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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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.