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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Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

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