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Archive for November 2011

Mayor culpa

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Yes to Birmingham mayor website, mockup header

On 24 November, the Hyatt Hotel was the venue for a conflab on the question of whether Birmingham should have an elected mayor, featuring speakers from the Yes and No campaigns, and an audience of “about 80“.

In the discussion, Councillor John Hemming, from the No campaign, said there was a ‘minor debate’ about whether a mayor should have more powers, and the ‘big debate’ was about whether or not to change to an elected mayoralty.

But in reality, the topic of what an elected mayor is ‘for’ – and the reach of the mayoral executive – are fundamental.

One might reasonably expect an elected mayor to have final responsibility for economic planning, built environment, and transport, in the mayoral ‘area’ – whatever that might be. In which case, there would need to be substantial changes to current governance arrangements across a range of agencies. For example, transport in the West Midlands county is currently the responsibility of Centro, with decisions made – at least on paper – by a committee system of councillors from seven metropolitan boroughs (though in practice, policy is largely made by the local government officers).

At the time of writing, the mock-up of the Yes to Birmingham mayor campaign website, at, shows Centro as a supporter, presumably because head of strategy Alex Burrows is a leader of the Yes campaign. But it seems bizarre that Centro would publicly or privately back a campaign that calls into question its continued governance (or existence).

Yes to Birmingham mayor website mockup

Written by beleben

November 29, 2011 at 6:40 pm

California style

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On November 1, the San Jose Mercury News reported on the sticker shock for California’s high speed rail project:

Californians suffering from a massive case of “sticker shock” over the new $99 billion price tag for the state’s bullet train project got some more unsettling details Tuesday: The high-speed trains will attract fewer riders and less revenue than originally promised. And more than half of the money needed to build the rail line would come from federal funding that currently doesn’t exist.
The bullet train is now expected to cost nearly triple what voters were promised when they approved the plan in 2008 and more than double the 2009 estimate.
Most high-speed rail systems around the world require a public subsidy, but California voters have forbidden the Golden State’s bullet train from using tax funds for operations.

In the HS2 Ltd estimates, just over £1 billion is allowed for what is, in effect, a total rebuild of Euston station, and the Y network is supposed to reach *city centre* Leeds and Manchester, for an outlay of only £32.3 billion. These figures aren’t plausible. Notwithstanding the optimism bias allowance in the project, it’s inevitable that sooner or later, HS2 going to provide its own California-style sticker shock.

Written by beleben

November 29, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Off their trolley

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Walsall trolleybus, 1970 (Picture by David Hillas,, Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0)One of the first actions of the newly-formed West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (now known as Centro) was to close down the Walsall trolleybus system. Following its closure on 3 October 1970, road passenger transport in the West Midlands became entirely dependent on the diesel engine, and today, diesel buses are a major contributor to the West Midlands county’s bad air quality. Centro’s 2009-2014 Environmental Strategy has little to say about pollution from public transport, and any reduction in pollution from buses has occurred through European emissions regulations for new vehicles, rather than from action on the part of local authorities.

Although the conventional bus fleet is becoming cleaner as a result of newer vehicles replacing older ones, there needs to be more use of alternatives to diesel buses. On the most important corridors, there would be the possibility of (re-)introducing trolleybuses. Traditional battery buses have been range and performance limited, while trolleybuses have been limited to on-wire operation, unless equipped with an auxiliary power source (generally a small diesel engine). But improvements in battery and capacitor technology mean that all-electric trolleybuses, with off-wire capability, should now be possible.

Centro’s hurriedly developed Sprint ‘bus rapid transit’ is planned to use buses styled to look like trams. But so far as can be ascertained, behind the plastic wheel covers, they would be standard ‘low emission’ diesel buses. On the other hand, trolleybuses on the principal corridors could make cost-effective use of overhead infrastructure (unlike the overhead on the Midland Metro tramway, which is at best only used by one service running every 6-7 minutes). In Birmingham, potential corridors for trolleybus operation include the Alcester Road, Soho Road, Walsall Road, Hagley Road, Bordesley Green, and Coventry Road.

