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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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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