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Archive for February 2011

Vision for confusion

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Midland Metro and HS2 connections envisaged by Centro

Like everyone else in Birmingham, transport authority Centro were kept in the dark about the HS2 project, including the route, and where the Birmingham station(s) would be. But when the scheme was launched in 2010, Centro was quick to offer support. It announced that future extension of the Midland Metro tramway would include a connection to Curzon Street HS2 station.

At the moment, the Midland Metro terminates at Snow Hill station. The £129 million Birmingham City Centre Extension (BCCE) aims to extend it about 700 metres on-street, to the Stephenson Street side of New Street railway station, by 2015. New Street station is being refurbished as part of the ‘Birmingham Gateway’ development.

The BCCE was originally intended to Five Ways, on the Hagley Road, but this was supplanted by the council’s preference for an extension to Birmingham Airport, to be implemented “after 2015”. As part of its propaganda for HS2, Centro have produced a diagram showing the Midland Metro running from Birmingham city centre to all the way to Bickenhill HS2 station, with an end-on extension from the BCCE at Stephenson Street. Birmingham Gateway and Midland Metro BCCE were retrospectively declared to be components of Birmingham city council’s November 2010 ‘Vision for Movement‘ (VfM).

Birmingham city council Vision for Movement rapid transit plan

Birmingham city council Vision for Movement rapid transit plan

However, under Centro’s 2003 ‘Midland Metro Phase Two Expansion’, the Airport line was shown as branching from the BCCE at the junction of Corporation Street and Bull Street. In the city centre, the route would have been: Lower Bull Street, Carrs Lane, Moor Street, Bull Ring, and Digbeth. This route out of the city centre – about 15 km – would have largely followed the A45 Coventry Road. By late 2010, the A45 route had been removed from the Midland Metro project page on the Centro website. The site carried a press release quoting Alex Burrows, ‘Head of Strategy at Centro’, stating: “Tax increment financing of schemes like the Birmingham City Centre to Birmingham Airport Rapid Transit plan will deliver connectivity between the city centre, Birmingham Business Park and Chelmsley Wood.”

This inferred that the 2003 Airport Midland Metro expansion had been ditched in favour of a completely different route. Centro had previously tried to impose an east Birmingham route for its airport Line 2 in the 1980s and 1990s, running into massive public opposition on each occasion.

On closer inspection of the 2010 Vision for Movement plan, it turns out that the tramway to the HS2 Curzon Street station is not shown as being part of the Midland Metro BCCE, but as a separate ‘rapid transit’ (possibly bus) route between “Eastside” and Centenary Square. The BCCE is shown as terminating at Stephenson Street, the A45 route to the Airport is resurrected, but the link to Bickenhill HS2 isn’t shown.

Public transport planning in Birmingham is in disarray, with schemes being made up by Centro, and Birmingham city council, on the hoof.

Spaced out

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Centenary Square, Birmingham, by G-Man (Wikimedia Commons)When the area around the former Bingley Hall in central Birmingham was redeveloped in the late 1980s/early 1990s, a new public space, Centenary Square, was included as part of the scheme. On completion, Centenary Square was used for various temporary exhibitions and events, although this had not really been foreseen at the planning stage. Not long after opening, Birmingham city council had to replace the paving in the square, as a result of this unanticipated wear and tear.

Although Centenary Square has continued as an event space, it’s never been entirely satisfactory in access, safety, or aesthetic terms, because of layout decisions taken at the time of redevelopment. The Square’s paved area is broken up by irregularities, such as the platform of the destroyed ‘Forward‘ statue, and footfall churns the grassed area into an unsightly muddy mess.

Upon its completion, Birmingham city council started to use the unnamed quadrangle in front of Millennium Point for events such as the annual Christmas lights switch-on concert. Millennium Point lies outside the traditional city centre, over a kilometre away from Centenary Square. Its shortcomings were laid bare on 14 November 2009, when a breakdown in crowd management led to a concert having to be abandoned after a few minutes. In 2010, there was no Christmas lights switch-on concert, the city council having been unable to identify a suitable location for such events.

In spite of all this, the council have switched on an unsolicited outdoor BBC/Olympic television screen at Waterloo Steps in Victoria Square.  Over the years, Victoria Square has been remodelled several times, and much of its area is now made up of a water feature, surrounded by steps. Is this consistent with safe management of large crowds? With a swing towards light touch regulation, health and safety seems to carry different weights at different times.

