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 published some tables about Tube Capacity and they are amazing

Budge up. Image: Getty.

Have you ever wondered just how busy the tube is as you’re sardined in every morning? Or which the quietest tube line is in the depths of night?

Well it turns out that Transport for London (TfL) holds this data and quietly released it a few weeks ago in response to a written question to Sadiq Khan from Conservative London Assembly member Tony Devenish. He asked about the capacity on the tube and TfL decided to publish the data it has in the form of three excellent tables which I’m sure the audience of CityMetric will be poring over for some time.

So, most of this won’t be a surprise to many of you veteran commuters: trains being at or over capacity in the morning peak, busy again in the evening peak with a solid use through the rest of the day. However, the data does throw up some interesting nuggets of information about how busy the tube actually is.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

One of the most surprising aspects is how busy the tube remains throughout the day. The Central Line in particular is at 66 per cent capacity from the moment the first train runs and doesn’t dip below 35 per cent throughout the rest of the day, even those late-night services past midnight. Indeed, all of the deep level lines are pretty well used all day.

In the morning peak between 8-9am, the 130 per cent capacity on the Northern Line will be a surprise to nobody, but that is nevertheless very high. The note underneath states that this was calculated this on the basis of standing at a density of 4 people per square metre, so 130 per cent is having 5 and a bit people in just a square metre, again something many of us are familiar with. The Central, Jubilee and Victoria Lines are also above 100 per cent, but it’s interesting to note the jump from 15 per cent to 82 per cent on the Waterloo & City (W&C) Line from 6-8am.

Compare that with just how quiet the Metropolitan and W&C are throughout the day and late at night. A grand total of no one uses the W&C before 6am (it isn’t open), with only 4 per cent using it after midnight. The other sub-surface lines are also relatively quiet after 9pm.

The other trend is the slight increase in use after 10pm on the Bakerloo, Central and Piccadilly Lines. This happens after the commuters go home by 8pm, so the usage dips before bouncing back. It is most likely due to more people making their way home after their evenings out in central London, but an interesting point.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

The second table shows when capacity is over 50 per cent. Again, the Central Line is the busiest with 10 hours a day over half capacity, including before 6am, and the Northern remains busy until 9pm on a typical weekday.

However, the table shows the tube is only more than half full just 35 per cent of the time – something to remember when you’re crammed in at 8:34am. It would be interesting to see if the increase in flexible working has had an impact in recent years. And if you do work flexibly, you should get a quieter commute the earlier or later you head in – just avoid 8-9am.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

The third table shows if all of the seats are taken on the tube. Amazingly they are all taken 71 per cent of the time, and are all taken all day on the Central, Jubilee and Victoria Lines. Again, the Metropolitan is your best bet for a seat, with seats being available for 14 hours a day. The W&C offers a seat for that short journey for 13 hours a day.


How might we expect these tables to change in the next few years? Well TfL recently announced it was extending the morning and evening peaks on the Victoria Line to three hours, with a train every 100 seconds, so those figures could drop. Also, the Four Lines Modernisation programme will see increased service on the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines from 2023, so again TfL will be hoping for those numbers to drop as more trains become available. It will also be interesting to see this table once the Elizabeth Line Crossrail opens.

Thinking further ahead, when the New Tube for London rolling stock upgrade progamme finally arrives from the middle of the next decade onwards, it’ll mean more trains on the Piccadilly and Central Lines initially, followed by the Bakerloo (which could be extended) and W&C. But with population growth expected to continue in London, will it make much of a difference to these tables? Probably not.

Now, to find out what this table would look like for Night Tube, Overground, DLR and Trams…

James Potts tweets @JamesPotts.