Bringing trams on to Birmingham’s streets is manifestly the wrong policy, says Steve Beauchampé .
What might Birmingham do if given over £40 million to spend on public transport? Re-open the rail line through Balsall Heath, Moseley and King’s Heath to commuter trains, building three new stops in the process? Construct several new park and ride stations along the rail line from New Street to Coleshill? Purchase hundreds of hybrid or fully electric buses and introduce additional much-needed bus priority measures? Create a network of cycle routes the envy of every large city in the UK?
No. Today, Birmingham City Council Cabinet will agree to squander £42.4 million of public money by extending the Midland Metro from New Street Station to Centenary Square.
When the council and Centro, the quango charged with delivering public transport throughout the West Midlands, closed Upper Bull Street, Corporation Street, Stephenson Street and Navigation Street to buses in July 2012 to facilitate the extension of Metro Line 1, they forced over twenty heavily used bus routes and the thousands of people who rely on them from the heart of the city centre towards its edge. Costing an estimated £60 million, this marked the most regressive step in public transport provision witnessed in Birmingham for decades, whilst leaving the once thriving shopping environment of Corporation Street and Upper Bull Street a shadow of its former self. Time does not change things and the inconveniences these bus users must contend with are as real today as they were sixteen months ago.
Come 2015 the Upper Bull Street to Navigation Street route will be the preserve of just a single Metro line. Where once there were scores of buses per hour, collectively serving large swathes of the region, there will be a mere handful of trams travelling between Snow Hill and New Street stations – the most common form of public transport forced out to accommodate the least used. The new trams meanwhile, unveiled publicly last week, offer a measly 54 seats alongside 158 standing places – arguably little better than glorified cattle trucks and hardly appropriate for those unsteady on their feet.
Why then has there been so little public outcry at the downgrading of the bus services, with some routes which previously boasted six or seven stops spread throughout the city centre now limited to two or three? Partly because those most affected by the changes primarily consist of the groups within society that have almost no voice, and carry no influence; the elderly, the poor, migrants, students, the unwaged and the low waged. They are a captive market, people for whom switching to cars is not an option, and the decades-long annual increase in bus fares demonstrates that transport bosses realise this.
Secondly, the effects of removing the buses are not seismic and impact upon a minority of the population. To the city’s politicians and professional media, most of whom rarely, if ever, use these bus routes (cars, taxis and trains being so much more tolerable) the effects are probably imperceptible. Yet the consequences for those passengers who do are very real. Sometimes the extra walking may amount to just a few minutes (albeit in both directions), but when it is wet, cold, dark, when you’re running late, weighed down with bags, coping with young children, elderly, infirm or disabled, these effects matter.
On occasions however the level of inconvenience is more substantial; prior to the changes numerous bus routes picked up in Stephenson Street and Navigation Street, very convenient for New Street Station, the Mailbox, Town Hall, Museum and Art Gallery, Council House and Victoria Square. Today users of these facilities face walks of up to ten minutes to their relocated bus stops in Carrs Lane or Priory Queensway. Worse, try reaching these stops from the New Library of Birmingham, ICC, NIA or Symphony Hall and see how long it can take! Anecdotal evidence suggests that as a result of the changes some people have reduced the number and scope of their visits to the city centre, while a few may have ceased coming altogether.
A further reason why Metro has been allowed to prevail is that the bus companies, primarily National Express, which owns Travel West Midlands and (crucially) operates Midland Metro, are not bothered. Passengers must still travel so the company doesn’t lose out fares wise, while removing buses from the core of the city centre allows their vehicles to turn around quicker (i.e. they are operating a shorter route) – far easier for passengers to come to them than that they go to the passengers.
So what’s behind the obsession with extending Metro? Line 1 loses money and by lengthening it the hope is that more people will use the service, especially those prepared to pay a pound or two for a short city centre journey and others tempted to upgrade to a more expensive travel card that includes Metro. Additionally, the business and marketing community (and thus those councillors in the vanguard of the ‘Birmingham is open for business’ mentality) adore it; Metro is photogenic, it swishes along in a very modern, continental kind of way making a most pleasing sound. Oh, and Manchester’s got one.
Metro’s champions see it as the catalyst for coaxing commuters from their cars, although as we shall explain this requires a far bigger project than mere city centre line extensions. Finally, there is the social engineering aspect: Metro is often viewed as an upmarket mode of travel and some of its proponents imagine/hope that those cruddy people (see list above) won’t use it.
The Centenary Square extension is the next phase of a longer-term plan to run trams along Broad Street and then past the office blocks, hotels and apartments of Hagley Road. It doesn’t end there, with Centro and some senior councillors harbouring ambitions to operate trams along several other arterial roads. The immediate impact of the Centenary Square extension will be to force many buses along a convoluted and time-consuming route including Sheepcote Street and the rear of the NIA, then to Cambridge Street, with other services possibly utilising Holliday Street and Bridge Street.
Perhaps in readiness, the No 1 bus service now terminates by the Novotel, several hundred yards short of its previous final destination outside the Town Hall. Posters on buses lauded this change as a service improvement; palpable nonsense but typical of the language used by Centro in referring to the removal of buses from Corporation Street, which they trumpeted as being part of creating a better connected city and improved integrated public transport system. Should Metro eventually be extended along the length of Broad Street, bus users can expect to be diverted down more back roads, with consequently longer walks to and from their stops. Out of sight and out of mind perhaps.
Yet while Metro Line 1, by utilising a disused section of the former Great Western Railway line, was a welcome addition to the region’s public transport infrastructure (and some of the proposed extensions of the system in the Black Country likewise promise to use vacant land), when run on public streets trams can quickly become a disruptive transport system, one that displaces a more popular and flexible alternative as a necessity of its operation. With their rails and overhead mechanics, trams require dedicated and usually segregated road space. Any breakdown or accident, repairs to the system’s infrastructure, road works, flooding or emergency along the route (i.e. a fire, road accident etc) can impact on large parts of the line, forcing services to be delayed, curtailed and cancelled. Unlike buses, trams cannot be easily and quickly re-routed to account for changed passenger requirements, new roads or road re-alignments… in fact, the very reasons why trams were phased out of Britain’s towns and cities (including Birmingham in 1953) and replaced by buses in the first place.
The impracticalities of operating Metro along the city’s arterial roads should be obvious, and Centro and the council have repeatedly been advised as such. For reasons related to their overhead mechanics, trams would likely have to use the centre lanes, with the frequent stops and their attendant shelters, platforms and pedestrian crossings reducing road space still further. Some central reservations would be torn up, trees felled, pavements narrowed, additional parking restrictions introduced and traffic reduced to a crawl at times as four lane highways are shrunk to two. The detrimental effect on the city’s economy and on the quality of life for residents could be considerable and the last time that such an idea was proposed, in the early 1980s, there was widespread public opposition and the scheme dropped.
Ultimately, the Metro project as currently envisioned is a pointless exercise as in buses we already have probably the most flexible mass public transit system ever devised. As can be seen with the recently introduced electric hybrid buses serving the route from Colmore Row to Kitwell and Woodgate via Harborne, modern double-decker buses can be clean, safe and passenger friendly, even providing the majority of customers with a seat! Far from being extended, unless Metro can be run underground in the city centre or along back streets, and taken down disused rail lines or across vacant land outside of it, its expansion should not just cease, but be reversed. As right now, every extra metre of track that is laid takes us in entirely the wrong direction of travel.