Birmingham spotlight – part 3


More shops, but no more trains…

The winning design for New Street Station,
© FCO Network Rail

Its obvious to all, but the most myopic civil servants and Ministers, that at many points in its network Network Rail is running out of capacity. Those of us who actually travel by train will remember the bargain basement sale of railway land to property developers, particularly in urban areas, and may wonder whether these two phenomena are in some way connected.

The concept of safeguarding railway land for future growth was until recently totally unknown in the Department for Transport and its predecessors. After all, the orthodox thinking was that they were managing a facility whose use was declining. Nowhere is the government’s (regardless of the actual political party in power) bias against railways more clear than when it comes to planning for the future. Whereas new roads are built in anticipation of future growth. Railway development occurs on an ad hoc basis in response to current congestion and grumbling commuters. Railway prices are maintained at the highest levels in Europe to deter the much faster growth growth which would otherwise occur.

Birmingham is a classic case study. In the good old days, Birmingham had two main line stations, and two railway lines from London, which shared the load between them. Birmingham Snow Hill on the former Great Western Railway, received trains from London Paddington, via High Wycombe, Banbury, Princess Risborough and Leamington Spa and then forwarded them on via Wolverhampton Low Level, to Wellington, Shrewsbury; and then to Chester and Holyhead; or via Welshpool to Aberystwyth, or Pwllheli. Birmingham New Street received trains from London Euston, via Rugby and Coventry and then sent them on via Wolverhampton High Level, to many destinations further north served by the former LMS railway. Meanwhile there was a third North to South railway (the former Great Central main line) which had a connection to the GWR route from London at a point between Banbury and Leamington Spa.

The two London-Birmingham-Wolverhampton railways worked splendidly together, particularly when things went wrong on one of the lines. The arrangement also helped to reduce overcrowding at peak hours, but it seemed terribly wasteful to the car-bound civil servants in London who determined that Birmingham did not need two principal railway stations. Snow Hill was closed at the end of the 1960s, its wonderful ‘winter garden’ glass roof demolished, and the site was turned into a car park. Subsequently, Snow Hill has been reopened as the eastern terminus of a Birmingham-Wolverhampton tramway, and the western terminus for the Chiltern Railways service running from London Marylebone, but it is only operating at a fraction of its previous capacity.

Arup’s proposed location for a ‘Grand Central station in Birmingham

Now Birmingham New Street is bursting at the seams and there has been some debate as to what to do. It doesn’t need an Einstein to open up a map of the city centre and to notice to that the former GWR and LMS main lines cross each other a little to the East of the City centre and that this is an area of derelict former railway and run down industrial land in need of development.

There is plenty of room here for a much larger station with a much greater capacity for serving trains than at New Street. Such a new station could be served, both by the ‘bursting its seams’ line from Euston, and the line from Marylebone or Paddington, which still has surplus capacity. In the future the railway line from Birmingham Snow Hill to Wolverhampton Low Level could be restored, relieving the pressure still further.

Now comes the stroke of genius! Much of the GWR line into Birmingham is four track or more – two fast tracks, two slow tracks and various goods loops and sidings. If HS2 is constructed, its ‘Birmingham branch’ will have to penetrate the Birmingham suburbs somehow. What better way, than alongside the old GWR route. Moreover, if HS2 is constructed along the route of the old Great Central main line, then this route actually had a branch which connected with the GWR line. So the new station would be in the right place and have the spare capacity to serve HS2’s Birmingham branch as well!

We would like to claim the credit for all this creative thinking, but although using the former GCR main line for HS2 has been one of our on-going campaigns, the proposals for a Grand Central station in Birmingham are the work of Arup.

And how has the Department for Transport and Network Rail responded to Arup’s visionary proposal? Why, they’ve come up with a £ 600m plan of their own to redevelop New Street at its existing location which will not add a single train to the station’s existing capacity, but will have plenty more room for shops in the concourse. At least it will give frustrated passengers something better to do than milling round aimlessly in the concourse when waiting for their delayed trains.

I suppose it’s no good thinking that Ruth Kelly’s successor might reconsider the decision?

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2 Responses to “Birmingham spotlight – part 3”

  1. Jasper Says:

    Reminds me of dinosaur bones in a museum and yet another carbuncle to be added to the list of dreadful Birmingham “Award Winning Designs”:

  2. Phil Says:

    Birmingham NS has a shopping centre above it. Since the arrival of the Bullring centre this has fallen out of fashion isn’t full any more. Not as bad as a nearby (5 mins walk) centre that is empty and for sale.

    There was a plan for a Birmingham Heartlands station to take the pressure off NS. It was to be located near Snow Hill, in the business district, and take Eurostars etc. Nothing happened there not least due to the cancellation of any Eurostar north of London.

    I doubt this plan will happen. There have been at least half a dozen scheme to improve NS in the last 10 years and apart from a coat of paint, nothing happens. To be fair to the operators, they are squeezing as much out of the station as they can but there simply isn’t any more space without knocking down half the city.

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