In Coventry, another outdoor screen is being set up on the wall of the Transport Museum. The space in front of the museum, Millennium Place, has an uneven surface. Coventry city council has decided that Francoise Schein’s world time clock would make the area unsafe for large crowds watching the screen, and wants to remove it. The BBC reported the clock had been covered over for previous events, at a cost of £10,000 a time.

The difficulties in Birmingham and Coventry highlight some local authorities’ limited capabilities in designing and maintaining usable public space.

Written by beleben

February 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Agglomeration benefits and high speed rail

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Part of the attempt to post-rationalise the High Speed Two scheme has involved suggesting that Great Britain is falling behind in “connectivity” compared with other countries, and that ‘agglomeration benefits’ particularly accrue from high speed rail. But the evidence from European counterparts suggests that it’s Great Britain that generally has the connectivity advantage in large city pair journey times, and service frequencies.

One example comparison is the fast journey time between the capital and second city in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Great Britain.

Origin Destination Journey time (minutes) Type Rank
Paris Lyon 129 High speed rail 3
Roma Milano 177 High speed rail 5
Berlin Hamburg 95 High speed rail 2
Madrid Barcelona 158 High speed rail 4
London Birmingham 82 Classic 1

This is not an unrepresentative result. Generally favourable outcomes arise when comparing British frequency of service, or journey times, with other internal city pairs within continental Europe.

PTEG and Centro hypocrisy on carbon

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The Passenger Transport Executive Group (‘pteg’) is an organisation which

“brings together and promotes the interests of the six Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) in England. Leicester City Council, Nottingham City Council, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport and Transport for London are associate members.”

Its main tasks are

“promoting efficiencies and the exchange of knowledge and good practice within the PTE network, and raising awareness nationally about the key transport challenges which face the city regions, and the public transport solutions which PTEs are implementing.”

On its weblog, pteg opined that

The fact remains, however, that electric cars and the like may make driving kinder to the environment but they don’t require people to make the fundamental lifestyle adjustments that are required if we are serious about tackling climate change (living more locally, for example).

PTEG - Centro hypocrisy on carbon

In that case, why is Centro – pteg’s biggest member – backing a massive increase in long distance commuting, in the form of the Birmingham to London High Speed Two rail project?
Centro HS2: 54000 daily commuters

Written by beleben

February 24, 2011 at 4:00 pm

HS2 and noise pollution

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High scream 2 (after Edvard Munch) Transport secretary Philip Hammond told Channel 4 news that the government would spend £215 million on noise control measures for the proposed London – Midlands HS2 high speed railway, “erecting wooden barriers, constructing tunnels and building trees” (sic) along the route:

“We’re going to be building acoustic fences, we’re going to be building earth mounds along the side of the railway, contouring the landscape to try to minimise the noise impacts on surrounding communities – planting trees both to help with noise and to provide visual screening of the noise barriers and the railway itself.”

According to consultants Booz, without noise abatement, 25,000 properties would be affected – but “only” 4,700 with control measures in place.

High speed rail has the potential to cause very serious noise disturbance, and the faster trains travel, the bigger the problem is. In marketing material for its AGV train, manufacturer Alstom admitted that:

“Normally, a modern train running at 330 kph generates twice as much noise as when it is running at 300 kph.”

In terms of absolute sound levels, the biggest mitigator would be to put distance between people, and the noise nuisance itself – but in densely populated Britain, that’s easier said than done. The zone of HS2 intolerable sound would obviously be far wider than the nominal “22 metre” fenced p-way; and the zone of annoying sound, even wider still.

HS2 passengers wouldn’t be affected, because trains would probably follow Eurostar in having double glazed non-opening windows, and be pressure sealed. When such a train fails, passengers may resort to smashing windows to get fresh air:

Eurostar says it still doesn’t know what caused the mechanical fault that led to around 600 passengers being stranded on a train for five hours.

Police received reports of passengers on the 17.15 London-to-Paris service smashing windows to get air into the carriages of the train, which was stuck just miles from the station.

To a considerable extent, HS2 noise mitigation is an exercise in exchanging one type of environmental degradation, for another. If large sound fences are installed alongside the track, that would have a corresponding visual impact. The view from the trains wouldn’t be particularly appealing, either.

