Stephen Leigh looks at the Midland Metro system which links Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Stephen was a regular commuter on the system for a few years and looks at just why it has not been as succesful as would have been hoped for when it started services in 1999.
I write this article mainly as a farewell to a Transit System that I used as a Commuter for 2 & ½ years. I also write this article to highlight the seemingly insurmountable frustration that has been encountered on the quest to improve the System over the past ten years.
The Midland Metro is often seen as the least successful light rail system in the UK and it is this dubious accolade that forms the basis of this article. There have been a lot of reasons as to why the system is perceived to be a failure and there is now a stigma attached to the Metro that it cannot be a success. The evidence I will show in this article will show that that the line was doomed to fail (relatively speaking) and that the stigma should be washed away and the system given a clean break.
The Midland Metro opened in 1999 and was hailed as the first stage of big plans for a Metro network across the West Midlands. The 20km line links Birmingham to Wolverhampton via West Bromwich, Wednesbury and Bilston along the former track bed of the Wolverhampton to Birmingham Low level Railway Line. The line is managed from the Metro Centre in Wednesbury which is also where the fleet of 16 trams and various ancillary vehicles are based. The trams themselves were constructed in Italy by Ansaldo and are designated T69’s. They have been prone to breaking down and are especially prone to door failures. Since 1999 the fleet has dwindled in size to 15 trams (with the loss of Tram 7 due to a lightening strike!) down to 13 (with the loss of trams 9 and 10 in an accident) and further down to 12 trams (with the loss of tram 5 in another accident). However in recent months trams 7, 9 and 10 have been refurbished and repaired with new upholstery and a Silver and Magenta paint scheme and all 3 of the trams have returned to service. Recently tram 5 has been seen back at the depot in the new livery.
It was mooted in the early 90’s that a Tram system should be constructed in Birmingham and publicity material from that time suggests that a line through the Heartlands Regeneration Corridor could be a viable choice. This route was heavily opposed by local traders and residents and the route withdrawn. After consultation Centro suggested the route that is currently Line 1, which was the former track bed of the Great Western Railway from Wolverhampton Low Level to Birmingham Snow Hill (via Priestfield).
Before the implementation there were cutbacks, the trams were made shorter to save money and this meant the stops could be shorter, but on a positive note the land needed to extend each stop was acquired in case of future expansion. The construction of the system was not easy and thieves preyed upon the copper wire that was being installed for powering the trams. This was solved by the construction company who found that by putting a current through the line the thieves were kept at bay. There were also problems in the delivery of the new trams. They were over 6 months late and had to undergo a series of testing before they could become operational. This pushed back the opening date to 1999 and even at this stage there were problems with the full fleet of trams operating successfully and a skeleton service was in operation.
During the development of the Metro, figures were suggested that the line could carry 20 million passengers a year, an extraordinary figure compared to the actual figure that is nearer 5 million passengers. By saying this figure as a means to obtain funding for Line 1, Centro had doomed the Metro to failure. The Metro runs between two sizable cities and is entirely in urban areas with many popular urban centres along the line. Therefore the figures would seem quite realistic. Then again I have come to wonder as to why these figures are now considered so flawed…
The trams can carry a maximum of 196 passengers each and there are a finite number of services per day. Therefore assuming each tram was running at maximum capacity with everyone on board starting at point A getting off at an intermediate stop at point B and being replaced by another passenger who travels from point B to the terminus at C for the full length of the line all day every day using the current timetable then the maximum amount of passengers carried would be – 36 million passengers.
This was worked out using the following formula (feel free to come back to me with suggestions for improvement as this does not take into account many variables and is only meant to be broadly representative):
[196 passengers x 274 (journeys per day) x 5 (week days) + 196 x 262 (journeys per day) x 1 (Saturdays) + 196 x 140 (journeys per day) x 1 (Sundays)] x 52 (Weeks in the year) = Approximate Maximum number of passengers. X 2 (assuming that everyone gets off at point B on the journey and then someone gets on to replace them). = 36120448
I appreciate these figures are basic but they will suffice for the purposes of this article. They take into account of journeys from the Wednesbury Depot but count them as full-length journeys.
These figures do highlight that the projections of 20 million are based upon the raw capacity of the trams and that the trams would have to be running at or near to full capacity almost throughout the day and would certainly have had to have encouraged more people to take shorter journeys on the system (which would be a problem because of the cost, especially in the deprived areas that the Metro runs through). This was possible to achieve but prices would have to be far cheaper. The fact that 20 million passenger journeys a year was suggested has meant that when the actual figures of approximately 5 million were counted that the system was considered a failure. It was carrying about a sixth of its capacity, which meant it was perceived as under performing. But why was it carrying a sixth of its projected passengers?
