Birmingham’s new Council Leader, Conservative Mike Whitby, has his heart set on a £200million-plus underground railway for the City and wants to spend two years pursuing a £100,000 study into the project’s feasibility. But Birmingham Friends of the Earth think the Underground should remain a pipe dream.

Let's look at the reasons why a ‘Brumderground’ would be a non-starter. Money for one. It's not difficult to imagine a scenario where the initial capital outlay and construction costs of a project like this consume most of the central government funding allocated to the region for transport. Then there's Birmingham’s rising and polluted water table to contend with: the cost would quickly spiral out of control as City officials struggled to keep the pumps operating and the line safe and dry.

Tunnel vision

In London, Newcastle and most European cities, the ‘underground’ consists of a series of linked tunnels the subterranean parts of which are a relatively small part of the network, lying within the high density developed areas of the city centre (Glasgow is an exception, with a small orbital underground known locally as the ‘clockwork orange’ and the main train services running overland).

From this perspective Birmingham already has two underground systems. The first connects Snow Hill and Moor Street stations; the second comprises the three main lines north of New Street which go underground on their approach to the station and which connect with routes to London Euston, the South Coast, East Midlands, Lichfield and Walsall, Wolverhampton, Kings Norton, Bristol, and the South West. Taking the so-called ‘Cross City’ line out of an already overcrowded New Street would create a two-tier station with some local services running below main line trains already heavy with commuter and shopping traffic. Alternatively, the Midland Metro could go underground from Snow Hill to Five Ways, from where it would continue overland to the Hagley Road.

What is actually on offer here in Brum is not an underground network as generally understood but a tunnel under the City Centre and Broad Street to Five ways: a very small scheme of benefit to very few people.

Metropolitan elite
We should of course be investing in rail but across the region, not just on one scheme to serve a metropolitan elite who are already spoilt for choice as far as transport goes. Other rail solutions would be cheaper, easier to deliver and more truly egalitarian.

The West Midlands has a well-developed heavy rail network and a number of disused lines could be re-opened: Walsall and Lichfield; Stourbridge, Dudley and Walsall; Sutton Park Line connecting Walsall, Aldridge, Sutton, Minworth-Castle Vale and Water Orton, to name a few. Running passenger services on freight-only lines is another option. Late evening services on the Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon line would also be welcome.
New possibilities for train travel could be opened up by building two new ‘chords’ or rail connections:

1. Soho Junction to the Snow Hill line. This would enable the diesel services from Walsall to enter Snow Hill, creating capacity at New Street and developing a new cross city service from, say, Walsall to Shirley. This could in time be electrified and new stations opened at, say, Handsworth, helping to rejuvenate Bordseley as a new hub and part of the growing City Centre.

2. A Bordseley chord connecting the Moseley line into Moor Street, potentially leading to Balsall Heath, Moseley and Kings Heath services with a connection at Kings Norton to one of the cross city lines from Redditch to Lichfield. Birmingham has other railway services which operate across the City, notably Wolverhampton to Coventry and Stourbridge to Solihull, and the potential exists for other cross-city connections such as from the Derby to the Wolverhampton lines.

Ultimately, the Brumderground idea fails to address the real problem, namely the huge number of people wedded to their cars who would rather sit in traffic jams than use public transport. Single-occupancy cars flood the City every day. Many of these journeys begin outside of Birmingham and end in a free workplace car park, bypassing railway stations, park-and-ride facilities and bus stops entirely. At what point is the Brumderground going to attract people out of their cars? Where would it have to go to constitute a 'viable alternative'? Commuters may use it at lunch time once they have reached the office or for business meetings but then the Metro could serve this purpose, as could walking or cycling (the City Centre is not that big).

Throwing money into flashy new infrastructure will not solve congestion. Instead, we need get some of our public transport investment meeting running costs. Variable road user charging (see p4), with the revenue reinvested in public transport schemes, can’t come soon enough.