Centro and Low Speed Rail

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When the Labour government announced High Speed Two in 2010, West Midlands transport authority Centro was quick to give backing – even though it’s supposed to be concerned with local public transport, rather than long distance schemes.

Centro’s support for high speed rail at the national level contrasts with its policy for the West Midlands, which is focused on Low Speed Rail, branded as ‘Midland Metro‘.

Midland Metro is the name used by Centro for its tram system – which consists of one line opened in 1999, running from Wolverhampton to Birmingham via West Bromwich, mostly along a former railway trackbed. This is called Midland Metro Line One, but could equally be described as Low Speed One – since a journey along it takes 35 minutes, compared with 23 minutes on the former Great Western railway in 1958. The railway used to offer fast through trains to other destinations – including Leamington Spa, Bournemouth, Shrewsbury, Oxford, and London – but the farthest that Low Speed One passengers can go is Birmingham, or Wolverhampton.

For many years, Centro have been trying to build a network of Midland Metro lines, including

  • a branch line off Line One running from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill (£300 million+), and
  • Line Two, from Birmingham city centre to Birmingham Airport (£400 million+)

but so far, the only extension to have been part-funded by government is a £129 million extension of Low Speed One from Snow Hill station to New Street station, which are 700 metres apart in Birmingham’s city centre.

Birmingham Airport (‘International’ station) is currently served by trains from central Birmingham (New Street), which take 9-10 minutes. The journey on Midland Metro to the Airport would take at least three times as long, fully deserving the title Low Speed Two.

Written by beleben

February 22, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Birmingham: change ‘railly’ needed

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In recent years, the local rail services serving Greater Birmingham have seen strong increases in passenger numbers, although buses and trams (Midland Metro) have seen zero or negative growth:

West Midlands transit usage by mode, to 2010 (source: Centro)

West Midlands transit usage by mode, to 2010 (source: Centro)

Rail’s performance is noteworthy, since

  • Central Trains – the main operator from 1997 to 2007 – was renowned for its ineptitude
  • Network Rail – the infrastructure owner – prioritises long distance and freight trains
  • Centro – the public transport ‘promoter’ – has done almost nothing, apart from spending £14 million on car parks at stations.

For years, marketing has been inept, with two attempts at rail-specific branding (‘Westmidrail’ and ‘Midline’) discarded. And from the bar charts, there’s no evidence that the 2005 ‘Network West Midlands‘ cross-modal branding has had any effect.

The only track electrified since Centro was set up (in 1969) is the ‘Cross City Line‘. It’s unlikely that Centro – in its current form – has the wherewithal or vision to deliver a versatile regional rail system, as opposed to the current ‘collection of lines, that run into Birmingham’. Centro’s priorities lie elsewhere. Although it’s supposed to promote local public transport in the West Midlands, it has spent £70,000 on lobbying for High Speed Two, the controversial intercity rail project.

Centro has failed to protect land and rights of way for future regional transport use. In 1972, it facilitated the closure of the passenger rail service between Birmingham, West Bromwich, and Wolverhampton Low Level  (and Birmingham and Smethwick West). In the 1990s, it spent £150 million restoring the Wolverhampton line, but as a low speed tramway (Midland Metro Line One) – whose existence is a major obstacle to creating an effective regional rail system.

HS2: creating disconnectivity

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In an article claiming that the Labour Party should reaffirm its commitment to high-speed rail, Andrew Adonis stated how HS2 would improve transport connections in the Midlands:

“The connectivity gains from high-speed rail are equally impressive… Birmingham – Britain’s second city – is effectively an intercity branch line off the West Coast Main Line, so connections between Birmingham, the East Midlands, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and the north are extremely poor.”

Actually, the current Birmingham New Street station is on a loop of the West Coast Main Line, and has direct connections to Wales, the East Midlands, and south west and north east England. Contrary to the impression given by Mr Adonis, it’s Curzon Street HS2 station that would be on a dead end branch, with no conventional rail services calling there. The HS2 stage one project – with a supposed completion date of 2025 – provides no service from Birmingham Curzon Street to the East Midlands, Sheffield, Leeds, or Newcastle. Curzon Street HS2 would serve only London and northern destinations on the West Coast Main Line (these are already served by Birmingham New Street station).

The verb ‘disconnect’ means “to sever or interrupt the connection of, or between”. As can be seen from the location of Curzon Street HS2 and New Street station in Birmingham, HS2 creates disconnectivity, and weakens Birmingham as a transport hub.

