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

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TfL is offering you the chance to stop two proposed Bakerloo line stations from having stupid names

Bakerloo line trains at London Road depot, mournfully wishing they could continue their journey to the south. Image: Getty.

Ever wanted to name a tube station? Well boy is this your lucky week. The latest round of Transport for London's interminable consultation on the proposed extension of the Bakerloo line from Elephant & Castle to Lewisham, hopefully due to arrive at some point in the early 2030s, is asking your input into names.

Necessary background blah blah blah. The most efficient way of running a metro line is to have it cross the city. The Central Line, for example, doesn't just allow west Londoners to get into the city centre: it allows east Londoners to do the same, and for everyone to get about within the city centre to boot. All that and it's only one line. Amazing really, isn't it?

But the Bakerloo line, unusually, isn't doing all this, because it gets to the south-eastern-most edge of the city centre and then gives up. That doesn't just mean that south east London remains the bit of the capital most poorly served by TfL's rail network, although it does mean that – there are no stations inside the yellow box here, look:

The tube/rail desert, with the rough location of the proposed new stations marked. Image: Google Maps.

It also means that the line through the centre isn't pulling its weight compared to every other line, because it's a lot more useful to commuters coming from the north west than from the south east. That's great if you want to get a seat for the six minutes it takes to get from Elephant to Embankment. It's not great if you're, say, in charge of London's transport network and want to sweat your assets.

Anyway, the plan for some time has been to extend the line under New and Old Kent Roads, down to New Cross Gate and Lewisham. A later phase may see it take over the Hayes branch of the South Eastern Rail network, but one thing at a time. The official map of the proposal looks like this:

Ooooh. Image: TfL.

Old Kent Road 1 and Old Kent Road 2 are obviously rubbish names for stations, so the latest round of consultation suggests some alternatives: Old Kent Road or Burgess Park for the northern one, Old Kent Road or Asylum for the southern.

CityMetric has long argued that naming stations after roads is stupid: either the road is long enough that it's not a useful name because who knows if you’re at the right end or not, or short enough that it's only useful to people who already know an area. The fact that two different stations might revel in the name Old Kent Road seems to me to prove this point pretty nicely – so if I had my way TfL would go with Burgess Park and Asylum. The latter, named for both Asylum Road and, well, what used to be an asylum, seems particularly cool to me.

Alternatively, buses terminating at the former have sometimes said "Old Kent Road Dun Cow" after a long dead pub, and naming a tube station after some livestock is amusing too, so, Dun Cow, why not?


Meanwhile the latter site, next to the junction between Asylum Road and the Old Kent Road, is sometimes known as Canal Bridge, because it used to be where the Old Kent Road crossed the Surrey Canal. The latter is long gone – although more bridges across it remain in Burgess Park, which is nicely surreal – but naming tube stations after two things that aren't there any more would be amusing too.

Anyway, the point is: please don't call either of these stations Old Kent Road, the world is confusing enough as it is. Now go vote.

Incidentally, one thing TfL has already decided is that there won't be a third Old Kent Road station, at its northernmost point, the Bricklayers Arms junction. This seems a shame to me, but I suppose they know what they're doing.

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

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