The New Rail Golden Age of Britain’s Motor City.

Now that he’s become the new mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), Andy Street faces the tricky task of advertising the region to the rest of the world. If Birmingham is struggling in the PR game, the WMCA brand is bound to have a rough start. He could call it Greater Birmingham, but that might not go down well with the likes of Wolverhampton and Coventry. And even then, political and business leaders around the world probably wouldn’t that know Birmingham has the second biggest metropolitan area in the UK. If they did and thought it had a world-class transport system, they’d be in for a shock:

Midland Metro’s Line One

Birmingham has indeed the awkward title of number one city without a rapid transit. But a more startling fact is that, it is the largest European metropolitan area which lacks both rapid transit and a tram system (unless a tram line constitutes a network). In fact, there are only five other million-plus city regions which share that distinction in Europe. Though the fact that those are West Yorkshire, South Hampshire, Merseyside, Greater Bristol and Cardiff means the West Midlands doesn’t look that bad in a British context. However, rewind 80 years back in time before World War II and this is what the Birmingham Tramways Corporation network used to look like:

Birmingham Corporation Tramways’ network

Yet it wasn’t the war that killed it. The tram network had remained unscathed by the Blitz only to be dismantled between 1947 and 1953. It was also after the war, from 1949 to 1972, that the West Midlands lost 44 railway stations.  As trains and trams vanished, car ownership increased dramatically. And as of today in Birmingham, nearly 65% of the population commute by car, more than in any other large British city.

One could argue this is the result of a free market and could ask why more of us should use public transport instead of driving cars. The usual answer is that cars lead to congestion and cause deaths from pollution, car crashes as well as lack of exercise. Yet, this tends to depict car users as irresponsible, selfish and lazy. Plus, the thought that people should systematically choose cars over safer, cleaner and more space-efficient public transport would destroy anyone’s faith in humanity. The truth is, the reason why so many of us drive despite the adverse consequences, is because it is often both a choice and a necessity.

If you’re looking for somewhere to live, you’re likely to find an area with enough space to drive and park your car. The thing is, that amount of space needed will be astonishingly high. Even the smallest of cars takes up 150 square feet when parked and 1,500 square feet when moving at 30 mph. Yet, it is those car-induced, low-density environments which, for many households, put fixed transport networks out of reach. Indeed, most people aren’t willing to walk more than ten minutes to a tram or train stop. In a region like the West Midlands, where 45 tram routes couldn’t survive the motor age, access to rail is particularly scarce. Of course you could drive to a distant train station or tram stop, but as car use is kept artificially cheap, you’re often better off just driving to your final destination. And even if you could walk or ride your bike to your nearest stop, doing so would be considerably more dangerous than driving, precisely because of people driving.

The conclusion from this, isn’t that the West Midlands is stuck in the past, or that it lacks ambition. Post-WW2  leaders actually thought they were building the future. It’s true that they failed to see the impact of cars on our cities. Yet, they could have never predicted that those transformed cities would become so inhospitable to anything but cars. This lasting effect is what makes rail investment so challenging  in a region like the West Midlands. The good news is, cities like Birmingham know exactly how to create and nurture good public transport.

Getting off the train at Birmingham New Street in rush hour, you get the sense of a city that is bursting at the seams. After leaving the station, you have access to a multitude of safe and lively car-free streets with relatively clean air. Most importantly, you can find an array of shops, an increasing amount of restaurants and various forms entertainment, all within walking distance. Because getting the train to Birmingham city centre is so fast and convenient, more than 39 million passengers choose to go through New Street station every year.

Birmingham from the air (Ordinance Survey)

However, that busy and chic Birmingham is confined to just a few streets. If getting off at New Street, you hopped on the Midland Metro going along the Black Country, it’s fair to say you’d experience much smaller crowds. The whole tram line, with its 26 stops, only attracts an annual ridership of 4.8 million passengers. And why indeed, would the tens of millions of people who travel to New Street Station choose to get a tram to a place like Wednesday Parkway which is surrounded by trees, car parks and suburbia while increasing their vulnerability on the road?

Wednesbury Park
Wednesbury Parkway (Google Maps)

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should convert all suburbanites to city centre living. However, a legitimate goal, which is coincidentally shared by West Midlands Mayor Mr Street, would be to ‘give people the choice of using public transport instead of their cars’. This emphasis on choice is critical, because many West Midlanders have simply lost the opportunity to use public transport.

Buses do go pretty much everywhere in the region, but because they are incredibly slow, using them is often a default choice made by commuters who either can’t drive a car or can’t afford one. They could be faster if they had more dedicated lanes. But taking space away from car users, to give it to such an unjustifiably unloved mode of transport, usually comes at a high political cost. Unfortunately, that may be why Mr Street has vowed to review key bus lanes instead of implementing new ones.

Where the new mayor is likely to make the biggest impact, is in the region’s train and tram networks. As well as increasing train capacity and frequency, he is calling for the reopening of two railway lines for passengers and will consider reopening another two. He will also oversee the extension of four Midland Metro lines. This unprecedented investment will give hundreds of thousands of people across the region, the opportunity to use trams and trains again.

That being said, you cannot boost public transport while preserving environments where cars remain essential. Therefore, Mr Street will also have to prioritise high-density, mixed-use development along rail and tram routes. For many, this would be an opportunity to commute to places where they can both shop and work (or indeed, an opportunity to live in such places without having to commute). As they become increasingly connected and liveable, areas like the Irish and Jewellery Quarters look ready to rival the likes of Camden or Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Yet, as these neighbourhoods also become more expensive, the mayor should insure that they include some of the affordable housing he has vowed to build.

Finally, with High Speed 2 reaching the city by 2026, then branching out towards Leeds and Manchester by 2032, strategically placed Birmingham could compete with London as the true centre of Britain’s rail network. And maybe, just maybe, Britain’s motor city could enter a new rail golden age.