A Sustainable Future for Birmingham – Part 2
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In the first article of this three-part series we looked at the future of personal transport. In this second piece, we turn to consider mass public transport and how it could play a significant part in the future of commuting. Birmingham is beginning to make substantial changes to its transport infrastructure, but are the changes big enough?
Opened on 30 May 1999, the West Midlands Metro provided a link between Wolverhampton and Birmingham. This was subsequently extended through the city centre between Snow Hill and New Street Stations, with a further section out to Edgbaston due to open in 2021. This is not, however, the end of the expansion plans. Further extensions are already proposed (and in construction), linking the Metro to Curzon Street (for HS2), Solihull (for the HS2 Interchange, NEC and airport) and Brierley Hill (including Merry Hill for the shopping centre). These extensions aim to change the purpose of the Metro from an intercity line to a regular commuting system, providing a much-needed alternative to the existing bus routes.
This new and rapidly expanding tram network is and will continue to be a great benefit to Birmingham. It is, however, only a small part of a much larger network that once ran in the city. Before its closure on 4 July 1953, Birmingham City Transport operated the largest narrow-gauge tram network in the UK. Stretching as far as Erdington, Hall Green, Rednal and (via Black Country Tramways) Wolverhampton, over 80 miles of track linked large areas of the city (though many of these lines had closed in 1947). The tracks have long since been lifted and the trams confined to museums, with many of the roads that the trams used to pass down far too busy now for reinstatement, even without considering the massive cost.
In addition to the ever-growing Metro, a few heavy rail lines are being reopened to the public. In particular the former Camp Hill Line, which has not served local commuters since 1941, is planned to reopen in 2023. Three new stations at Moseley, Kings Heath and Hazelwell are to be constructed, with a possible fourth station to follow at Balsall Heath. At present commuters in these city areas are limited to cars or buses in order to reach the city centre. The ability to catch a train should see a significant reduction in overcrowding on the already busy bus routes.
The Camp Hill Line is not the only railway line which could be considered for reopening (though it is the most feasible in the short term). On the other side of the city is the Sutton Park Line, running through Water Orton, Walmley, Sutton Coldfield, Streetly and Aldridge, with a now lifted further branch line to Brownhills and Walsall Wood. With the exception of Sutton Coldfield, none of these areas are currently served by a railway or Metro link. While the Brownhills branch was closed to passengers in 1930 and freight in 1960 (and the track lifted by 1965), the Sutton Park Line remains in service as a freight only line. Plans have been mooted to bring it back into the fold as a commuter line, which would further improve the city’s mass transport capacity, but may have a significant impact on freight routings.
While the reopening of these lines is positive, it belies a deeper problem. Birmingham’s rail network, prior to the pandemic, was already operating at or near capacity during the peak commuting periods. New Street station in particular has little room for expansion, at least not without finding a way to increase the number of lines in and out of the station. This may change with the completion of the new HS2 link at Curzon Street, as some of the intercity traffic moves out of New Street. However, the extent that this will assist and the timescale for completion is still unclear.
This leaves much of the extra rail capacity to be found at Snow Hill and Moor Street stations. While there are plans to grow both of these stations, the exact details of how additional capacity will be created and used is still being considered. If Birmingham is to significantly increase its rail capacity, and reduce the city’s reliance on cars, significant upgrades will be needed at both stations to allow for a vast increase in the number of trains at peak periods.
Aside from general upgrades to the bus network, the city is also developing a small network of sprint bus lines - express buses which have priority over other road users. These sprint lines should serve two purposes:
As may be seen, there is significant scope to improve the city’s mass transport provision. This will be essential if we want to improve air quality and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It will, however, require significant investment over a sustained period to achieve the maximum possible benefits.
In truth, with a city the size of Birmingham, there may be a limit on how far the mass transit systems can be pushed. Trains may have significant capacity, but they are limited by where the rails run. Buses on the other hand have the flexibility to run on almost any road, but are limited by their own capacity and the ability to convert vehicles to cleaner power sources. Further, buses create non-exhaust particles in the same way that cars do. A significant increase in the number of buses therefore leads to a similar problem as we currently have with cars (although it is accepted that buses may be more efficient in this regard).
The greatest change may well be the reduction in commuting due to working at home. While companies are still considering the world post-Covid, many are now looking at a simple truth – many people can work efficiently from home. With one of the largest costs to any company being office overheads, the option for people to work at home 50% or more of the time may be attractive to companies and employees alike. It would certainly be beneficial to the environment. With companies touting green credentials front and centre, this could itself be a major driver towards home working.
In the third part of this series we will move on to consider both options for generating energy within the city and other technologies which could improve our urban environment.
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