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TRAIN IN VAIN

15-05-2009

trains

According to Transport Minister Lord Adonis the necessity for a new main line station in Birmingham is being investigated. A little late, says Steve Beauchampé, who fears that train maybe about to leave the station as it were, if it hasn’t gone already.

When it comes to the region’s rail infrastructure (both light and heavy) the lack of foresight and long-term strategic thinking displayed in recent years by local politicians, public transport bodies and organisations such as regional development agency Advantage West Midlands is astonishing.

Birmingham needs a new centrally located railway station, a cause championed by, amongst others, the engineering experts Ove Arup and Partners and Lord Peter Snape, former West Bromwich East MP and Chairman of Travel West Midlands.

Their proposals for the Birmingham ‘Grand Central’ scheme at Curzon Street have long been dismissed by city councillors, council officials and the likes of AWM as an annoying diversion both to the redevelopment of New Street Station and the Eastside area of Digbeth.

The debate was reignited this week after Minister of State for Transport Lord Adonis, speaking at a gathering to mark completion of the £9bn West Coast Main Line upgrade, reportedly said that a Government appointed panel drawing up plans for a new high speed rail link between Birmingham and London was investigating the need for a major new station in the city.

Not before time either. Reports last year by several influential voices, including the House of Commons Transport Select Committee and the highly respected Railfuture group, cautioned that the £600m redevelopment of New Street Station, known as Birmingham Gateway (or Birmingham Gateway Plus if you’re Harriet Harman), fails to address key capacity problems and that alternatives must be sought.

The issue cannot be dodged and while the principle of overhauling New Street Station as proposed by the Gateway scheme is basically sound, in terms of dealing with the region’s wider rail needs it is largely irrelevant.

Yet with rail travel expected to increase significantly both mid and long term (and faster in the West Midlands than Network Rail once forecast), unless decisions are taken (and in certain cases earlier ones reversed) forthwith, then the possibility of expanding Birmingham’s station platform and track infrastructure, necessary to address the region’s rail capacity problems and vital to its economic well-being, will be lost for decades, if it is not already.

The Curzon Street plan involved building a new railway station in Eastside, on land until recently occupied by Parcelforce and Castle Cement. However this site (and land immediately adjoining it) is now earmarked for a voluminous office and apartment scheme named Curzon Gate, a new campus for Birmingham City University, a strip of parkland and a vertical theme park (with the first and last of these projects likely to be put on hold for the forseeable future).

It is testimony to the lack of joined up thinking which has characterised Eastside, that a vital portion of land, once designated for Richard Rogers’ Library of Birmingham, has been sold to the private sector and planning permission granted, seemingly without the City Council or AWM taking an overview of the region’s transport infrastructure requirements…so much for a Big City Plan!

Central Birmingham has no other sizeable parcels of vacant land available on which a main line railway station and its attendant infrastructure could realistically be sited (any new terminal must be located south or east of New Street Station so as to serve the proposed additional high speed route between Birmingham and London, to capitalise on links to the Cross Country line serving Lincoln and Stanstead and provide connections to Moor Street Station).

The Curzon Street idea dates back several years, but almost no-one of influence within the city appears to have taken it seriously, so pre-occupied have they been with New Street. Network Rail’s lack of urgency is such that in 2008 they suggested that a significant expansion of local rail capacity might not be necessary for another 20 years!

One obvious solution to Birmingham’s rail capacity problems would have been widening the tunnels at the southern entrance to New Street Station (the only conceivable way of significantly increasing the throughput of trains), a notorious bottleneck, which in addition to providing extra tracks would have allowed for the construction of more or longer platforms at the station itself, thereby increasing its efficiency.

However, in their haste to facilitate the rebuilding of the Bull Ring Shopping Centre, Birmingham City Council allowed developers The Birmingham Alliance to excavate in the very place needed for such tunnel expansion, thus ending all prospect of increased track capacity at New Street.

The expansion of Moor Street Station is also set to be stymied by private commercial developments. Given that, more than five years after the station was rebuilt and refurbished, the short stretch of track running from the passenger lines to the extended platform has still to be connected to the network, the prospect of major platform or infrastructure expansion seems fanciful.

But it will effectively be killed off if planning permission is granted next week to the Beorma Quarter office/apartments/hotel/retail scheme, immediately to the south and west of Moor Street Station.

Likewise at Snow Hill (where a rail track was removed and a platform decommissioned several years ago to facilitate Metro Line 1), construction of office blocks and a hotel have scuppered all prospect of track expansion, while re-instating the lost rail line would most likely involve disconnecting Metro Line 1 from the station and snaking it around St. Chad’s and Snow Hill Queensway.

Meanwhile, a solution espoused by one city councillor to Birmingham’s rail capacity problems, which involved a greatly enhancing Bordesley station near the High Street, Bordesley/Coventry Road junction, was at the edge of both the city centre, and credibility.

If there remains even one option left on the table it would appear to be Curzon Street, or some variation of it. Like Manchester’s Piccadilly, it is envisaged as primarily a terminal station, but with a relatively simple connection to both the adjacent New Street line and the tracks running to and from Moor Street via a partially existing loop near Bordesley.

No one doubts that the Curzon Street site presents enormous engineering and planning challenges, as would be the case with any new centrally located rail station. Naturally, the costs are huge, but they’re not going to get any smaller by leaving it longer.

But if Birmingham truly wants to be regarded as a ‘world class’ city, as its political, marketing and business leaders so keenly state, then here is a challenge it should rise to; jettison the un-lettable buy-to-let apartments and the un-sellable Grade A Office space (plots which the developers concerned may be willing to divest themselves of given the ongoing economic uncertainty) as well as the finger of parkland currently allocated for this location - they can go elsewhere.

Instead build the city, the region - indeed the nation - a new railway interchange, something to benefit everyone, something that future generations will look back on and applaud. If it hasn’t gone already, the last train is about to leave…

Birmingham had better get on it.

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