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
Courtesy of Andy Street, the West Midlands finally has a vision for a region-wide tram network and the ambition of the plans is to be commended but, exciting as it is, it cannot pass without some observations.
The expansion of the West Midlands Metro is long overdue and ought to have been masterminded when the first tram line opened in 1999. Back then there was no West Midlands Combined Authority to create this region-wide framework and it's a hugely positive step that we finally have one. We now have something to fight for rather than demanding vague notions of ‘better public transport’.
At the moment the map is really just a pretty picture roughly corresponding to the geography of the region. Several of the lines are already under construction so we know their exact route but how much work has been done planning the rest is anyone’s guess. How much of the network will be catenary-free is another factor not specified by the simple map.
With the mayoral elections looming, the timing of the release is clearly opportunistic and the omission of real detail about the routes and stops is intelligent politicking. Creating a vision for the network will garner universal support and acclaim but as soon as you publish the specifics the people who live alongside the planned routes or presently drive along them might start feeling less enthusiastic about the whole thing. We can, however, speculate as to where they might run.
Black Country Line
11km of this extension is already under construction. It will branch off the one existing metro line east of Wednesbury Great Western Street to travel through Dudley, currently the largest town in the UK without a rail station, on its way to Brierley Hill. The vast majority of the line will run on a former railway line and there will be 17 stops along the route.
This bit is scheduled for completion in 2023 but our map suggests future extensions southwards towards Stourbridge and northwards towards Walsall are on the cards. Both will probably follow the route of the same disused railway line.
This line is the only one currently in operation and includes the recently approved Eastside extension to Digbeth and the yet to be approved extension to the NEC and Birmingham Airport.
Beyond Digbeth what will become the Midland Line will continue along the B4128 through Bordesley Green, Meadway for Birmingham Museum’s new collection centre, Chelmsley Wood, one of the most deprived areas of the West Midlands and where Michelin starred chef Glynn Purnell hails from, and then on to the Airport and HS2 interchange.
Sadly, the Wolverhampton Loop, which would connect the former St George’s terminus to the new railway station via a looped line travelling around the city centre, seems to have been quietly dropped. What will happen to the original Wolverhampton St George’s tram stop when services are diverted to Piper’s Row and the railway station next year is anyone’s guess.
For many of the lines it’s unclear how they plug into the city centre but it seems that beyond the middle ring road this line will take you northwards on the Aston Expressway before joining Lichfield Road, traveling along the A527, switching onto the A38 to follow the northern edge of JLR in Castle Bromwich and finally terminating at Minworth.
To facilitate this line we will probably see some of the Aston Expressway downgraded or perhaps the closing of the tunnels which travel underneath the roundabout, similar to what has happened at Five Ways to enable the Westside extension to Edgbaston.
On the map you can also see the proposed opening of Fort Parkway, Castle Bromwich, Walmley and Reddicap Heath rail stations. Part of the a reopened line that runs through Sutton Park, stations further north would include Sutton Park, Streetly and Aldridge.
Southwards it will most likely travel through the new Smithfield development, through the bloody awful St Luke’s development of tiny houses and then down the Pershore Road allowing access to the Cricket Ground and the MAC. Beyond that it is likely that it will turn right at some point, perhaps onto Priory Road and then left onto the A38 past Pebble Mill, King Edwards School and then down an improved Selly Oak high street.
Birmingham City Council have already published plans to downgrade Selly Oak high street, widen pavements, plant trees and make the road far more pedestrian friendly with the bulk of traffic redirected along the A38. This will allow an interchange at Selly Oak station, one of the busiest rail stations in the region, and reduce the amount of overcrowding on services along the line into New Street by providing an alternative route.
The Selly Oak triangle is already a mess but expect a branch line that will somehow navigate it to travel past the University of Birmingham’s soon to be built biosciences park and then on to Harborne. Where exactly it will terminate, who knows.
The branch to Frankley will most likely start adjacent to the Black Horse in Northfield and follow Frankley Beaches Road before joining Egghill Lane and passing through some fields all the way into Frankley.
Depicted in red, presumably for socialism, the Macarthur Line westbound is a fairly straightforward extension from Edgbaston following the Hagley Road to Halesowen and branching off towards Oldbury along the A4123, taking the A4034 into the town centre, leaving the ring road along the A457, through Tividale on the A4033 and finally the A461 into Dudley.
