Birmingham needs more than a new station concourse

My Voyager was creeping round Bordesley Curve and the Down Camp Hill to line up its final approach into Birmingham New Street station when a ping announced an email’s arrival. It was from Network Rail and, by coincidence, it was recording the track owner’s delight at that day’s National Rail Passenger Survey score for New Street.

Transport Focus’ survey recorded ‘BNS’ at 88% passenger satisfaction last autumn, up from 81% in spring 2015. Having completed a £750 million makeover, you’d hope the score had risen!

The coincidence of the email was enough to have me alight at New Street for a quick look. I default to sceptical whenever New Street is mentioned and I’d seen the mix of opinions so it was time to see for myself.

The approach was as gloomy as always. I could see the dark platforms glowering beneath the station’s very shiny new cladding. When I stepped from my train, I was near a staircase and glimpsed a pool of natural light at its base. Perhaps I was too sceptical? I certainly hadn’t been expecting daylight downstairs.

Up the stairs, through the barriers and I’m confronted with a large concourse, a long and detailed departures board (oh for such upstairs at Reading!) and many, many eateries. I was impressed. This was station catering a far cry from Travellers Fare although I suspect at a price far from that of a Casey Jones burger.

The concourse at BNS is much better than British Rail’s version from the 1960s. It needed to be. Whether it’s better to the tune of £750m I’m not convinced. Under the central roof, it’s very bright but you don’t need to stray far for the light to fade in favour of gloom.

The concourse certainly has an odd layout. I’m sure regular users know that you can’t switch between some platforms at the ‘A’ end without going twice through the ticket barriers. It must confuse many occasional travellers. Incidentally, when I checked the station plan on National Rail’s website to see that I’d remember the right end, I found only on old station plan that had half the concourse still under construction and pop-up notes saying it was “due to open in 2015”. Clearly no-one at National Rail’s head office has noticed NR’s New Street work.

Despite New Street’s £750m, the station can’t cope with many more trains. Its approach tracks are crowded and if Birmingham is to continue to see a switch from road to rail, it needs more station capacity. NR has just published its draft route strategy for the West Midlands. It contains some statistics that rail’s supporters should welcome but ponder. The iron road’s share of peak travel into England’s second city has grown from 17% in 2001 to 38% today. Network Rail reckons it could grow 49% in the decade to 2023 and 114% by 2043.

When NR says “the level of on-track capacity available to meet growing demand for services into Birmingham has remained largely unchanged for decades” it really damns itself and its predecessors for inaction. (It also forgets the West Coast upgrade that brought longer and more trains from Euston and Chiltern’s Evergreen upgrades that have restored capacity on the old Great Western route towards Banbury and thence Marylebone.)

It’s the old Western that holds a key to coping with all those extra passengers. British Rail closed the Great Western Railway’s Snow Hill station in 1972, cutting services back to Moor Street. It later changed its mind and restored Snow Hill’s tunnel to use and built a new station in 1987. With just three through platforms today, it’s not a patch on the old station’s four through and four bay platforms but it’s gradually become busier and is set for more trains. It could see a fourth platform added if NR finds enough money. This could see more trains running through Moor Street to Snow Hill, creating more capacity at Moor Street itself, which is set to play a bigger role in Birmingham’s transport network. Not just because NR’s predicted numbers need to go somewhere but also because it will be the nearest station to HS2’s that will eventually serve London, Leeds, Manchester and points further north with high-speed trains.

Moor Street has platforms lying disused which could be brought back to life. NR suggests the station might play a role as a terminus for services from King’s Norton (south of Birmingham) and Water Orton in the east. This idea needs the long-mooted Bordesley Chords built, one facing in each direction and the Water Orton one needing to form a flying junction over the route towards Oxford. This needs Bordesley station to close. It usually only has one train a week, on Saturdays, so I can’t believe its loss would be felt, except perhaps by Birmingham City fans using extra services to reach St Andrews.

In the medium-term, Kings Norton might see a changed track layout that splits services towards New Street (as today’s trains run) and along the Camp Hill lines towards NR’s proposed Bordesley South Chord. Kings Norton has two disused platforms standing ready for rejuvenation.

Longer-term, Water Orton might see a flying junction as NR seeks to ease the flow of trains where the line splits to serve Derby and Nuneaton.

NR presents plenty of options, repeatedly making the point that it will be funders to decide which – if any – are chosen. Traditionally, it would be the Department for Transport deciding but that’s likely to change. I suspect there’ll be plenty of DfT money spent in 2019-2024’s Control Period 6 but on projects the government had said it wanted in CP5. There will be little for new projects and plans. When NR’s estimates for CP5 enhancements evaporated, particularly those for Great Western and Midland Main Line electrification projects, it immediately put pressure on CP6. At the same time, the UK government has been pushing its devolution plans that would see money spent locally on local priorities. Birmingham and the West Midlands has had a strong interest in public transport for many years. Where there was once the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive – fondly pronounced Wumpty – now there is the West Midlands Combined Authority and 14 regional partner authorities. The Combined Authority has been pushing the concept of inner and outer suburban services to help speed journey times from towns further afield such as Worcester, Kidderminster and Stourbridge so it’s clear it remains keen to see a better railway.

That local West Midlands network will have a new operator from October 2017. The competition for it is now a two-horse race with Govia (operators of the troubled Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern concession and the current WM franchise) up against a consortium of Abellio, East Japan Railway Company and Mitsui. A third bidder, MTR pulled out recently and has joined forces with First in the DfT’s other two-horse franchise competition, South West, were they jointly face incumbent Stagecoach.

The DfT’s days of attracting several bidders to franchises appear over. It’s possible potential operators have decided that the costs of bidding (anything from £5 million to £10m) outweigh the poor returns on offer. Current West Midlands operator, London Midland, received no dividend in its year to June 2015 according to its accounts (RAIL 801). LM’s turnover was £400m and its subsidy from government was £57m. For South West Trains, Stagecoach saw a dividend of £10m in 2014/15, which is not much for a business turning over £1 billion. By contrast, SWT paid government over £500m over the same year.

If government is to continue to attract decent bids for its franchises, I reckon it needs to crack the money valve a wee bit more in favour of those running its railway.

This article first appeared in RAIL 805, published July 20 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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