Why shouldn’t Birmingham have its own Crossrail?

The crowded approach to Birmingham New Street station. Image: Getty.

For reasons I won’t bother explaining again, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Birmingham recently. Being me, I’ve been using this chance to explore the city and its transport network a bit, and as I’ve done so, something has hit me: its trains really aren’t that good.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise, really: outside London, very few British cities have a decent commuter train network, thanks largely to the sterling work Dr Beeching did on behalf of the motor industry back in the 1960s. But I had some vague sense that the West Midlands at least had a lot of trains: the network is extensive enough to justify its own vaguely tube-inspired system map, complete with fare zones, shown below in its 2010 incarnation:

Click to expand. Image: Network West Midlands.

On closer inspection, though, the service from many of those stations is a bit, well, crap. Those on the north-south Cross-City line, which links Lichfield to Redditch, aren’t bad: you rarely have to wait more than a few minutes for a train on the stations in the city proper. 

But that’s the exception, not the rule. Stechford station is about four miles east of the city centre. Here’s the departures board at time of writing:

Click to expand.

That’s one train to New Street, in the city centre, every half hour. (Birmingham International is the station for the airport, outside the city.) For a suburban railway line, that’s rubbish.

It’s not unusual in Birmingham, however. Perry Barr is about three miles north of the city centre. Trains to New Street continue on to Wolverhampton:

Click to expand.

Trains every half hour again – and the next one is running late. Still, could be worse, this is Adderley Park, just two miles east of the City centre:

Click to expand.

One an hour. You genuinely might as well walk.

At any rate: the 2011 census found that Birmingham was more car dependent than any other major English city. It seems highly probable that the low frequency of its train services is one of the reasons why.

Image: Centre for Cities.

Birmingham is one of Britain’s fastest growing major cities, and is well-placed to attract jobs from the capital as people and firms get priced out. That extensive rail network, you’d think, would be a good basis for something akin to a Birmingham S-Bahn. At the moment, though, it’s nothing like.

The problem

There are no doubt many reasons why West Midlands Railway, which has run the city’s trains since last year, is unable to unilaterally triple frequencies on those lines: lack of funding, lack of trains, the complications caused by sharing tracks with faster trains from beyond the conurbation.

But a big one seems likely to be what happens in the centre of Birmingham. Below is a map of the region’s railway network, by Andrew Smithers of Project Mapping (it’s a brilliant site, and one which, if you’re a CityMetric reader, you will almost certainly be able to lose hours on). The map colour codes the services by operator: orange is West Midlands Railway, essentially the suburban train operator; the other four colours represent other operators, serving destinations further afield. (London Northwestern Railway, in green, is actually a sister company of West Midlands Railway, but for our purposes that doesn’t matter.)

Look at the stretch through New Street:

Click to expand. Image: Andrew Smithers/Project Mapping.

That’s five different operators sharing the tracks through New Street station, all competing for constrained track and platform space. By my count, of the off-peak services serving New Street at present, there are 24 trains per hour run by other operators, and two longer distance services run by West Midlands trains. Just 19 slots – less than half – go to suburban services. That really isn’t many to go round.

At any rate: West Midlands Railway has to compete for space with four other companies. It isn’t simply that these rivals have no interest in improving services for the people of Erdington or Perry Barr: doing so would actively damage them, by reducing the space to run trains to London, Leeds or Liverpool. The constraints on capacity at New Street makes this a zero sum game.

So here’s my proposal: forget New Street. Start digging.


The solution

Birmingham Crossrail would be a new tunnel under the city, served exclusively by local trains. It would stop more frequently than the existing railway lines, to make it easier to reach different parts of the city centre. And it would swallow several of those under-served local routes to give them much more frequent services to and through the city.

In this way you could increase suburban service frequenices in the Midlands while also freeing up space at New Street. The new tunnel, added to the existing Cross-City line, would provide the backbone of something much more like an S-Bahn.

Where exactly would this line stop? Well, this is where we run into questions of practicality and plausibility. (No, I haven’t actually done any surveys to check that such a tunnel is even possible, don’t be silly.) But since I’ve come this far, I might as well go full crayonista. I’d have trains dive into a tunnel slightly to the east of the city centre (at the moment, they enter on a viaduct, which complicates things, but I’m not pretending this would be easy).

After that, they’d stop at the new HS2 station at Curzon Street, before serving a combined New Street/Moor Street underground station, possibly known as Grand Central. There’d be a third city centre stop at Centenary Square on the city’s Westside, then two more underground stations in Ladywood and Rotton Park, out in the rail deserts of western Birmingham.

You could then plug some of the under-served suburban routes into this tunnel and run more frequent trains along them. The Chase Line to Walsall is the obvious one, is that’s reasonably self-contained. Ideally, you’d want the stopping services to Wolverhampton and Coventry to use our new tunnel, too. That may require new tracks in places, to ensure more frequent services don’t get in the way of high speed ones – but since I’m already inventing a multi-billion pound tunnel here this seems a mere detail.

Here’s a map of my proposed tunnel (in red and brown), as well as the existing Cross-City line (in green). Existing stations are marked in black; new ones in maroon.

Click to expand. This map was made with the assistance of J.P.Wright’s Build A Better Subway website.

Et voila, a Midlands S-Bahn.

There are all sorts of reasons this isn’t likely to happen. Money is the big one of course (it’s in short supply, and this would cost a lot of it), but there are no doubt practical barriers too, in the height of different branches and the absence of space for separated tracks.

I’m sure this isn’t the best possible version of a Birmingham Crossrail proposal, either. No doubt those who know the city better can put forward many possible improvements.

But all the same – it would be nice for other British cities to get the same care and investment lavished on their rail network as the capital takes for granted, wouldn’t it? If at least something like this was on the agenda for the 2030s?

London, after all, has had underground railways for 165 years, and is just putting the finishing touches to not one but two cross-city rail projects. There are similar schemes in cities all over Europe: the RER in Paris; the S-Bahns of Berlin. Why shouldn’t Birmingham get a Crossrail too?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook 

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.