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 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.