A great many people live in Birmingham and the adjoining boroughs. Generally their employment or activity and friends are also within this same area. People need to get about and for people, goods, and services, to be able to reach them. Some people choose to use a car for some trips; the services delivered by car, van and lorry, are many.
The roads are important, but road space is limited and valuable. The whole urban area works because people provide road space by making trips on foot, by bike, public transport or not travelling. These people are helping the situation and as ‘not making trips’ is an unpopular enforced choice, transport provision has to be made.
The right transport choices are crucial, providing transport really should involve a properly informed expert and asking the right questions. This might seem quite obvious, but one transport mode that has recently escaped ‘expert involvement’ and consultation with the potential users is rail.
Historical reasons and political decisions mean that Network Rail train planners have stepped into a strategic vacuum, for the last few years and made the decisions on spending. Some individuals have stepped well outside their competence and have been taking a role not just in consulting, but in actually drafting the documents.
The train planner is a skilled individual who can work out, from layout of signals, permitted speed of trains and braking characteristics, how many trains can be fit in. The infrastructure experts can improve the signalling or increase the train speeds. Neither train planners nor experts can work out the way that people make journeys but transport studies can do this. Seeking out the true needs for transport would result in a different set of priorities to help support a local economy.
Perhaps the decisions need to be made more locally, The West Midlands Regional Rail Forum (WMRRF) is a ‘body of stakeholders from throughout the West Midlands with an interest in ensuring the success of our regional rail network’. The WMRRF is composed of local transport authorities, businesses, the rail industry (train companies and Network Rail), the Rail Freight Group and Passenger Focus.
But this ‘new kid’ WMRRF, with hopefully fresh ideas, set up a consultation on the strategy for rail, which gave the public and other bodies a chance to contribute. It is to be hoped that a strategy can be developed and that the skills of all involved can start to set things right.
In a refreshing change to some documents, the draft strategy thinks about people’s work. In their consultation they define ‘3 main components to rail connectivity: (a) access to the network, (b) journey times, (c) service pattern/frequency’. They then linked this to increases in the available labour market and support to economic activity. It is an interesting exercise to link infrastructure enhancement to financial outcomes, and necessary if a ‘business case’ is to be developed.
What the report drafters were probably thinking about is the classic “live in the countryside work in the city” journeys. What Birmingham Friends of the Earth could see, is that the lack of Birmingham local stations, makes it difficult to reach jobs in these areas, or to travel from them to jobs that may be just a few miles away but are hard to reach.
We are hopeful that there can be a local voice that has a strategy and that has money to do things. We can put the past mistakes of Railtrack behind us and work together. The West Midlands region can be a better place to live, work and play with strong local rail network forming part of a sustainable West Midlands.