Poor interchange and bad location: Birmingham city HS2

Poor interchange and bad location: Birmingham city HS2

The pedestrian routes between Curzon Street and New Street are poor, jarring with Philip Hammond’s aspiration to provide ‘airport-quality’ interchange with HS2: “That cannot be lug your heavy bags down a couple of escalators, along 600 metres of corridor…”

The direct route uses the ex St Martin’s Queensway tunnel under the Bullring shopping centre, which can be intimidating, especially at night. The less intimidating route is more complex, and involves gradients. Both routes are exposed to the elements.

Centro has claimed that there are plans to connect New Street to Curzon Street HS2 by Midland Metro, but there are no legal powers, and the route hasn’t been explained.

With or without Midland Metro, the interchange time (New Street to Curzon Street) is enough to wipe out HS2’s higher speeds, for journeys starting in many parts of the local area (e.g. Wolverhampton).

Steering into fantasy, part 2

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Previous posts have explored some of the problems and contradictions in the HS2 concept. One such problem was the time savings and connectivity benefits that HS2 is purported to deliver.

In the documents produced by High Speed Two Limited (HS2 Ltd), door to door journey times are not detailed for West Midlands, London, or anywhere else.  But it’s evident that HS2 would provide no time saving or connectivity benefits for most journeys starting or finishing in the West Midlands county.

Given that the High Speed Two Limited reports from 2010 also had no detail on speeds or service levels on the West Coast Main Line ‘post-HS2’, attacking the project has been like shooting at an open goal. It’s been left to Greengauge 21 lobbyists to attempt to post-rationalise the project. In ‘Capturing the benefits of HS2 on existing lines‘, Greengauge 21 listed various rail improvements which it presented as being dependent on – or enabled by – HS2, including a through service from Walsall to London, a through service from Coventry to Heathrow Airport, and East West Rail to Milton Keynes.

It’s worth pointing out that the Greengauge list

  • isn’t part of the government HS2 project,
  • comes with no demand data,
  • and isn’t costed.

Here’s some of the ‘highlights’ from ‘Capturing the benefits’:

“A regular interval timetable for the West Coast Main Line (south)”

“The current pattern of service on the West Coast Main Line is extremely variable. Some destinations (largely those served by inter-city Pendolino trains) have an excellent frequent and fast service; other stations have irregular and patchy services throughout the day. HS2 allows the removal of many of the inter-city services from the southern end of the WCML, freeing up capacity for very different use of the route and providing benefits for passengers at smaller intermediate stations.

The Taktfahrplan approach is based on the concept of a standard hour timetable for the WCML: a basic pattern of services is operated in each hour from start to close of service, with additional peak services overlaid. Services are planned to be hourly, half-hourly, quarter-hourly – or very frequent.

So a £17,000,000,000 investment “de-stresses” the West Coast Main Line. Or more accurately, the southern third of it. HS2 phase one wouldn’t provide any relief of the WCML beyond Staffordshire.

There’s no evidence that HS2 is cost effective, or necessary, in capacity or service terms:

  • existing WCML capacity is not fully used, and can be increased
  • it’s possible to divert freight trains from the WCML. For example, Birmingham to Felixstowe goods traffic can be routed via Leicester
  • with increased use of the Chiltern main line for services between the West Midlands and London, additional capacity – and timetable recasting – is enabled on the WCML south of Rugby.

Greengauge 21 has invented a “connection from HS2 to the Birmingham – Derby line”:

Services are shown to Derby, Sheffield and beyond, taking advantage of Greengauge 21’s proposed connection from HS2 to the Birmingham – Derby line as well as the West Coast Main Line at its northern limit near Lichfield.

HS2 is weird. But the idea of routeing London to Derby trains via Birmingham – and existing track north of Birmingham – is überweird.


Little freight-specific detail. But a claim that

The East West Rail link between Oxford and Bletchley, if reopened, could play an important part in expanding railfreight. It offers a better route for container flows between Southampton and North West England than the current route through the West Midlands conurbation.

There are several options for optimising freight movements, including using the East – West Rail project. But none of them depend on implementing HS2. East West Rail is not part of HS2, and predates HS2.

