By Terry Grimley
Fifteen years after it first began operation, these suddenly feel like exciting times for Midland Metro.
Large parts of Birmingham city centre are currently turned into a linear building site as the long-awaited extension linking Snow Hill and New Street stations is constructed. After the lengthy hole-in-the-ground phase when underground services were being diverted, the most advanced sections are now beginning to look like a street tramway.
A further extension to Centenary Square is already funded to follow once the line to New Street opens next year. In the last few weeks a series of Government announcements has given the green light to extend further to Five Ways and Edgbaston, and to start an Eastside extension serving the planned HS2 station and terminating at a new multistorey park-and-ride site on Adderley Street, next to the ring road.
The route along Fazeley Street will provide a high-quality public transport spine around which the much-delayed regeneration of Digbeth could gather momentum, especially with the announcement of a new development company to deliver the city’s Curzon masterplan.
One map tantalisingly shows the Digbeth line crossing the ring road to start climbing the hill towards the Birmingham City football ground.
This could be the start of a route to the airport along Bordesley Green East (the location of a segregated tram route until 1953) and the Meadway, serving the regeneration areas of east Birmingham and north Solihull on its way to the proposed UK Central development around the airport, NEC and HS2 interchange.
At the other end of Line 1, revised proposals have been unveiled for an extension to Wolverhampton bus station and a rebuilt rail station. Work is likely to begin in 2016.
The funding announcements suggest we will be seeing a rolling programme of Metro construction over the next few years, mainly focused on Birmingham city centre. The extensions will be operated by a fleet of state-of-the-art Urbos 3 trams built by Spanish manufacturer CAF, which are now being tested before being introduced on the existing line later this year.
What is not on the agenda at the moment is another long-distance route.
The airport line remains an aspiration, as does the even longer-projected one from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill via Dudley. If this happens it is likely to be operated by tram-trains sharing a freight line which is currently mothballed.
Tram-trains, which can run on-street and share tracks with conventional trains, were pioneered in the German city of Karlsruhe and are now well established on the Continent. But their future in the UK is dependent on the outcome of a trial between Sheffield and Rotherham which is not due to begin until 2016.
Meanwhile, the airport will be served by a new rapid bus system, Sprint, along the Coventry Road - funding for which was announced on July 7 along with another route along the Hagley Road. These routes could in theory be converted to Metro in the long term, if they generate sufficient ridership.
So the Metro extensions which have been approved amount to little more than
a mile of track - a glacially slow rate of development for a network whose origins can be traced back to proposals launched by the former West Midlands County Council 30 years ago.
With five million passengers a year Midland Metro is the least used of the UK’s second-generation tram systems. It is dwarfed by the 29 million now carried each year on Greater Manchester’s Metrolink, which was launched around the same time. Compared to the West Midlands’ single 13-mile route, Manchester has six routes totalling 48 miles, with another two lines under construction.
Trams are such an integral part of upwardly-mobile Manchester that they have even featured in the opening credits of Coronation Street. Why has it achieved so much more with its network than the West Midlands has?
Paul Griffiths, Centro’s programme director for Midland Metro, is ideally placed to compare the fortunes of light rail in Birmingham and Manchester. He was previously employed by Metrolink and worked on the extension to the BBC’s Media City development in Salford.
“Light rail has always taken a long time to develop, wherever it is,” he points out. “All second-generation light rail schemes in the UK have had long lead times, but the West Midlands has taken longer than most to get a second phase away. I think that’s probably because of bad luck in terms of funding pots.
“Manchester is now working off the back of the Transport Innovation Fund. The West Midlands dropped out of that process because it didn’t feel that congestion charging was the right way forward. What happened in Manchester was that the congestion charge went to a public vote which was lost, and at that point the Department for Transport came up with the money. So Manchester benefited from that whereas the West Midlands didn’t.
“Now the Department for Transport funding that used to be available is being passed down to the Local Enterprise Partnerships. Centro and our partners are bidding to a much lower level, so there isn’t the possibility to build six lines together, as Manchester did.”
You might also argue that Manchester has done better because the local political and business establishment got behind light rail from the start, whereas their counterparts in the West Midlands have often seemed more ambivalent.
On the other hand, Manchester has created much of its network through conversion of existing heavy rail lines. Birmingham has retained a better local rail network, which has been hugely successful in recent years: 46.5 million passengers were carried in 2012-13, more than double the 2000-1 figure.
The system continues to be improved through schemes like the extension of the Cross-City Line to Bromsgrove, part doubling of the Redditch branch and in the future - if Network Rail can eventually be persuaded to take the Camp Hill chords on board - new services from Kings Heath and Moseley via Moor Street to Tamworth.
The route selected for Midland Metro’s first line has often been criticised as over-cautious, taking an easy option along a disused rail corridor after the collapse of the initial WMCC route, which involved extensive demolition in the Hodge Hill area.
A major drawback is that the Birmingham terminus at Snow Hill is hidden away on the periphery of the city centre, giving trams little profile in the city. Every other second-generation tram system in the UK served its main urban centre in its first phase. The contribution trams have made to giving Nottingham the feel of a sophisticated modern European city is particularly striking.
In Manchester a crucial first step was to connect the two city centre stations at Piccadilly and Victoria - the equivalent of which will belatedly be achieved by Birmingham’s extension from Snow Hill to New Street.
So it may be that the initial extension from Snow Hill to New Street will have an impact far out of proportion to its physical length.
Paul Griffiths comments: “In 2009, when we put this particular scheme together, the thing was to get the trams highly visible on-street. That’s really what Midland Metro has been missing. It’s what second-generation systems have, and we thought it was the absolute must-have component.”
One consequence of Manchester’s conversion of “live” railways is that obtrusive high platforms have had to be incorporated into street-running sections.
Birmingham’s use of modern low-floor trams means that present and future extensions can be much better integrated into what will hopefully become a significantly improved streetscene.
As the Big City Plan unfolds there will be numerous opportunities to integrate Metro with major developments. The first two extensions will link the new Snow Hill office quarter - where a possible redevelopment of the station is being considered - New Street Station, Paradise Circus and Arena Central. Future examples could include the redevelopment of the wholesale markets site, where Metro could be a key element in masterplanning a huge southwards expansion of the city centre.
But can the Metro compete alongside future plans for bus-based rapid transit? The problem with trams is the high initial cost of building the system - not least that first phase of moving services from under the trackbed.
Mr Griffiths is currently leading a £3 million project for UK Tram, the umbrella body for light rail in the UK, to identify ways of making systems more affordable.
“They could include prefabricated track consisting of concrete sections with track already set in it, so if there’s a need to access the services underneath you could lift it out and then replace it, saving money on moving all the services.
“The UK hasn’t really had a pipeline of tram activity. Unless you have a certain amount of work coming forward it’s difficult to get the investment in these things. But at the moment there’s quite a lot of interest and investment in light rail.”