When you get into Birmingham and you walk into the streets there is only a hint via a selection of signs that there is a tram system in the city. Even if you were to find the Metro nestled away in its hole by Snow Hill Station you would be hard pressed as a visitor to Birmingham to find anywhere you would want to go other than the Jewellery Quarter which was well served by suburban trains (and therefore through ticketing!!!). There are also quicker suburban and mainline trains running between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. The fact that the metro does not serve New Street or any of the other main visitor destinations in Birmingham has meant that the system is largely unknown for those outside of the city and indeed it is unknown for many of its inhabitants. Having the Metro run through the city centre streets would give it a much higher status than it has now. It would act as its own advertisement and would get the public to start asking their local Councillors “when are we getting our line?”
The same applies at Wolverhampton. The line falls short of the city centre, but at least there it runs on the street, which showcases it as a new exciting form of transport. Unfortunately at Wolverhampton it has to wait at the Wishbone Bridge for the traffic signals that give it no priority. This is another flaw (although not necessarily fundamental) to any tram system.
The Political will in Birmingham has slowed the extensions of the system down. In 1999 it was expected that two “bite size” extensions would be operational by 2007 (to Five Ways in the City Centre and to Brierley Hill). Transport and Works Act powers were obtained for both of these extensions in 2000. They expire in 2010 and to date both of these extensions are still on hold and no funding has been released to move them further forward even though 25% of the extensions costs have been obtained through planning agreements. In 2003 Birmingham City Council ensured the delay of the Metro by ordering a feasibility Study into the possible running of the system underground. Of course the expense that it would entail meant that it would not be possible and the city is already littered with underground tunnels (such as those of the Anchor Nuclear Bunker and the tunnel from Moor Street to Snow Hill). The delay ensured the late delivery of the Business Case to national government that was at the time just wrapping up a package called Transport Innovation Fund (TIF). This fund was to encourage Local Authorities to use Road User Pricing to offset the costs of public transport improvements. Centro tied their Metro submission to the TIF bid and rather unfortunately the Local Authorities in the area got cold feet and shelved the West Midlands TIF bid. Which has lead to the situation where the only way an extension in the short term will happen is for Centro to fund the extension itself which may be only to go to New Street Station. Unfortunately Birmingham City Council have launched their Big City Plan that has thrown the alignment of the Metro up in the air and the current leader of the Council does not seem to be supportive of the alignment that takes it down Corporation Street. What happens in the future is unknown but there is already a viaduct constructed that will take the Metro from its current alignment and onto the streets in the city centre.
Time is of essence and Centro need to ensure that the Transport and Work Acts powers they have obtained for both extensions do not expire (they will expire in 2010) otherwise an extension will need to be applied for to ensure their work is not in vein. One idea that has been mooted is that they should implement one of the park and ride schemes at Dudley Port railway station which would start the powers and mean that the construction of the Metro had technically started.
Of course the political will to move the Metro forward is likely to have been influenced by lower than expected passenger figures on the system. Which goes back to the points made above where extraordinary figures seem to have been used to gain the funding. Unfortunately I have no information as to how the original 20 million figure was reached, I wish I did as then I could see what factors may have influenced the significant difference between the actual numbers and the projected numbers.
To conclude – The Metro started off as a good idea but remained an idea for too long. People lost confidence and an easy and relatively cheap solution for the first line was taken. If Centro had made sure that the line crossed Birmingham then Line 1 would have probably have had more of a success. However this was not the case and it seems likely that the predicted figure of 20 million passengers a year using the Metro was submitted because it needed funding from the government and using a lower, more realistic, figure may have jeopardised the funding application for Line 1. Unfortunately these inflated figures have meant that potential improvements to the system will be seen in the same light. When travelling on the Metro at peak times it is hard to see how the Metro is perceived as a failure when there are so many passengers on the tram that it is at crush capacity.
The future of the system relies largely on being extended into the centre of Birmingham. Centro seem to be adopting a policy of smaller scale improvements to the system. Implementing the link to New Street would enable easy transfer from Snow Hill to New Street and give it prominence in the centre. New trams would improve reliability from the Italian designed T69’s and may increase capacity. A new loop in Wolverhampton and a spur to the railway and bus stations would enable passengers to interchange between modes of transport. Indeed Wolverhampton City Council is pressing for further extensions just within Wolverhampton. After these smaller extensions in Birmingham and Wolverhampton are constructed there may be the political will to extend to Birmingham International Airport (which would tie in nicely with any new High Speed Rail hub and the recently announced airport expansion). The Brierley Hill Extension is being examined as a TramTrain style system that would link with the current system at Wednesbury. This would reduce costs by up to 20% which makes the system more affordable, however with the Penistone Line experiments not due to be completed for some time this is not an instant solution. The However it is important to look at the rivals to Metro that are being proposed such as Bus Rapid Transit which is cheaper and could deliver similar results in a quicker timeframe with less disruption. Even Monorail has been suggested as an alternative to Metro expansion plans. Has the constant indecision about putting the Metro lines around the West Midlands meant that it has hit the buffers in terms of long term expansion? That is a question I could only make a guess at answering and in the end only time will tell…
Interestingly since I finished this article an article on the BBC web site suggest that a shorter extension could be funded (see link below):
While writing this article I used several Midland Metro Publications from Centro and the excellent book Main Line to Metro by John Boynton.