The refurbishment of New Street Station is within our grasp, but critics say the #550 million scheme is only a sticking-plaster approach. Public Affairs Editor Paul Dale reports.
Grand Central Station is New Street's elephant in the corner of the room. Everyone knows it is there, but no one wants to talk about it. The reason for this reluctance is quite simple. Birmingham is unlikely to be able to persuade the Government to finance two new railway stations, so any discussion now about long term plans for Grand Central at Eastside might put paid to the #550 million revamp of New Street.
All political parties on Birmingham City Council, as well as the regional development agency, the passenger transport authority, the Chamber of Commerce and Network Rail, are committed to the New Street Gateway project, which in reality is a major city centre regeneration scheme and far more than just a refurbished station.
And yet, the dream of Grand Central just won't go away.
This is due in part to Network Rail's refusal to rule out absolutely the idea of a new station at Eastside. Indeed, last summer in a briefing to The Birmingham Post, Network Rail conceded that it was not a question of if, but when Grand Central would be built.
This, however, was tempered by the caveat that nothing would happen until 2046 at the earliest.
Almost immediately, Network Rail began to retract falling back on the tried and tested formula that Grand Central "isn't on the agenda".
This goes some way to explaining the claim by Ove Arup, the firm behind Grand Central, that the refurbished New Street will not have the capacity to deal with the growing numbers of passengers wanting to travel by train.
Arup suggest the new New Street will have a shelf life of only 12 years and that by 2025 will be operating beyond capacity.
The firm points to what it says is a fundamental error in the Network Rail/DfT study, which suggests that passenger growth will average 1.1 per cent a year. This estimate is significantly lower than predictions used by the Government since 1995 and is completely out of tune with recent experience, according to Arup.
Network Rail strongly disputes this, although appears to concede that a brand new station will be required at some indeterminate future point. As far as the next 20 or 30 years is concerned, Network Rail points to its joint capacity study with the Department of Transport which concluded that longer trains serving the new New Street would be able to satisfy customer demand.
This idea was condemned as "half baked" by former Labour MP Lord Snape and is also ridiculed by Arup, who point out that longer trains will do nothing to improve the notorious bottleneck from the east into New Street where 12 tracks funnel into four.
In any case, many of the other stations on the West Coast Main Line do not have long enough platforms to take the longer trains.
A Network Rail spokesman was keen to dismiss claims that the Gateway scheme is a "shopping mall with legs on it".
He said the project was primarily a transportation scheme which relied for most of its funding on transport bodies.
On the question of estimated growth in passenger numbers, the spokesman said: "Growth figures we have seen in the past five to ten years exceeded any previously. Whilst we do predict a further rise in rail use it is not going to be at quite the same level.
"I would be very surprised if a construction design firm had better predictions of growth than the Department for Transport.
"The West Midlands Rail Capacity Survey was signed off by every interested and informed party in the rail industry and is not challengeable."
New Street's backers suggest that the capacity problem could be solved by tunnelling the cross city line under the station, but that would cost #1 billion and there is no sign of funding approval from the Government.
Network Rail has concentrated on emphasising how a refurbished New Street will be able to cope with 150 per cent more passengers, thanks to extensive glass atriums where customers will wait airport-style until shortly before their trains arrive.
They will then descend via escalators to the platforms. This, it is argued, will put paid to congestion problems which sometimes force the closure of entrance barriers to the station during peak periods.
Critics are not so sure, pouring cold water on the notion that passengers will be content to wait until shortly before their train is "called" before making their way in an orderly fashion to the relevant platform. Whatever its merits, Grand Central will not happen without the support of the Department for Transport and Birmingham City Council. Neither is prepared to back the scheme at the moment.
The city council, led by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, sees the Gateway scheme as a pivotal regeneration project, forming a natural pedestrian link between the Bullring and the Mailbox and opening up a huge area for shopping redevelopment.
This prompted the likes of Lord Snape and others to comment that the Gateway scheme is actually about building a shopping centre with a railway station tagged on.
Arup's chosen site for Grand Central, between Moor Street Station and Millennium Point, has been earmarked by the council for the new city park.
That, it would appear, will put paid to the Grand Central Station.
Unless, of course, another site could be found.