Inbound CAF Urbos tram at Jewellery Quarter, with the railway station directly to the left
Birmingham, the centre of the West Midlands, was the last stop on this year's extensive visits to all the tram and metro systems in the U.K, in preparation for my forthcoming 'Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland' due to be published towards the end of October 2015. Many years ago, in 1988/89, I actually lived around here, working as a language assistant in Walsall, but at that time the tram, of course, did not exist, and even the suburban rail system, except for the Cross City Line, were considered rather pathetic, and Walsall was rarely served by trains from Birmingham.
In the meantime I had been back several times, but not since the entire fleet of original Ansaldobreda trams had been replaced by the new CAF Urbos trams. The only thing I liked about the Ansaldos was there colourful livery, but as trams they never convinced me, too small, felt too narrow, and well, apparently they had lots of wiring and other problems so that, like in Manchester, they withdrew them long before their actual normal life would have expired.
Now back to Birmingham, first on a day trip from Nottingham on Monday, 7 September, and again a few days later on my way back from the Isle of Man, the first impression when I got onto the new CAF trams was how wide (2.65 m) and spacious they feel. And with an increased length, they certainly offer double the capacity. Their interior purple and green design is nice, and would actually also fit the Nottingham trams (the two lines there are now shown in green and purple).
Purple & green interior of CAF Urbos trams, though with rather hard seats
When I had seen the first pictures, I was wondering, like many other people did, whether pink was a good option for a modern tramway (not even purple and pink loving France uses that colour on the outside of trams....), but I have to say, they look good, it's a nice pink, not magenta, and it is not used exaggeratedly, in fact the dominating colour is white with some grey and pink. The seats are rather hard though, and the wheelsets not too well spring-suspended, so the ride is o.k. on good railway track, but a bit bumpy when running over points, and probably also on the future street running sections. I just realise, I didn't ride them on the long street-running section between Priestfield and The Royal, because I walked that stretch to take pictures (there should really be an intermediate stop on this section!).
Like Sheffield, the 'Midland Metro' as it is sometimes called, has not really seen any extensions since it first opened in 1999, despite modest plans to add some. With some delays and being built at crawling speed, as it seems, a short city centre extension is finally becoming a reality possibly before the end of the year (although seeing the state of construction right now in mid-September, I would even doubt that!). The original line has always suffered from its somewhat marginal existence. In Birmingham, the terminus has been hidden away inside Snow Hill Station, accessible via a very slow lift or a long flight of stairs (upwards there is an escalator, too). Apparently, the second track there has not been used for a long time, so the line is virtually single-track from Snow Hill to St. Pauls. The platforms are just about long enough to accommodate one of the new CAF trams, so when there are problems (and I saw one tram stuck there because of a door failure), a second tram can come into the station, but passengers need to step down to street level to get off).
Improvised boarding at Snow Hill during problems with tram in the rear
Leaving Snow Hill, on the right you can see that track laying has just begun on what will become the new Snow Hill stop at the very end of the railway station, but the trackbed where old and new lines should be connected has hardly been prepared yet.
The line gets double-track just before reaching St. Pauls stop, from where the tram continues on an old railway route all the way to Priestfield. This is mostly a grade-separated route, but being an old railway it is badly integrated with the areas it serves. Most stops are in a cutting and rather deserted, so waiting there may not be too pleasant, especially after dark. Except for the major stations along the route, like West Bromwich Central or Bilston Central, which have major bus connections, the intermediate stops have few passengers. At Wednesbury, one of the major towns along the route, both stops are quite a long way outside of the town centre, with none of them being directly served by any buses either.
Birmingham-bound CAF Urbos tram on street-running section between The Royal and Priestfield
The street-running section from Priestfield to the Wolverhampton terminus does not seem to cause many problems, maybe during rush hours, but as said before, there should be an additional stop. It was curious to learn that they have actually reduced the Wolverhampton terminus from two to just one track. As a passenger, I always find it extremely annoying when you have to wait outside the station because the terminus is still occupied by the departing tram. There can be many reasons for that tram to stay there longer than normal, so if the terminus has to be single-track, then there should at least be a secondary platform for people to get off the incoming tram. Anyway, I couldn't see a reason really why they removed the second track:
On the right, removed second track at Wolverhampton terminus
Probably saves them a few pounds in maintenance at the cost of risking their reputation due to more delays. I'm sure it is not because the line may be diverted to the railway station anyway. Who knows whenever or if ever that will happen, as there have been many projects for Wolverhampton and nothing has happened. The current terminus is actually quite well located for the central shopping area, and if the line is extended to the railway station, this situation will in fact get worse, so I'd suggest to keep the current terminus, too, and have every other tram terminate here, and the other go to the railway station instead.
The Birmingham city centre extension, when open, will certainly give the tram a completely new presence in the city, many people who never use the tram will actually see it regularly. The route will, however, be very slow as the trams will run down the busy Corporation Street where pedestrians will cross the tracks at any point. So, in about 20 years, like in Manchester, talks will start about a second city crossing.