Warwickshire and Coventry

Greengauge 21 claimed “there are some important implications arising from the potential local service improvements identified by Centro“:

“The proposal that both of the two hourly Cross Country service should be routed via Coventry rather than one via Solihull becomes feasible with the removal of the 20 minute-interval Pendolino services from the WCML into Birmingham. However, the Cross Country train path can only be reliably introduced on this new routing if the route between Coventry and Leamington is restored to a double track formation. It also then becomes possible to open a station at Kenilworth (for which planning permission has been applied). With these infrastructure improvements, it would become possible to introduce a local service for Kenilworth (as an extension of the service from Birmingham to Coventry). But it would also become possible to introduce a Coventry – Kenilworth – Leamington – London Marylebone service as part of the Chiltern franchise.”

No mention that

  • track doubling around Kenilworth is neither part of the HS2 project, nor dependent on it,
  • “Removal of the 20 minute-interval Pendolino services from the WCML into Birmingham” isn’t dependent on HS2,
  • “a Coventry – Kenilworth – Leamington – London” service isn’t dependent on HS2.

Black Country, Shropshire, Mid and North Wales

Having argued that HS2 would allow fast trains to be removed from the WCML, Greengauge 21 contradict their own argument:

“With HS2 in operation, there would be a continuing need to operate ‘fast’ services between the West Midlands and London over the West Coast Main Line. To improve connectivity, such services are likely to make an extra station call en route, as shown in the service plan in Chapter 2. But demand would be lower than today, with most of the traffic to/from the West Midlands expected to switch to HS2 services. The value of these retained services could be enhanced by their extension westwards from Birmingham. In today’s service plans, two out of every three trains terminate at Birmingham New Street. Since the capacity requirements on such services will be reduced following the opening of HS2, it would be feasible to operate such trains with lower capacity Class 221 units (which are approximately half the length of Pendolino trains) or other suitable 200 km/hour trains, and extend their operation to locations such as Shrewsbury, Aberystwyth and Wrexham.”

Chiltern electrification

A recurring idea in Greengauge 21 advocacy is that building new high speed track avoids the need to disrupt or upgrade existing lines.

Having argued against upgrading existing lines, Greengauge 21 now advocates electrification of existing tracks such as the route through Leamington Spa (to provide Coventry with the connectivity benefits that HS2 would fail to deliver).

Timetabling principles

The document lays down some general timetabling principles.

For example, if an express arrives at xx:58 and departs at xx:02 in both directions, then a connecting service arriving at xx:56 and departing at xx:04 will secure 6-minute interchange times for travellers in every direction.

But no mention that neither of the West Midlands HS2 stations would facilitate a six-minute interchange with connecting services. In fact, the connection couldn’t even happen within the same station.

At Bickenhill, passengers would have to catch a ‘people mover’ train to another station, over a kilometre away. In Birmingham city centre, the HS2 station would be around 10 minutes by foot from New Street, by the quickest route (using the sinister St Martin’s Queensway tunnel).


In their document ‘Capturing the benefits of HS2 on existing lines‘, Greengauge 21

  • stress the importance of good transport connections – yet changing train in Birmingham between HS2 and ‘classic’ rail couldn’t even happen in the same station
  • say that Pendolino services can be removed from WCML Coventry to Birmingham section, providing extra capacity – but then state that such trains would have to remain
  • imply that various transport improvement projects, such as East West Rail, are dependent on HS2 – when they actually are nothing to do with it
  • say that HS2 is better than rail upgrades – but it is not an alternative to such upgrades.

Looking forward to the year 2000

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In 1972 the National Union of Railwaymen led the formation of ‘Transport 2000’, an advocacy organisation for public and ‘environmentally friendly’ transport. In the nineteen seventies, the name must have conjured up visions of a new approach to the environment, and new types of transport.

Over the years, Transport 2000 campaigned against rail closures, and for expanded public transport, but gradually seemed to lose the ability to develop convincing policy positions. The globe-trotting of its president, Michael Palin, attracted some unwanted press coverage. In 2007, it finally changed its name to the the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT).

But CBT’s outlook seems to be shackled to its heritage, and ideas from the last century. This can be seen in its attitude to high speed rail in Britain, following the Labour policy U-turn navigated by Andrew Adonis. Although the HS2 project involves massive environmental damage, and would crowd out other public transport development, CBT has sat on the fence. It’s as if it knows that HS2 is bad, but because it’s a railway project, it cannot come out and campaign against it.