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October 22, 2014updated 29 Jul 2021 9:36am

Which is England’s second city? When it comes to public transport, the answer is clear

By Jonn Elledge

The Midland Metro is a light rail network, that connects Birmingham to Wednesbury, Wolverhampton and other bits of the West Midlands conurbation beginning with the letter W. It’s 15 years old this year, and it’s going through a bit of an awkward phase. Here’s an old route map, showing the network as it was when it first opened in 1999:

And here it is now:

In other words, the Metro hasn’t grown up, but it has acquired a slightly more pretentious image. I think that’s what you’d call “growing pains”.

Here, by way of comparison, is the similar light rail network that covers the other conurbation contending for the title of England’s second city. That’s Manchester’s Metrolink network, which is just a teensy bit more expansive:

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This is a slightly unfair comparison, of course: Manchester’s trams started running in 1992, so have had a seven year head start. And Birmingham, to be fair, is working on a couple of extensions right now, not least one that’ll finally take the Metro into the city centre for the first time.

So, once the Brummie tram network catches up its Mancunian peer, and hits the grand old age of 22, what will it look like then? We haven’t been able to find an official system map, unfortunately, so we’ve been forced to make our own.

In other words, it’ll be bigger – but not that much bigger.

And by the time all that’s done, Metrolink will include even more routes. A new line, through South Manchester to the airport, is due to open in November (15 more stops). The Second City Crossing, which will allow the network to run more frequent trams by providing a choice of route across the city centre, is also under construction (that’s another stop). An entirely new line, out to Trafford Park in the western suburbs, could plausibly be open by then, too (and that’s another six).

All this means that Manchester Metrolink could quite possibly grow by 22 stations over the next seven years. That’s only one fewer than the whole of the Midland Metro has now.

There is no mechanism for deciding which metropolis should count as England’s second city. All we have is public consensus, and for much of the last 100 years Birmingham seemed to have that sewn up. Since the turn of the century, though, the title’s become more contested, and a succession of polls and pronouncements have suggested that Manchester was at the very least gaining.

But if you believe that an extensive transit network is an essential component of a modern metropolis, then, at least on this measure at least, there’s no competition. When it comes to public transport, Manchester is way, way out ahead. Birmingham doesn’t even come close.

Why that should be is a question we’ll be trying to answer in the weeks to come. That, though, is a bit of a rubbish cliffhanger, so let’s end on a chart. The two networks, in figures – or why Manchester is better than Birmingham.

Note: We’ve assumed that where possible new routes will be integrated into existing ones, to simplify service patterns and reduce the number of lines. Extension lengths on the Midland Metro are not available, so we’ve made estimates by drawing lines on maps.


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