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MANY HAPPY RETURN JOURNEYS

29-05-2009

Metro

Ten years old on Sunday yet no bigger than the day it was born, Steve Beauchampé considers Midland Metro’s future growth prospects.

This really is a case of ‘not in my backyard’ (or perhaps not on my local arterial road). Since the 1980s, schemes to develop a network of tram lines in Birmingham and the West Midlands have been proposed, costed debated, rejected, revived and abandoned again. Along Coventry Road to the NEC, down Hagley Road or Bristol Road, past the Fox and Goose at Hodge Hill, wherever routes have been proposed, opposition has been galvanised amongst residents worried at the impact of light rail on their neighbourhoods, their green spaces.

A decade on and there remains just a single line: Birmingham - Wolverhampton via West Bromwich, Wednesbury and Bilston. For the most part it works pretty well; it’s safe, clean and passengers pay their fares (the trams have conductors), it keeps cars off the road and it helps on average roughly 14,000 people per day move around the region a little easier.

But as the service celebrates it’s tenth anniversary, any extension to the existing, line seems as far away as ever. Two major adjuncts have been proposed - a spur to the Merry Hill shopping centre at Brierley Hill and an on-street extension in central Birmingham from Snow Hill station along Broad Street to Five Ways. While the plans have lain dormant, seeking funding and public support, the regeneration of Birmingham city centre has moved on. A major office development and road realignment has squeezed the room for expansion at Snow Hill, while Birmingham City Council Leader Mike Whitby’s suggestion to use money set aside for Metro expansion on funding the Library of Birmingham project perhaps indicates how low a priority the current administration gives the proposals.

The current line found favour because, aside from a relatively short stretch at the Wolverhampton end, it runs along disused rail routes, thus causing minimum inconvenience to other transport networks and the neighbourhoods it serves. And here’s the rub. Getting Metro onto the streets of central Birmingham means major disruption to existing bus services to the adverse effect of passengers and traders alike.

I’m not even sure how Metro would get from its current route into central Birmingham. It would have to leave its present trajectory somewhere around the St. Paul’s stop, travel along Constitution Hill, continue into St. Chad’s Queensway arriving near to (but no longer at) Snow Hill station. But the roadway has recently been narrowed leaving Metro (two lines thereof) to fight it’s corner with a myriad of buses and cars as it snakes its way through town.

Reaching Corporation Street via either Old Square or Upper Bull Street presents similar (arguably greater) issues, which may require the jettisoning of cars and buses from these routes, while previous proposals have dictated that Corporation Street and further on in the route, Broad Street (and broad the road surface ain’t), would be cleared of all other traffic and pedestrianised. To replace dozens of bus routes with two Metro Lines, running perhaps only four times an hour in each direction during evenings and on Sundays, seems extravagant.

I shudder to think of the impact on bus users, their services displaced and marginalised throughout large parts of the central core. Yet it really is an either or situation where buses and Metro are concerned. Metro can’t go underground and it can’t go overhead.

If there is any future in non-disruptive Metro expansion it probably lies in utilising further disused rail lines or derelict land, assets which the Black Country has in abundance. Feeding into Line 1 (which could even be extended deeper into Wolverhampton), connecting some of the region’s disparate and arguably neglected communities, would be an admirable project.

Birmingham’s best bet might be to forget the Corporation Street/Broad Street plan, try and run the line down towards Eastside using Priory Queensway (wide enough once the central barrier is removed) and push on towards Bordesley, Saltley or Duddeston. However, given that ten years after Line 1 opened progress on Metro remains stalled, by the time anything gets built we might all be flying around powered by personal jet packs available at £20 a throw from Tesco.

So we may have to accept that what we’ve got is all we’re going to get. But Line 1 existence alone is enough to raise a glass on this auspicious occasion.

See TRAIN IN VAIN

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