State of construction at Bull Street stop in mid-September 2015
Some preliminary construction has also started on the follow-on extension from New Street Station via Victoria Square (City Hall) to Centenary Square, but I guess this extension will take a few years to be built as it involves a completely new road layout between the latter two, where the once motorway-like inner ring road will be rebuilt to become a more urban space once again. A further extension down Broad Street to Five Ways, which has always been a priority, will be a bit trickier as despite its name, Broad Street is not really a wide street and either shared street running will have to be chosen, or current road traffic will have to be almost completely diverted onto other roads instead.
For many years still, Birmingham will have just a single tram line, although plans have already been published for a branch to the future high-speed rail station and Digbeth. But Birmingham still lacks the big vision, a real 'big bang' Manchester was able to make a reality, and despite being the larger city, in this respect Birmingham is running years behind Manchester. The West Midlands have a dense and rather good bus network with good maps and quite good information, almost at level with Greater London, but the buses are slow and get quite full as I could experience yesterday when I travelled a long way across the county to get from Stourbridge to the Black Country Living Museum and then on to the tram at Wednesbury Parkway.
S-Bahn-style Cross City Line at Selly Oak
The West Midlands are served by various regional railways, most operated by London Midland (among them the funny shuttle train at Stourbridge), with the north-south Cross City Line offering a train every 10 minutes for most of the day within the City of Birmingham. Unfortunately, like all the other routes, the efficiency of this S-Bahn-style service is significantly reduced by the bottleneck at New Street. It seems that trains always have to queue up to enter the station, and then there is quite a long buffer anyway, so for passengers travelling across the city centre, it is a slow service. Starting with this line, they should really separate different services properly, for example by building a dedicated flyover east of New Street and operate this line separately using the southernmost tracks at New Street exclusively or shared by only similar services. This way trains could run without any hassle through New Street station, the way German S-Bahn system do in cities like Frankfurt or Stuttgart (although in those places sometimes too many S-Bahn lines are bundled and they have to queue again...). For whatever reason, the similar, though not as frequent east-west service between Wolverhampton and Coventry seems to be split at New Street, so that many passengers travelling, for example, from Wolverhampton or intermediate stations to the airport will have to change trains, although they can also use long-distance Arriva Wales or Virgin trains. Also, stopping patterns between New Street and the airport station (called Birmingham International) are a bit strange if you want to travel just between two of the intermediate stations, e.g. from Marston Green to Stechford. So, like in all other places in the U.K., I miss a clear distinction between what are local and all-stopping services and regional or long-distance services, although on the other hand I like the fact that tickets are valid on all sorts of trains. Line numbers would be great again, although I have almost given up convincing the British that line numbers are a nice and useful thing. But unfortunately even the well-established term 'Cross City Line' is no longer used officially, they just announce it as 'a London Midland service to Redditch', for example.
Funny diesel-powered people mover on Stourbridge Town Branch Line
If you ask me, the entire project with the new high-speed rail station planned at Curzon Street east of the city centre is completely wrong. I understand that they want to build a new line from London to Birmingham and north, simply to increase capacity, but the potential reduction of travel times will be so insignificant that it is not really worth creating a separate system with a separate terminus. Though not too far from New Street, it is too far to consider it part of the station complex, and what passengers will gain in journey time to London they will lose on their way to the new station. Especially those taking a train into Birmingham to catch a fancy new high-speed train to London will not be on the winning side, instead they have to add at least half an hour to get from one station to the other, no matter how they will do that, walking, or waiting for a tram, which will eventually crawl between the two stations, whereas now they just need to change platforms within a recently upgraded and pleasant station. But given the capacity constraints of New Street Station as described above, why didn't they design a real Birmingham Central Station, instead of just a high-speed terminus and relocate all long-distance services there, plus a full-scale station for all suburban services? At the same time the entire East End of the city could be properly developed. As the eastern approach lines to New Street actually pass close by the future high-speed terminus, I can only hope that in the end a new station will be added adjacent to it, so that all suburban trains can actually serve Curzon Street directly. Another option would have been to build additional platforms in tunnel below the current New Street station, similar to what has been done in Zurich.
Ticketwise, the West Midlands have quite good fare integration, but looking at the booklet about fares and tickets, I would say there are too many different types of tickets, so what we call the 'fare jungle' in Germany, also applies to many British cities. To explore the entire system within the West Midlands boundaries, a Daytripper for 6.40 GBP is the best option, it's valid on all buses, the tram and all trains, but make sure the rail station you're travelling to is still within the area, as those zonal maps are not posted anywhere, so you'd better check beforehand by getting this booklet, for example. On the tram, like in Sheffield, tickets are sold by a conductor, there are no ticket vending-machines on platforms. To explore just the tram line, there is also a cheaper Metro Daytripper ticket (5.60 GBP). On weekdays, Daytripper tickets are valid only after 09:30!
Midland Metro (Official website)
Birmingham at UrbanRail.Net