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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“The enabling authority”: What explains Warrington’s economic boom?

Warrington’s Georgian Town Hall, behind its Victorian gates. Image: Racklever/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

When you’ve spent a couple of years trawling a database, you start to notice patterns. Here’s a map of GVA per worker, a measure of productivity, across the main British urban areas. Darker colours mean higher numbers:

Image: Centre for Cities.

That darker, green blob about halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, is Warrington. It’s by far the most productive city in the north west of England.

Another map. This one’s welfare spend per capita: you’d probably want your blob to be as light as possible, to represent that everyone is doing alright without government support. And once again: Warrington sticks out like a sore thumb.

Image: Centre for Cities.

Last one. This one’s wages. It’s less obvious here, because Warrington’s weekly wages are roughly on a par with those of Liverpool and Manchester (in fact, they’re slightly lower). But you’d expect wages to be highest in a region’s big cities, and lower in the smaller, nearby towns. And yet Warrington, unlike the other cities of the north west, is competing with the big boys.

Image: Centre for Cities.

The obvious question is: how?

History and geography

Context first. Warrington started out as a market town, on the Lancashire bank of the Mersey, by this point little more than a stream, although it swiftly spread across the river into Cheshire, the county it’s now part of. Half a century ago, it had a lot in common with the other smaller, industrial settlements of the north west: it was a centre for brewing, distilling and, most notably, wire manufacture. (The number of things in the town still nicknamed “The Wire” – a football team, a rugby team, a radio station – is faintly unsettling to any fan of the work of either David Simon or Doctor Who.)

Warrington in context. Image: Google Maps.

In 1968, though, Warrington was designated as one of the government’s final wave of new towns. Land left vacant by the closure of the munitions factory at ROF Risley was purchased by the Warrington Development Corporation and redeveloped as the new residential estate of Birchwood. Other sites – notably that of an airbase, RAF Burtonwood – have since also been repurposed as housing. Over the last half century, the population of the town has roughly tripled, to over 210,000: in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the decades when many northern industrial cities were in decline, Warrington’s population boomed.

The Village Hotel: a very ’80s vision of the future. Image: Jonn Elledge.

You can see this dual history – part ancient market town, part post-war boomtown – in the fabric of the place. The main thing I knew about Warrington before I visited it that it was a new town, so I was expecting a sort of northern Milton Keynes.

That wasn’t entirely wrong: the majority of the housing is relatively recent. And one of my meetings took me to a combined hotel bar/café/health club which offers something called “Inspiration Suites”, and whose enormous brick-surfaced car-park surrounds a fountain spouting extravagantly dyed water, like a vision of the future, c1986.

But there’s another Warrington: the covered market square, where there’s a pub dating from 1561; the grand Georgian and Victorian buildings on Sankey Street and Palmyra Square. The town hall is the Grade I-listed Bank Hall, which dates from 1750; its grand gates, at the foot of its long lawn, were created as a gift for Queen Victoria. She declined them, but nonetheless: Warrington was and is a real place in its own right, not merely an overflow for people who wanted to escape the big cities on either side.

The market square. Image: Jonn Elledge.

Economics

So why is Warrington doing so well, when so many similar sized northern cities are doing so badly? Why is it attracting the knowledge intensive service businesses that a modern western city needs to boom?

Image: Centre for Cities.

Geography is clearly a factor. The town lies within relatively easy reach of both Liverpool and Manchester, via train and motorway and, should you fancy it, canal. It lies on the main north-south routes (the West Coast Main Line; the M6), too. Whethe you’re a commuter or a business, it’s a good place to be based.


That doesn’t explain why it should have done so much better than Wigan, 10 miles to the north, which shares many of these advantages, however. So here’s another theory: Warrington’s success is the legacy of its history. Its new town status meant it had a lot of land, ready and hungry for development. It also gave the town what Steve Parks, managing director of Warrington & Co., terms an “enabling authority”: a council that saw economic development as a key part of its role.

The development corporation responsible for the new town closed its doors in 1989. But today Warrington & Co. essentially continues its mission, by providing business support, and leading local development and regeneration schemes. It creates the infrastructure necessary to unlock new developments; helps developers get planning permission; and manages the council’s property portfolio, providing it with a handy revenue stream.

Technically, Warrington & Co.’s staff are council officers; but their email addresses suggest otherwise, and they were largely recruited from the private sector. “When an investor thinks they’re talking to Warrington Borough Council, they think they’re all about car parking and grass cutting and so on,” Parks says. The impression of a private company was created intentionally, “to drive a different dynamic”.

“To some extent,” he goes on, “it’s a northern post-industrial town. We’ve had out of town development and the new town, but there’s a donut effect: the donut has done well, at the expense of the demise of the town centre.”

So the priority at present is correcting for that. Its big scheme of the moment is Time Square, a new chunk of town centre including a cinema, offices, eight new restaurants and two new bars. The council, through Warrington & Co., is taking on the development risk itself. Other schemes are in the pipeline, too. “We’ve broken the town centre into seven quarters,” Parks notes. “But we’re doing them all at the same time so we don’t just chase the blight around the own.”

A hoarding for the new development. Image: Jonn Elledge.

There’s much still to do. The first thing many visitors see when they arrive at Warrington Bank Quay station is the town’s biggest remaining patch of industrial decay, a spit of land between the river and the railway, which the counc il fears shapes perception of the place: a new road is needed to unlock its re-development. There are plans to bring residents back to the town centre, too: the council has planning permission for another 500 extra homes; James Peacock Developments has already created a chichi apartment block next to Central station. Parks talks, perhaps optimistically, of attracting tech business to a local digital hub, too.


All sorts of factors have contributed to Warrington’s success, but one of them must surely be this: a council willing and able to do the things necessary to push the town forward, and with the land, and cash, to do it. It’s the same attitude that led it to create a second arms-length company, Warrington’s Own Buses, which does what it says on the tin. It’s like a Victorian municipal corporations, still running in 2018.

Most of the factor that enabled Warrington’s boom aren’t replicable. But with some thought and some investment, this one, perhaps, could be.

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