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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How can you travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow? Let me count the ways

A train at Falkirk High. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

How many train lines link Edinburgh and Glasgow? Go on, guess. Two? Three? Surely not four?

No, our two biggest cities in Scotland, separated by just 41 miles as the crow flies, have five – yes, five – different routes between them now. Here is a look at each route, from north to south.

Counter-intuitively, the quickest route does not dart straight across between the cities. From Edinburgh, which is slightly further north than Glasgow, the express service heads north west, past the ruin of Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, as far as Falkirk High before heading south west to Glasgow Queen Street station. This can be as quick as 42 minutes, but only twice a day, although work is being done to have all services run this fast. The rest of the time it takes 47 minutes, on average; from Monday to Friday it runs every 15 minutes.  As the express route, this is the most frequently used service and is the main recipient of Scottish Government spending for connections between Edinburgh and Glasgow, having received £870m in investment in recent years.

The new route via Cumbernauld starts out along the same line, but instead of stopping at Falkirk High goes to Falkirk Grahamston. From there it takes a different line through Cumbernauld, famous for its 1960s brutalist town planning. After that the train stops at various suburbs in the north east of Glasgow such as Stepps, before again reaching Queen Street station, albeit from the north east. This service started in December 2018 and takes about 1hr15.

A rail map of the central belt. The new line is so new it isn’t on here. Image: Scotrail.

The route via Airdrie and Bathgate looks like it would be quicker than the main Falkirk High route, as it is closest to resembling a straight line between Glasgow and Edinburgh. This service, however, stops at a plethora of stations across West Lothian, North Lanarkshire and Greater Glasgow.

All in all, there are 21 stops between Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Queen Street, which can add up to a grand total of 1hr17 (some journeys are slightly quicker). This provides a decent service for the many small towns on the route, but is obviously not a good option for anyone wanting a speedy journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh.


This line does uniquely stop at the lower level station at Queen Street, though, and passengers get to travel below Glasgow’s city centre to Charing Cross and Partick. This route is not to be confused with the Glasgow Subway, which this cut-and-cover line predates by ten years. After coming above ground, the train continues west of the city, with the option to head on to the affluent commuter towns of Bearsden and Milnagavie or to Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde.

Thus, someone can hop on a train in the western outskirts of Glasgow and get to the centre of Edinburgh, all in one go; it will just take a very long time. Helensburgh Central to Edinburgh Waverley takes about 1hr50. As Queen Street and Partick rail stations are integrated with the Glasgow Subway, it also means you can continue your journey around Glasgow circular subterranean experience.

The Shotts line has an abundance of stations, and so journeys that stop at each one can take up to 1hr30, although there are services with fewer stops that take 15 minutes less. This line dips further south slightly than the Airdrie/Bathgate route and slowly works its way through stations in the west of Edinburgh. It then heads through towns such as Livingston and Shotts. Unlike the first three routes, this line ends at Glasgow Central, and therefore the train takes you through the south of Glasgow before crossing the River Clyde.

The Shotts Line is also used by Cross Country services going from Glasgow to cities in England, such as Bristol, via Edinburgh; and these train will make fewer stops between the two. Passengers from Glasgow are also able to stay on trains that pass through Edinburgh and continue on to the seaside towns in East Lothian of North Berwick and Dunbar.

Finally, there is the V-shaped route between Edinburgh and Glasgow. This looks like it would take the longest, but surprisingly can be done in 1hr20 due to there being few stops. From Glasgow, the line goes south east through Motherwell along one branch of the West Coast Mainline, before arriving at the Carstairs junction. From there the line veers sharply north east along the other branch of the West Coast Mainline to Edinburgh. This route has the downsides of being slow, and not even offering many stops along the way to make up for it.

So basically, if you want to travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow, just go via Falkirk High.

Pete Macleod tweets as @petemacleod84 and runs Pete’s Cheap Trains.