What should we actually call the West Midlands?

Oooh, Birmingham. Image: Getty.

The West Midlands. It’s one of those phrases where everyone knows what it means, but also no-one knows what it means. And I’m not just saying that as a Northerner pretending the Midlands is really the South, which I’ve been known to do on occasion; or to complain about how Southerners think the Midlands is the North.

I’m saying that because if you ask anyone where the West Midlands is, you’ll end up with some variation of “the bit in the middle of England, on the western side, between Wales and about Leicester”. Or, if someone decides to be specific, “the area covered by the ceremonial counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and... the West Midlands”. 

This is because in the 1972 reorganisation of local government in England and Wales, the government created a county (within the West Midlands region) called “West Midlands”. This covers Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Walsall, Dudley, Wolverhampton, and Sandwell. So West Midlands is in the West Midlands, but West Midlands doesn’t contain the whole West Midlands, and it all gets very silly very quickly.

Frankly we need to put a stop to all this nonsense before it gets out of hand. Since my preferred solution – renaming the region in the West of the middle of England “West Mercia” – doesn’t seem likely to gather much support outside of people nostalgic for a return to the days of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, we really need to think about naming the county something more sensible.

If, like me, you aren’t from the county, the solution seems incredibly simple and obvious. Birmingham is the biggest city there; it’s the one everyone from different parts of the country has heard of; and it’s the centre of the local economy. The powers that be had the same problem around Manchester and London, and came up with an elegant solution: surely Greater Birmingham ought to do the trick?

It’s at this point that violence is prone to ensue – people from the other six parts of the area will let you know in no uncertain terms that they definitely don’t live in Birmingham. And, to be fair, they have a point – although Birmingham is the biggest economic beast in the area, it’s certainly not the only big beast. The other towns and cities in the conurbation are often centres of industry in their own right, rather than merely being commuter towns for Birmingham.

So in that case, what can we call this area? It covers parts of three historic counties, so we could call it the Tri-County Metropolis, but that sounds boring and American. We could try out an idea that they toyed with for Greater Manchester, and mash together abbreviations of parts of the county names; but Warworcstaff just sounds stupid. So we need to get more creative.

The idea of calling this county “The Black Country” really appeals to me. That’s the common name for the north-western part of the county, down as far as the edge of Birmingham, because of either the rich seam of coal that was found there or the smoke from the region’s industries. Unfortunately, this definitely wouldn’t pass the “my-uncle-who-lives-in-Coventry” test – he very definitely does not feel that he lives in the Black Country, and if I were to propose this I would be banned from all family dinners.

So we could go for something based on other pre-existing geographical features of the area: it’s common, after all, to name settlements based on the rivers on which they sit, so we could go with the Tame Valley, or Tameside. Except that there are five other River Tames in Britain (if you allow for variants in spelling), including the most famous river in the country; and there are already local government units called Tameside (a borough in Greater Manchester) and Thames Valley (a police authority just outside London). 

Overall, this seems like it might cause even more confusion than it solves. We could combine it with the main river in Coventry, much like Tyne and Wear in the North-East, and have the county of Sherbourne and Tame – but I don’t like “x&y” names so I’m arbitrarily ruling that out as well. (I can, it’s my article).
What about things that the area is known for? Birmingham, Coventry, and the Black Country are all noted for their history in the Industrial Revolution, and in particular the number of canals that were built to transport their products around the country. Birmingham often boasts that it has more miles of canals than Venice. So why not Canalopolis? Other than, unfortunately, sounding like the title of a 1920s sci-fi vision of a weird future where boats have replaced cars?

Not Canalopolis then.

Which leaves us with a conundrum; but obviously it’s one to which I think I have the solution. As I said earlier, “Greater Birmingham” is definitely out; but Birmingham hasn’t always been known as Birmingham. It used to be known as “Bromwichham”, which is where the modern nicknames Brummagem and Brummie come from, and is why there’s a West Bromwich but no East Bromwich. 

So my proposed solution is to call the county “Greater Bromwich”. Not only will it be promoting a historical name that’s fallen out of use but from which words we still use derive (pleasing the part of me that’s obsessed with linguistics); but it’s slightly ambiguous as it could also be referring to West Bromwich in Sandwell, or Castle Bromwich in Solihull, so hopefully won’t annoy people from Coventry and the Black Country, and I’ll still be invited to dinner with my uncle.

Or we could just repeal the 1972 Local Government Act and return the county’s constituent parts to Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Staffordshire. But I think I’m fighting a losing battle there.


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.