Written by beleben

November 27, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Intercity, the local leg, and Rail Package 6

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Britain’s economic geography is not well suited to the Adonis/Steer pattern of high speed rail, currently being pursued by the coalition government. A better way forward would be to develop and extend the existing network, with more clockface timetabling, and high quality interchange.

Extending intercity rail in Manchester

In Greater Manchester, this approach could be used to provide fast direct rail connections to places outside of the conurbation centre. One might imagine a scenario where infrastructure works, such as the Ordsall curve and further Transpennine electrification, allowed intercity trains from London Euston to Manchester to continue to Bolton, Rochdale, and possibly other destinations.

Reducing the local leg components of journeys in this way enables ‘classic rail’ to compete against high speed rail on journey time. In the HS2 Y-network, access to the intercity leg of a journey would happen in a currently unknown location in Manchester. With the Rail Package 6 approach, there are more intercity access points, closer to the traveller’s point of origin (e.g., Bolton, Stockport, etc).

The same considerations apply in other areas. For example, in the Rail Package 6 approach, West Bromwich is directly connected to London by Chiltern intercity rail. In the model put forward by Centro, the local transport authority, the same journey would involve an excruciatingly slow Midland Metro tram from West Bromwich to Stephenson Street, followed by a walk to Curzon Street HS2 station, followed by a HS2 journey to Euston.

Written by beleben

November 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm

HS2 train capacity

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Having examined HS2‘s unusable capacity, lumpy blobs, and spacing requirements, it might be worth taking another look at capacity realities, as they apply to train lengths.

Alstom, 'From TGV to AGV'HS2 Ltd’s plan is for services to be provided by trains formed by 200-metre long distributed traction trainsets, worked singly or as 400-metre coupled pairs. In its documentation, the company referred to a 200-metre long ‘550 seat’ Reference train, which was later revealed to be the Alstom AGV11.

However, at Innotrans 2008, Alstom stated that the AGV11 had seating for “420 to 460 passengers”. Alstom’s older TGV-Réseau, used on SNCF domestic and cross-border Thalys service, is a 200-metre trainset with end-power-cars, and a capacity of 377, or 361 after refurbishment.

The China Railways CRH3C is a 200-metre long version of the distributed-traction Siemens Velaro, with seating for 548 in three classes of accommodation. However, the CRH3C body is wider than (European) standard Velaros, to enable a 3-plus-2 seating arrangement.

So on the information available, it seems quite unlikely that a 200-metre HS2 train would be able to seat 550 passengers, unless the second class vehicles had ‘cattle truck’ seating. 200-metre classic compatible HS2 units would have less room than 11-car Pendolinos, and that would certainly be felt on North West England and Scottish services.

Written by beleben

November 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Chiltern capacity uplifts

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Although it’s named as one, the Chiltern Main Line (CML) is not ‘the’ main line to any city, and is vastly under-used compared to the West Coast, East Coast, and Midland Main Lines. The existence of plentiful untapped capacity on the CML is an inconvenient truth for high speed rail lobbyists. Figure 3.5, from Network Rail’s May 2011 West Midlands and Chiltern Route Utilisation Strategy, shows the CML off-peak service pattern:

Chiltern Main Line, offpeak passenger service pattern from RUS

As can be seen from the paths diagram, Chiltern is a very long way from being ‘intensively operated’, and there should be no problem in transferring all London – West Midlands intercity services to it. The operator, Chiltern Railways, currently uses short trains that serve London Marylebone and Birmingham Moor Street. For a very high capacity London to Birmingham intercity service, platforming requirements would probably require use of stations at Old Oak Common, and Birmingham Snow Hill.

Capacity uplift on the CML is achievable by measures such as

  • taking up unused paths
  • longer trains
  • restoring four-tracked sections (e.g., between Tyseley and Lapworth), and
  • new signalling (ERTMS).

