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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On boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.