Trams – the future of the West Midlands

Photo Credit: metrogogo – Flickr

The last 20 years has seen the West Midlands go to great lengths to offer a light transport route for its urban population, none more so than the opening in 1999 of the Midland Metro tram.  This travel option which is deemed as an environmentally friendly option, runs mainly along a defunct railway route from Birmingham Snow Hill to Wolverhampton stations, passing through populated areas such as West Bromwich and Wednesbury.  With this alternative option proving to be a success, plans were approved in 2012 to extend the tram line by half a mile linking Snow Hill and New Street railway stations in Birmingham city centre.  This was completed in 2016 coinciding superbly with the recently revamped New Street station and adjoining Grand Central shopping centre.

In addition to this extension, work has subsequently began on the Birmingham Westside Extension, which at approximately a mile and a half, will link New Street station to the Five Ways roundabout (in essence the western gateway of Birmingham city centre).  This will also coincide with the reconstruction of the former Paradise Circus and former central library site which linked Centenary Square and Broad Street for pedestrians to Victoria Square.  No longer then will there be a partly tunnelled roundabout at the hub of the city centre, but instead a much more elegant looking tram system that will run through Broad Street.

There have been further plans in the mid 2000s to extend the Tram network to other areas within the West Midlands, most notably from the city centre to Great Barr (in north Birmingham), the city centre to Birmingham airport and from Wednesbury to Merry Hill shopping centre, the latter of which would also incorporate a disused railway line and station at Dudley (another large metropolitan area).

With such routes planned to one day become operational, this is a strong indication of the Birmingham of the future (from an ecological transport system perspective) that the city is striving to create.  However, if such tram routes should reach fruition, would the average car user see this as a viable alternative they would use for work and leisure?  Personally I feel that this would be much more desirable than the bumper to bumper morning and evening rush hour traffic which does nothing to help the environment.  Plus from a cultural point of view, it is great to see redundant old railway lines (once at the pinnacle of transport in the UK) given a new lease of life.  But as always the operators need to ensure customers can overcome a stigma of ‘frequent cancellations’ and pedestrians need to feel that that sharing and crossing the same busy roads as the trams is safe to do so.  Then perhaps most importantly of all, there must be an affordable but sustainable price to keep such a bold new project operational. Otherwise, the alternative is going back to a well used track (if you excuse the pun) of just how do you get cars off the road?

Well in fact it is not such a case of getting cars off the road but getting drivers off the road as companies such as Conigital and Uber are already looking to deploy autonomous vehicles onto our highways.  With driverless cars seemingly on the horizon, this would be an unprecedented change and is a concept that motorists on mass will need to be convinced about not least from a ‘what happens if something goes wrong’ point of view.  This would in essence also take the stress out of driving in much the same way that aforementioned tram system would and life on the roads will become very different in the coming decades.  

The advent of autonomous vehicles is likely to benefit disabled, elderly and newly passed drivers as a computerised journey planner. This means they can travel with ease to wherever they like without having to factor in any concerns over potential restrictions that they may deem themselves to have.

Although, public transport such as the proposed tram network extension and the much talked about proposed HS2 project will have the essence of speed and reduction in the amount of cars.  I can foresee that once again cars on the road will be the most favourable as people travelling still have their own contained comfort zone, only this time they can relax knowing that everything is done for them.  So the question that will also be asked is what need will there be for public transport? Will this be another area that future governments can dramatically reduce their investment into, thus allowing for a cash injection into other services that are far more desperate for funding?

By Patrick Lay

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