Here are four thoughts on Birmingham’s new tram plan

Oooh, shiny. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Last week on our Facebook page (you like that already, right? You should definitely like it), we received a complaint, of sorts: that we don't write enough about Birmingham.

If there's any validity to this, it's for a simple reason. Much of our most widely-shared content is about transport. And Birmingham's transport is pretty, well, rubbish: a few commuter rail lines, an extensive but under-regulated bus network, and a single, solitary light rail line which, let's be honest about this, makes for a rubbish map.

To make matters worse, for most of its life, the Midlands Metro – the light rail line in question – didn't make it into Birmingham City centre at all. From its opening in May 1999 right up until 2016, trams terminated on the northern fringe of the city's central business district at Snow Hill. At the other end of the line, they didn't make it to the heart of Wolverhampton, either.

The line as it was. Click to expand. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

All of which was great for passenger numbers, obviously.

But that is, gradually, changing. In May last year, the route was extended to three new stations, ending at the recently renovated Birmingham New Street station. And over the weekend, the Department for Transport announced it was chucking £60m into the pot to help pay for the £149m extension which will take the line another mile or so through to Birmingham's rapidly redeveloping Westside.

Here's a map of where the five new stations will be:

Click to expand. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Some observations, in no particular order:

Those names suck

I'm not convinced those names will stick. For one thing, the stop labelled "Stephenson Street" on that map is already open, except it’s actually called "Grand Central". (The rather grandiose name refers to the shiny new shopping centre on top of New Street station.)

For another, there already is a Five ways railway station, not particularly close to the Five Ways tram stop (the original Five Ways is a roundabout). And Edgbaston is more than a little vague, since Edgbaston is a fairly big suburban district which taken as a whole is probably bigger than the entire city centre. So my guess is at least some of these stops will ultimately open under different names.

What's with the hair-pin turn?

The result of this extension will be a slightly odd shaped line, which heads south east into the city, then turns abruptly south west.

This makes a lot more sense when you see the city centre chunk of the route as something as yet unbuilt suburban routes can later plug into – rather than simply a weirdly circuitous route from the Jewellery Quarter to Five Ways.

Where to next?

As to where those later extensions might be, in his manifesto, the region's metro mayor Andy Street promised to

“Start the construction of the Midlands Metro extension to Brierley Hill and gain agreement to extend it to North Solihull and Birmingham Airport.”

The former of those is a more orbital route, that'll leave the mainline at Wednesbury and head south west through Dudley.

The latter sounds a lot like the oft-proposed East Side extension. That would leave the main line at Corporation Street, probably serve the existing station at Moor Street and the proposed High Speed 2 terminal at Curzon Street, and then run through the eastern suburbs towards Solihull, the airport, even Coventry.

Although nobody's talking about it yet, a western line seems plausible as well. That "Edgbaston" terminus on Hagley Road would connect up nicely with the proposed SPRINT line: a bus rapid transit route which would run the length of the Hagley Road, towards Bearwood and Quinton. It would seem strange to me to go to the trouble of building a segregated bus lane on that busy arterial, rather than to spend a few more quid and make it part of the tram network.

That said, I'm clearly speculating here. And artist's impressions of how Sprint would look clearly show it next to the tram at Edgbaston, so who knows:

Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Oh yeah, and in the north the powers that be are finally extending the line to Wolverhampton proper. Good show, lads.

Why now?

Why the sudden government enthusiasm for spending money on public transport outside London? Doesn't this seem to go against everything transport secretary Chris Grayling seems to stand for?


Well, yes. But I suspect there's a simple reason. Of the big secondary English cities, the West Midlands is the only one with a Conservative mayor. Consequently, the Tories in national government would really quite like to see Andy Street succeed.

This extension has been on the table for some time, so I'm not saying this is the entire motivation. Nonetheless, I suspect the current management at the DfT will have been rather more easily persuaded of the value of this one than they would be of a £60m transport project in, say, Liverpool.

Anyway. The new line should be open by the spring of 2021. Which is nice.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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The risk of ‘cascading’ natural disasters is rising

A man watches wildfires in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

In a warming world, the dangers from natural disasters are changing. In a recent commentary, we identified a number of costly and deadly catastrophes that point to an increase in the risk of “cascading” events – ones that intensify the impacts of natural hazards and turn them into disasters.

Multiple hazardous events are considered cascading when they act as a series of toppling dominoes, such as flooding and landslides that occur after rain over wildfires. Cascading events may begin in small areas but can intensify and spread to influence larger areas.

