Which is England’s second city? When it comes to public transport, the answer is clear

The other Piccadilly. Image: David Dixon at Wikimedia Commons.

The Midland Metro is a light rail network, that connects Birmingham to Wednesbury, Wolverhampton and other bits of the West Midlands conurbation beginning with the letter W. It’s 15 years old this year, and it’s going through a bit of an awkward phase. Here’s an old route map, showing the network as it was when it first opened in 1999:

And here it is now:

In other words, the Metro hasn't grown up, but it has acquired a slightly more pretentious image. I think that's what you'd call "growing pains".

Here, by way of comparison, is the similar light rail network that covers the other conurbation contending for the title of England's second city. That's Manchester's Metrolink network, which is just a teensy bit more expansive:

This is a slightly unfair comparison, of course: Manchester's trams started running in 1992, so have had a seven year head start. And Birmingham, to be fair, is working on a couple of extensions right now, not least one that’ll finally take the Metro into the city centre for the first time.

So, once the Brummie tram network catches up its Mancunian peer, and hits the grand old age of 22, what will it look like then? We haven't been able to find an official system map, unfortunately, so we've been forced to make our own.

In other words, it'll be bigger – but not that much bigger.

And by the time all that's done, Metrolink will include even more routes. A new line, through South Manchester to the airport, is due to open in November (15 more stops). The Second City Crossing, which will allow the network to run more frequent trams by providing a choice of route across the city centre, is also under construction (that’s another stop). An entirely new line, out to Trafford Park in the western suburbs, could plausibly be open by then, too (and that’s another six).

All this means that Manchester Metrolink could quite possibly grow by 22 stations over the next seven years. That’s only one fewer than the whole of the Midland Metro has now.

There is no mechanism for deciding which metropolis should count as England's second city. All we have is public consensus, and for much of the last 100 years Birmingham seemed to have that sewn up. Since the turn of the century, though, the title's become more contested, and a succession of polls and pronouncements have suggested that Manchester was at the very least gaining.

But if you believe that an extensive transit network is an essential component of a modern metropolis, then, at least on this measure at least, there's no competition. When it comes to public transport, Manchester is way, way out ahead. Birmingham doesn't even come close.

Why that should be is a question we'll be trying to answer in the weeks to come. That, though, is a bit of a rubbish cliffhanger, so let’s end on a chart. The two networks, in figures – or why Manchester is better than Birmingham.

Note: We've assumed that where possible new routes will be integrated into existing ones, to simplify service patterns and reduce the number of lines. Extension lengths on the Midland Metro are not available, so we've made estimates by drawing lines on maps.



Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

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