By contrast, the foolhardy HS2 idea of channelling all fast services from the North of England along one track to Euston would present a maintenance and resilience nightmare. It makes a lot more sense to spread fast intercity traffic over a number of lines, and provide network-capable rolling stock that can be switched between them (the ‘Rail Package 6‘ concept).

Written by beleben

November 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Parking Round Curzon Street

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Andrew Round, head of development at Birmingham city council, has claimed that a planned 1,000-space underground car park in Eastside is needed to meet demand from new businesses and Birmingham City University.

The idea is under consideration as part of a fresh look at the council’s Eastside Masterplan.
Mr Round said a combination of students, employees in businesses moving into the area and the high speed rail station meant that Eastside would require at least 3,000 parking spaces over the next few years to cope with demand.

It’s probable that a lot more car parking, below and above ground, would spring up around Curzon Street, if HS2 were built. Using the airspace above a future Curzon Street HS2 station would be a continuation of what already happens at New Street and Snow Hill stations. Even Moor Street station hosted car parking, until the rebuilding of the St Martin’s area swept its goods yard away.

Written by beleben

November 23, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Lichfield to Stourbridge derailed

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South Staffordshire Line, plan

South Staffordshire Line, showing its relationship with other West Midlands railways (based on Open Street Map)

Re-opening of the (South Staffordshire railway) line between Walsall and Stourbridge” is one of Centro‘s aspirations for the period 2014 to 2019. Passenger services stopped running in the 1960s, and nearly all of the South Staffordshire Line was closed altogether in the 1980s and 1990s. The term ‘South Staffordshire Line’ (SSL) is now used to designate the railway route from Wychnor Junction to Stourbridge via Lichfield, Walsall, Wednesbury, Dudley, and Brierley Hill.

For more than twenty years, Centro has been looking to use parts of the South Staffordshire’s trackbed in its Midland Metro tramway scheme. In June 2000, it submitted an Initial Outline Business Case to the government for two Midland Metro ‘Phase One Extensions’ – the Birmingham City Centre Extension (BCCE), and the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Extension (WBHE).

The Brierley Hill route would have functioned as a branch of Midland Metro Line One, using stretches of the South Staffordshire Line, together with on-street running in Dudley and Merry Hill. Centro’s 20 December 2004 press releases ‘Metro expansion go-ahead “a wonderful Christmas present for the Black Country”‘ and ‘More from the Metro expansion public inquiry‘, spun the WBHE as follows:

'Wonderful Christmas present', 2004

Christmas has come early for the people of the Black Country according to transport bosses.

Public transport promoter Centro and councillors on the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority have responded with joy at today’s Government approval for a major extension of the Midland Metro tram system.

Transport Minister David Jamieson made the announcement earlier this morning. He said the Government would grant Centro the powers to extend the light rapid transit system from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, via Dudley.

The decision follows a public inquiry into the £139m scheme earlier this year.
The 11 km Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro route will have 13 easy-access stops with four Park and Ride sites serving shopping and business areas in Great Bridge, Dudley Port (connecting with local train services), Dudley town centre, the Waterfront and Merry Hill before terminating near High Street, Brierley Hill. Modern trams would cover the distance in 23 minutes, travelling on-street through parts of Dudley and following the route of a mothballed railway line for much of the remaining journey.

During the course of the Inquiry which concluded in April this year, Centro reached agreement with both Network Rail and the Strategic Rail Authority to protect the route of a parallel railway track should it ever be needed for freight trains.

Objections by rail enthusiasts wanting to see passenger train services were dismissed as expensive and unrealistic. Centro’s evidence claimed that the extra work required would cost more than £36m and that, according to the Government’s Strategic Rail Authority “… there is no demand that would justify a passenger service on the Walsall to Stourbridge axis, either now or in the foreseeable future”.

Not long after the public inquiry had ended, Centro issued a new funding requirement for the WBHE that was much higher than the claimed ‘£36 million extra work’ required for South Staffordshire passenger rail service. The WBHE scheme went nowhere, and Centro repackaged it as the ‘Wednesbury – Brierley Hill – Stourbridge Rapid Transit’ tram-train, costed at £341 million.

