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Transport / Mass transit

Here are four thoughts on Birmingham’s new tram plan

Last week on our Facebook page (you like that already, right? You should definitely like it), we received a complaint, of sorts: that we don’t write enough about Birmingham.

If there’s any validity to this, it’s for a simple reason. Much of our most widely-shared content is about transport. And Birmingham’s transport is pretty, well, rubbish: a few commuter rail lines, an extensive but under-regulated bus network, and a single, solitary light rail line which, let’s be honest about this, makes for a rubbish map.

To make matters worse, for most of its life, the Midlands Metro – the light rail line in question – didn’t make it into Birmingham City centre at all. From its opening in May 1999 right up until 2016, trams terminated on the northern fringe of the city’s central business district at Snow Hill. At the other end of the line, they didn’t make it to the heart of Wolverhampton, either.

The line as it was. Click to expand. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

All of which was great for passenger numbers, obviously.

But that is, gradually, changing. In May last year, the route was extended to three new stations, ending at the recently renovated Birmingham New Street station. And over the weekend, the Department for Transport announced it was chucking £60m into the pot to help pay for the £149m extension which will take the line another mile or so through to Birmingham’s rapidly redeveloping Westside.

Here’s a map of where the five new stations will be:

Click to expand. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Some observations, in no particular order:

Those names suck

I’m not convinced those names will stick. For one thing, the stop labelled “Stephenson Street” on that map is already open, except it’s actually called “Grand Central”. (The rather grandiose name refers to the shiny new shopping centre on top of New Street station.)

For another, there already is a Five Ways railway station, not particularly close to the Five Ways tram stop (the original Five Ways is a roundabout). And Edgbaston is more than a little vague, since Edgbaston is a fairly big suburban district which taken as a whole is probably bigger than the entire city centre. So my guess is at least some of these stops will ultimately open under different names.

What’s with the hair-pin turn?

The result of this extension will be a slightly odd shaped line, which heads south east into the city, then turns abruptly south west.

This makes a lot more sense when you see the city centre chunk of the route as something as yet unbuilt suburban routes can later plug into – rather than simply a weirdly circuitous route from the Jewellery Quarter to Five Ways.

Where to next?

As to where those later extensions might be, in his manifesto, the region’s metro mayor Andy Street promised to

“Start the construction of the Midlands Metro extension to Brierley Hill and gain agreement to extend it to North Solihull and Birmingham Airport.”

The former of those is a more orbital route, that’ll leave the mainline at Wednesbury and head south west through Dudley.

The latter sounds a lot like the oft-proposed East Side extension. That would leave the main line at Corporation Street, probably serve the existing station at Moor Street and the proposed High Speed 2 terminal at Curzon Street, and then run through the eastern suburbs towards Solihull, the airport, even Coventry.

Although nobody’s talking about it yet, a western line seems plausible as well. That “Edgbaston” terminus on Hagley Road would connect up nicely with the proposed SPRINT line: a bus rapid transit route which would run the length of the Hagley Road, towards Bearwood and Quinton. It would seem strange to me to go to the trouble of building a segregated bus lane on that busy arterial, rather than to spend a few more quid and make it part of the tram network.

That said, I’m clearly speculating here. And artist’s impressions of how Sprint would look clearly show it next to the tram at Edgbaston, so who knows:

Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Oh yeah, and in the north the powers that be are finally extending the line to Wolverhampton proper. Good show, lads.

Why now?

Why the sudden government enthusiasm for spending money on public transport outside London? Doesn’t this seem to go against everything transport secretary Chris Grayling seems to stand for?


Well, yes. But I suspect there’s a simple reason. Of the big secondary English cities, the West Midlands is the only one with a Conservative mayor. Consequently, the Tories in national government would really quite like to see Andy Street succeed.

This extension has been on the table for some time, so I’m not saying this is the entire motivation. Nonetheless, I suspect the current management at the DfT will have been rather more easily persuaded of the value of this one than they would be of a £60m transport project in, say, Liverpool.

Anyway. The new line should be open by the spring of 2021. Which is nice.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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