A Clockwork Orange: How Glasgow's Subway system failed to break out of its circle

No train in sight: the Partick stop on the Glasgow Subway. Image: Gary Ferguson/Wikimedia Commons.

Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, has the world’s third-oldest underground metro system. Only London and Budapest boast more experience in lugging people about their merry way below our feet.

And Glasgow manages to do this with a stunning simplicity. Opened in 1896, its Subway route is circular, with two lines (“inner” and “outer”) circumnavigating a loop which twice crosses the River Clyde. The network (a term I use loosely) links 15 stations, and runs from the city centre to the West End, and across to the South Side.

In all, the seven mile route takes approximately 25 minutes to complete. In 2013-2014, the Glasgow Subway averaged almost 35,000 passengers daily – around 12.5m each year.

The existing network. Image: SPT.

So, the network is a simple one. But it could have been a lot more complex if the visions of a few Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) chiefs had come to pass a decade or so ago.

In 2007, a “feasibility study” outlined the SPT’s desire to expand the Subway network before the 2014 Commonwealth Games came to town. The plan would have involved creating a second circle, covering the east of the city, where the newly created Emirates Arena and Athlete’s Village were to be housed.

At the time Alistair Watson, a Labour councilor, released a statement promising:

 “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

Unequivocal, no less.

The proposed line would have interchanged with the existing network at its busiest station, Buchanan Street (which connects with the Queen Street mainline station), as well St. Enoch’s station. There would have been seven new stops, too, including Celtic Park. The whole lot was projected to cost £2.3bn.To research the project, in 2007, SPT executives flew to New Delhi to learn more about their underground set-up and transport preparations ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Despite this promising maneuver, no extensions ever materialised beneath the streets of the East End.

An extract from a 2007 leaflet showing the proposed extension. Image: SPT.

That’s a shame. Because Glasgow boasts an abundance of very usable and intact underground tunnels and old railway lines, some of which would have been re-used in an East End extension. Throw in road improvements and some new cycle routes, and there would have been clear benefits for a fairly tattered and beaten up part of the city.

The area certainly did benefit from hosting the Commonwealth Games. According to a post-games survey, the residents of Glasgow’s East End, where much of the regeneration activity was focused, welcomed the physical improvements to their neighbourhoods, and “felt safer living there than they had before” after a post-2014 Games survey.  Venues like the Emirates arena have attracted more events to the city, and an estimated £18m worth of new contracts have already been credited to the 2014 Games’ legacy.

And SPT’s “Subway Modernisation Programme” is very much in full swing. Some £270m has been spent or set aside for improving stations across the existing network, and the introduction of a Smartcard system has proved popular amongst travelers. It looks a lot better, too, with a chunk of the 1970s stylings now gone from the city.


But there remains a widespread feeling of frustration. The Commonwealth Games seemed to be the perfect opportunity – the perfect excuse – to radically upgrade Glasgow’s Subway system. But the city missed it. Only time will tell if this bold and radical idea will rear its head once more.

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).