In a response to a 19 March 2010 article in the Halesowen News, Councillor Angus Adams, Centro’s Lead Member for District Liaison and Metro/Rapid Transit Development, wrote that [the Brierley Hill Midland Metro]

continues to have the full support of the Black Country councils and has been agreed by the region as a transport priority for the West Midlands, paving the way for it to be included in a future Regional Funding Allocation bid.

Private sector backing for a Wednesbury to Stourbridge link is also strong. Substantial financial support agreed by Westfield, owners of the Merry Hill shopping centre, for improved rapid transit access to the Waterfront and Merry Hill will continue to underpin a funding case for the route.

Preparation work on the route is continuing and one option being pursued by Centro and key project partners including Network Rail is the use of track sharing technology similar to that seen on the Continent.

This would allow freight trains and trams to use the same tracks, removing the need for an extra set of rails to be laid. This would reduce construction costs by at least 20 per cent, further strengthening the project’s business case.

Treating the Birmingham city centre extension as a separate scheme actually makes a Wednesbury to Brierley Hill/Merry Hill and Dudley link more attractive.

This is because the most attractive business case for a light rail system on this route is likely to be for a scheme in which frequent services departing from Brierley Hill will alternately serve Wolverhampton and Birmingham with all the enhanced destinations offered by going right into the heart of the city rather than terminating at Snow Hill.

Centro and the Black Country councils are therefore fully committed to the development and delivery of the most appropriate rapid transit system that links Wednesbury with the area’s other strategic centres and connects local people to job, education, training and leisure opportunities.

The dereliction of the South Staffordshire Line today is a result of Centro’s failure to place it on a care and maintenance footing (after the cessation of freight services in the 1990s). Reinstatement is further complicated by the tram-train proposal, which has likely put paid to any freight or passenger use for years.

Written by beleben

November 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm

HS2 and Stoke-on-Trent

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Irrespective of any supposed capacity uplift, HS2 Ltd’s diagram of benefit-cost ratio against journey time for the London – Birmingham relation indicated a BCR falling below 1.0, if trains took 61 minutes or more.

HS2 Ltd have said that they do not have similar diagrams for places served (or by-passed) on the stage two Y-network to Manchester and Leeds, but it’s clear that additional stations are severely punished in the economic model.

How much of the costs of any extra HS2 station would end up in the BCR, depends on the cost boundary (who pays for the link roads, etc). The bare cost could be said to ‘start’ at around £300 million, according to the 2010 Cost and Risk Model.

If the ‘logic’ of stage one were followed, the Manchester leg of phase two would be kept as straight as possible, and a station in or ‘near’ Stoke-on-Trent is not part of the Y network.

Even a Potteries parkway station would extend the London to Manchester journey time, by perhaps 5 or 6 minutes. Additional stations would also reduce the average occupancy of HS2 trains, which further complicates the financing and environmental issues.

Written by beleben

November 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm

General power of incompetence

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Birmingham Post, Yes-to-Birmingham-mayor campaignersBack in August, the Birmingham Post had a story on the Yes-to-a-Birmingham-elected-mayor campaign, complete with a bizarre Ronnie Corbett “I know my place” picture of the campaign leaders. Post writer Neil Elkes opined that the Yes campaign

could not be more different to the ‘no’ campaign launched by MPs John Hemming and Roger Godsiff two weeks ago.

While that campaign is fronted by a pair of middle-aged, seasoned front line politicians, the ‘yes’ camp is a broad group of media, business and public sector professionals.

A similarly deliberated viewpoint was apparent in yesterday’s Birmingham Post Iron Angle column, in which Paul Dale backed Yes supporters, apparently because they had a better website.

‘Yes’ campaign
‘Elect a mayor for Birmingham’ is backed by businesswoman Julia Higginbottom, soi-disant transport expert Alex Burrows, and Birmingham It’s Not Shit blogger Jon Bounds.