This rising risk means decision-makers, urban planners and risk analysts, civil engineers like us and other stakeholders need to invest more time and effort in tracking connections between natural hazards, including hurricanes, wildfires, extreme rainfall, snowmelt, debris flow, and drought, under a changing climate.

Cascading disasters

Since 1980 to January 2018, natural disasters caused an inflation-adjusted $1,537.4bn in damages in the United States.

The loss of life in that period – nearly 10,000 deaths – has been mounting as well. The United States has seen more billion-dollar natural disaster events recently than ever before, with climate models projecting an increase in intensity and frequency of these events in the future. In 2017 alone, natural disasters resulted in $306bn losses, setting the costliest disaster year on record.

We decided it was important to better understand cascading and compound disasters because the impacts of climate change can often lead to coupled events instead of isolated ones. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNISDR, claims: “Any disaster entails a potentially compounding process, whereby one event precipitates another.”

For example, deforestation and flooding often occur together. When vegetation is removed, top soil washes away and the earth is incapable of absorbing rainfall. The 2004 Haiti flood that killed more than 800 people and left many missing is an example of this type of cascading event. The citizens of the poverty-stricken country destroyed more than 98 per cent of its forests to provide charcoal for cooking. When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit, there was no way for the soil to absorb the rainfall. To further complicate existing issues, trees excrete water vapor into the air, and so a sparser tree cover often yields less rain. As a result, the water table may drop, making farming, which is the backbone of Haiti’s economy, more challenging.


Rising risk from climate change

Coupled weather events are becoming more common and severe as the earth warms. Droughts and heatwaves are a coupled result of global warming. As droughts lead to dry soils, the surface warms since the sun’s heat cannot be released as evaporation. In the United States, week-long heatwaves that occur simultaneously with periods of drought are twice as likely to happen now as in the 1970s.

Also, the severity of these cascading weather events worsens in a warming world. Drought-stricken areas become more vulnerable to wildfires. And snow and ice are melting earlier, which is altering the timing of runoff. This has a direct relationship with the fact that the fire season across the globe has extended by 20 per cent since the 1980s. Earlier snowmelt increases the chance of low flows in the dry season and can make forests and vegetation more vulnerable to fires.

These links spread further as wildfires occur at elevations never imagined before. As fires destroy the forest canopy on high mountain ranges, the way snow accumulates is altered. Snow melts faster since soot deposited on the snow absorbs heat. Similarly, as drought dust is released, snow melts at a higher rate as has been seen in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Fluctuations in temperature and other climatic patterns can harm or challenge the already crumbling infrastructure in the United States: the average age of the nation’s dams and levees is over 50 years. The deisgn of these aging systems did not account for the effects of cascading events and changes in the patterns of extreme events due to climate change. What might normally be a minor event can become a major cause for concern such as when an unexpected amount of melt water triggers debris flows over burned land.

There are several other examples of cascading disasters. In July, a deadly wildfire raged through Athens killing 99 people. During the same month on the other side of the world in Mendocino, California, more than 1,800 square kilometers were scorched. For scale, this area is larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.

When landscapes are charred during wildfires, they become more vulnerable to landslides and flooding. In January of this year, a debris flow event in Montecito, California killed 21 people and injured more than 160. Just one month before the landslide, the soil on the town’s steep slopes were destabilised in a wildfire. After a storm brought torrential downpours, a 5-meter high wave of mud, tree branches and boulders swept down the slopes and into people’s homes.

Hurricanes also can trigger cascading hazards over large areas. For example, significant damages to trees and loss of vegetation due to a hurricane increase the chance of landslides and flooding, as reported in Japan in 2004.

Future steps

Most research and practical risk studies focus on estimating the likelihood of different individual extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. It is often difficult to describe the risk of interconnected events especially when the events are not physically dependent. For example, two physically independent events, such as wildfire and next season’s rainfall, are related only by how fire later raises the chances of landslide and flooding.

As civil engineers, we see a need to be able to better understand the overall severity of these cascading disasters and their impacts on communities and the built environment. The need is more pronounced considering the fact that much of the nation’s critical infrastructure is aged and currently operate under rather marginal conditions.

A first step in solving the problem is gaining a better understanding of how severe these cascading events can be and the relationship each occurrence has with one another. We also need reliable methods for risk assessment. And a universal framework for addressing cascading disasters still needs to be developed.

A global system that can predict the interactions between natural and built environments could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Most importantly, community outreach and public education must be prioritised, to raise awareness of the potential risks cascading hazards can cause.

The Conversation

Farshid Vahedifard, CEE Advisory Board Endowed Professor and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mississippi State University and Amir AghaKouchak, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.