Eastbound the line's best option is to follow the Coventry Road as far as Sheldon before splitting to travel towards either Birmingham Airport or Solihull. It's not abundantly clear how it will interact with the stop on the Midland Line on the opposite side of the Airport but it will provide a much needed direct link with Solihull. Presently you either have to take the bus or a train from Solihull to Birmingham Moor Street and then walk to New Street to take a second train to Birmingham International - quite a circuitous route given that Solihull is only 4 miles from the Airport.
Lee Woods Line
Upon leaving the ring road southbound trams seem to follow the Snow Hill Line between Small Heath and Hall Green, perhaps as a tram-train. The map is perhaps slightly misleading in this respect as there would not be sufficient track space beyond Tyseley for this to occur and it is more likely that trams would follow the Stratford Road through Sparkhill as far as the Robin Hood Island. That being said, why this isn't made explicit with a few indicative stops before Hall Green is an odd one.
It would also be a missed opportunity not to take this line as far as Blythe Valley Business Park, terminating in a large Park and Ride near the motorway. Such a terminus would capture traffic coming off the M42 and also ensure good connectivity between Solihull, the Business Park, HS2 and the Airport.
Northbound both the Zephaniah and Lee Woods lines pass through Perry Barr before diverging with a possible route for the latter passing along the A435 before joining the B4138. The road is one of many in the West Midlands to feature a tree-lined central reservation on which trams used to run before the lines were ripped up.
Modern trams are far too big for these central reservations and will probably run on the road instead but I hope that the green space in the middle is utilised for segregated cycle routes, as has been done brilliantly on the Bristol Road. This will also provide a safer experience for cyclists who will no longer have to dodge cars, buses, trams as well as tram tracks.
Turning onto the B4149 takes you towards Boldmere before finally heading as an as yet unidentified possible route into Sutton Coldfield.
The big question for the northbound route is whether we will see the proposed Sprint service abandoned straight after the Commonwealth Games. With proposed tram lines passing through Perry Bar along the A34 towards Walsall the northbound stretch of this line is likely to follow the proposed Sprint route.
Southbound, however, the route is slightly less obvious and seems to be a duplication of the Camp Hill rail line which is due to be reopened by 2022. It's also not entirely clear how this line will successfully serve both Kings Heath and Stirchley and then somehow loop back round towards Druids Heath and Maypole. Something that will strike you as you travel south on the Pershore Road is how hilly it becomes. You can even see Birmingham City Centre from the junction with Lifford Lane, about 5 miles away. Whether the route would be too steep for trams is a question for more qualified minds but with steep hills and several narrow bridges along the way it’s unclear how feasible it would be for trams to run through there at all.
Several lines converge around the present location of Bordesley Station. How they interact or even how they might possibly interact I’ve no idea - especially when you chuck in the added confusion of the Camp Hill Chords round there too.
Not so much a line as an example of why spirographs are not employed in infrastructure planning, Coventry's Very Light Rail network is distinct from the tram network of the wider region. Depicted in sky blue for Coventry City's football team, the butterfly shaped network will likely serve the city centre, University Hospital, Rolls Royce at Ansty, JLR, Warwick University and Coventry Arena but exactly how it will do that feel free to pitch in in the comments below.
The less said about this the better. As far as autonomous pods go, if you link them together, you can increase their efficiency and then if you can put the complex equipment required to move them around in one unit at the front of the chain, voila, you've just invented the tram.
HS2 doesn’t really belong on the map but as it’s there I’m disappointed that it hasn’t been shown in its entirety, extending northwards rather than just to London. Provided the government get a move on the northern sections of the route should be completed by 2040.
I suppose if you reign for long enough everything gets named after you. This line appears to run on the middle ring road, which given Birmingham City Council’s intention to divert through traffic currently using the A38 tunnels onto it will not go down well with motorists. I would assume that this line would be the last in the programme, perhaps around 2035-2040 when the others have been completed and our dependence on cars finally broken.
For this reason I would rather not call it the Elizabeth Line, nor indeed the Charles Line but instead, the Manzoni Line after our chief planner responsible for raising most of Victorian Birmingham to the ground in the 50s and 60s. He was the one who turned Birmingham into ‘motor city’ and I think it would be suitably ironic to see trams on a line named after him replacing cars on the ring road that he built.
It's entirely likely that many of Andy Street's routes will follow those that existed in the 1930s, especially south of Birmingham, where the roads aren't a hideous mess and instead radiate pleasingly from the city centre. Many of these routes are blessed with tree lined central reservations, the legacy of the Birmingham Corporation Tramways which pioneered 'reserved tramways'. Imagine how different the city would be today if we still possessed this network instead of giving the city over to cars.