Elect a mayor for Birmingham, landing page, Nov 2011

‘No’ campaign
The ‘Campaign for Accessible Government in Birmingham’ has the backing of Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, Labour MP Roger Godsiff, and Tory city councillor James Hutchings.

Campaign for Accessible Government in Birmingham - 'Vote no to a power freak', landing page - Nov 2011

Power Freak parenthesesI liked the title of the No campaign site – ‘Vote No to a Power Freak (in Birmingham)’ – implying that voting yes to a power freak would be okay somewhere else (but not in Birmingham). And the ‘Useful Information’ link, leaving the way open for a future additional link, called ‘Useless Information’.

By contrast, the Yes site had a ‘modern, glitzy, professional‘ (translation: WordPress) feel, ‘with appropriate links to Facebook and Twitter’. It’s no small achievement to get a nocturnal picture of Broad Street not featuring a pool of sick, but there again, Photoshop may have been involved.

An amendment to the Localism Bill allows for transfer of activities to local authorities from other branches of government. And so at the national level, the mayoralty issue has become embroiled with the government’s so-called localism agenda. The conflation can be seen in the Yes campaign website:

A directly elected mayor, apart from being Mr or Ms Birmingham and thereby a spokesperson for the city would be well placed to explore and exploit the general power of competence set out in the Localism Bill. This power is designed to allow local government the legal capacity to do anything that an individual can do that is not specifically prohibited by law. In short, Mr or Ms Birmingham will be able to work with local people, local groups and other interested parties to shape local solutions to Birmingham’s problems and seek local ways of exploiting the opportunities peculiar to Birmingham as long as what they propose does not break any law. An end to one size fits all approaches that rarely meet the needs of our unique city.

The general power of competence is partnered with a new, general power that gives local authorities more freedom to work together with others in new ways to improve the quality of public services available to local citizens; joined up service delivery at local level. This approach should result in creative, innovative, local approaches being developed to meet local needs. It is hoped that improvements in quality of service delivery will be matched with reductions in the cost of that delivery. The bringing together of partners to drive up quality and reduce costs would be a key role for Mr or Ms Birmingham.

For Birmingham, there is also the geographical issue, namely, how a city mayoralty would fit with neighbouring authorities in the Black Country and Solihull. For example, public transport in the West Midlands is theoretically ‘run’ by committees of councillors from Birmingham and six other boroughs, though most services are designed and operated by private companies (with additional intervention from central government in rail).

In the 1980s building societies began petitioning government to acquire powers to engage in business and structural transformation, and within a few years of acquiring them, nearly all were insolvent. I’m unconvinced that prospective mayors and their advisers would be competent to take over functions currently undertaken by other bodies. Councils seem to have great difficulty running the activities that they already have, let alone taking up new ones. And, in general, normal people don’t appear to view elected mayors with great enthusiasm. As the Coventry Telegraph reported in October,

A REFERENDUM in Coventry to decide if an elected mayor should lead the council could be delayed for another year – due to lack of public interest.

The government confirmed to this newspaper it is considering the proposal by pro-mayor charity the Institute for Government – which is advising on how people could be more encouraged to vote ‘Yes’.

It comes as the Institute – headed by Labour ex-minister Lord Andrew Adonis – admitted to us elected mayors elsewhere have failed to increase public interest by boosting turnout in council elections.

It is despite claims by city pro-mayor campaigners – including potential candidate Bob Ainsworth MP – that replacing the council leader’s post with an elected mayor could rejuvenate local democracy, and stimulate economic growth in cities.

The Institute for Government’s Sam Sims also accepted there is no evidence elected mayors have boosted growth in other towns.

They include Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Stoke, which abandoned its mayoral system.

People in every town and city, including Coventry, have had the opportunity for a decade to petition for a referendum on having an elected mayor.

But there has so far only been sufficient public interest for referenda in about 40 towns. Two-thirds of those voted to reject having an elected mayor.

Written by beleben

November 18, 2011 at 11:18 pm