The new train operator in the West Midlands is splitting its business in two. Here’s why that’s a good thing

Birmingham New Street station. Image: Getty.

It has always seemed to me that treating the British rail network as a single, unified thing was the wrong way of looking at it. That’s because there are, to my mind at least three different types of train service.

At one end, there are the intercity services – those that travel long-distances at relatively high speeds. At the other are local trains, which stop at every station, and which exist mainly to ferry people around within metropolitan areas. In between, there’s a fuzzy, less easily defined “regional railways” travelling medium differences at medium speeds.

These different types of train do very different things so have very different needs. On the intercity services, you’re more likely to have booked a seat on a specific train: service frequency matters less than speed. On the local ones, getting a seat matters less as you’re only on board for a few minutes: these are more like an extension of the metro network, so what really matters is knowing that when you turn up you won’t have to wait too long for a train.

In other countries, like Germany, these types of services are even branded differently (ICE, IC, RE, RB, S-Bahn etc.). Britain has generally not gone in for that, though: at somewhere like London Euston, you’ll find all different types of train service jumbled up together, as if there is no difference between a five hour trip to Glasgow and a five minute jaunt to South Hampstead, the next stop up the line.

All of which is a very long way round of saying that I am, tentatively, in favour of the thing the new operators of the West Midlands Railway network just did to their branding.

Until last week, local rail services in the Birmingham/Wolverhampton conurbation were bundled up with regional ones on the London Euston-Liverpool Lime Street line, and operated by Govia as the London Midland Railway. The resulting network was kind of nuts:

The extent of this weird network. Image: Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons.

The local services were operated under the sub-brand “London Midland City”. This meant, oddly, that train services which existed largely to get people to work in Birmingham city centre had the word “London” slapped over them, but not the word “Birmingham”. Miracle there weren’t riots in the streets, really.

On 10 December, though, the franchise changed hands, passing to West Midlands Trains: a new consortium consisting of Abellio, JR East and Mitsui. That is splitting the services into “two separable business units”.

One covers the network in and around the conurbation itself, and is known as West Midlands Railways (WMR). The other covers the longer distance services that use the West Coast Main Line, but don’t run fast enough for Virgin West Coast; in tribute to the company that built much of this line, this will be known as the London Northwestern Railway (LNWR).

Here’s a map the consortium put into its bid to demonstrate its plans:

Click to expand. Image: West Midlands Trains.

And here’s a bad photograph of the map that actually exists in the world, now it’s taken over, captured at Birmingham Snow Hill last Friday:

Image: author provided.

The main difference that I can see is that the Crewe via Penkridge services have been bundled into LNWR bit. Which sort of makes sense, since Crewe is a bloody long-way from Birmingham.

Here’s that geographical network map again, only with some bad colouring in to delineate the two networks.

Image: Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

You can immediately see why the split makes sense: the West Midlands commuter zone is now mostly served by the West Midlands Railway. Those longer-distance lines are treated differently. It’s not quite the local/regional/intercity split I described at the start, but at least it’s no longer pretending that the high frequency Crosscity route and occasional trains between Liverpool and Birmingham were arms of the same thing.

All this, I think, is good for the West Midlands region in a number of ways. One is that there is now a business which will be thinking about how to develop train services to meet the region’s specific needs. Indeed, there is already talk of extending the region’s network by re-opening a number of long-dead lines – the Camp Hill line, a route between Brierley Hill and Stourbridge, and another through Darlaston and Willenhall. This was contained in the manifesto put forward by the region’s mayor Andy Street, of course – but there being a company that explicitly sees its job as “providing train services for the West Midlands” will help.

Proposed new rail routes are shown in dotted blue. The dotted pink linke which meets the dotted blue line in the west is the proposed Brierley Hill extension of the Midlands Metro. Image: Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The other benefit is more nebulous: consolidating a sense of identity. One of the things that has held the West Midlands back, after all, is a reluctance to act as a unit, for fear of being thought part of (euch) Birmingham. Having a single rail operator, using the West Midlands brand and working with the West Midlands combined authority, may help fix that.

And even if it doesn’t, the new map looks a lot less silly than the old.

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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.