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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11 reasons the Lisbon Metro blows every other transport system out of the water

Telheiras station. Image: Cornelius/Wikimedia Commons.

Subways are great. It’s an undeniable fact. They’re speedy, spacious, don’t take up space above ground, and, depending on the design, can make you feel like you’ve been catapulted back to the ‘60s, or forward to, well, the ‘60s. But only one can be the best – and that one is the Lisbon Metro.

Here are 11 reasons why.

There are just six interchanges – and two zones

Subways are great – but they're not so great if you’re got a hopeless sense of direction, as anyone who’s had to battle through NYC City’s some 468 stations will tell you (yeah, we can’t really work out how many there are). No such larks in Lisbon, there are just six interchanges on the whole network.

The inevitable map. There are also zones 2 & 3 further out, but the metro doesn't go that far.

Sure, you might not quite have the scope of the Big Apple to play with, but the apple isn’t real anyway and custard tarts are better. Plus it still gets you pretty much everywhere you want to go, minus the fights about which route is quickest. What’s more there are only two zones, so you don’t have to work out the most convoluted route in the world just to avoid Shoreditch High Street on the Overground.

This said, zone two (which is confusingly called zone one; the central zone is zone L, for Lisbon) only actually has three stops in it, so it’d be a bit of a bummer if you ended up living there.

They’ve totally embraced naming lines by colours

Tourists don’t get tube systems. Locals end up explaining to tourists using the colours of the line. This is the rule of any metro system, and who are we to change fundamental human nature?

The development of the network, 1959-2012. Image: EpicGenius/Wikimedia Commons.

So, imagine my wonder upon discovering that the Lisbon Metro is all about those coloured lines. There’s a yellow line: it’s called the yellow line. The red line is called the red line. The green line is named in honour of the colour I turned in envy when I saw this deliciously simple system. Which is, for the avoidance of any doubt, green.


The stations are accessible

Getting around the UK using public transport can be chaos as it is, let alone if you need to use accessible stations and trains. It’s been some some 26 years since the Disability Discrimination Act (later replaced by the Equality Act in 2010), which protects disabled people from discrimination across wider society, came into force; yet something as simple as getting on the tube can still be a massive issue.

Just 73 of London Undergrounds 270 tube stations offer step free access, only slightly more than a quarter. An extra £200m was committed to created a step-free tube in 2016, but even this will only take the number to 100 – which eagle eyed mathematicians will note is still less than half.

Jump over to Lisbon, and while it’s by no means a perfect picture, 30 of the some 50 stations are marked as having disabled access: that works out at almost 60 percent.

It’s gloriously unbusy. Like, really

No, really. It was so un-busy the first time I got it I went back during ‘rush hour’ on purpose and it looked like this.

Where is everybody? 

There are countdown clocks which operate by the second

I’m from a village in rural North Devon, which means getting public transport is an exercise involving looking at a damp timetable stuck to a lamppost and hoping something might turn up in the next hour. Even in most bigger cities, the metro system will only give you the time you’ll be waiting for your train in minutes.

Lisbon pulls out all the stops though, and you can see how many seconds – yes, seconds – it is until your tube is going to arrive Your dreams of being able to sing countdown as tube arrives have come true.

Note the countdown. 

The hanging cords don’t swing and smack you

It’s a commuters worst nightmare: not only are you packed five centimetres closer to another human being than you’d ever wish to be, but then the stupid cord you’re supposedly hanging onto for support crashes you into them full frontal.

Not so in Lisbon, where the hanging cords are made of sturdier stuff, and your personal boundaries can live to see another dawn.

There’s a refreshing lack of adverts

In the interests of transparency, I’d like to state at this point that I did track down some ads – namely one for Burger King and a Simon & Garfunkel gig, which sounds like a wild night – but nowhere near the scale you’d see here in the UK. In fact, these were the only two I found.

A recent report from Transport for London showed they were the biggest holder of advertising space in the UK. In 2016-17, it hosted some 16,000 different adverts drawing in some £142.1m in cash by bombarding Londoners with pictures of West End shows, weird head skull shavers, and essays about Jack Daniels posted on literally any available space.

While I accept it’s a good money earner, it’s a bit of cheek that the operator say commuters actually appreciate the distraction.The latest TfL report claims that 60 per cent of commuters say adverts are a welcome distraction. Did they even notice the Clapham Common cats campaign?

I, for one, am all on board with the Portuguese approach and freedom to daydream. Hell, they’ve got the advertising spaces, they just haven’t filled them up.

There’s 4G on all the lines

Yep, even underground. It’s magical. I’m not entirely convinced it’s planned, but it’s pretty great.


Tickets are valid for 24 hours from the point of use

This is honestly a revolution, and is probably the last serious point we’ve got for you, but golly it’s a good one. It’s a simple premise: buy your day ticket and it’s then valid for 24 hours from first use. So if you buy it at 3pm on a Sunday, it’s valid until 3pm on Monday.

By way of contrast, if you find yourself in a similar situation in London, your day pass will only work up until the last tube that day.

You also don’t need a deposit to get a reusable card. The Lisbon Metro dolls out reusable (and non plastic) cards for a mere €0.50 a time.

There’s an announcement that sounds like a friendly grandfather clock

The beeps of commuter trains haunt me in my sleep. This, though, sounds just like the grandfather clock in my nan and grandfathers’ house. Cute.

It’s in Lisbon

The Tyne & Wear Metro might go to the beach, but it’s not quite the same.

Uncredited images courtesy of the author.