Some time soon you could be sauntering along Ombersley Road in Balsall Heath and looking for a train to central Birmingham or to Kings Heath and places beyond. Those with a business in Balsall Heath or in Kings Heath will have a more accessible address. If stations are brought back to Balsall Heath, Moseley, Kings Heath, and Hazelwell (in the Stirchley area), more people can join the chorus sung by many other urban areas in England: ‘I’m a few minutes walk from the railway station’.
The railway is already a feature of Balsall Heath and its two modern tracks carry freight and express passenger trains southward to Kings Norton and then onwards to Longbridge, Bromsgrove and Worcester. The railway through Balsall Heath is part of the St Andrews Junction to Kings Norton Junction line (SKN) that is also known as the Camp Hill Line, and once carried a local train service that originated at Birmingham New Street Station.
The local passenger train service was withdrawn as a wartime economy measure and not reinstated as in those days the bicycle was a mainstay of local transport and buses ran efficiently on roads not choked with cars. How the world has changed!
Post war road construction has given Birmingham some giant roads and huge roundabouts but the traffic heading down the A435 has overwhelmed a strip of South Birmingham. Plans have been put forward in the past for road schemes to slice through Moseley and Kings Heath but such schemes failed to realise that some of the traffic has arrived there because the alternative, the bus, whilst frequent on the famous 50 route, is caught up in the traffic. For years now, the local people have asked for a train service. Requests for local railway stations have been met by promises of a study ‘in the future’. That study has now been done through the sponsorship of Birmingham City Council and with funds from central Government.
Coincidental with the consultants chasing the technical answers, Birmingham Friends of the Earth were asking the people of Kings Heath if they wanted to be on the rail network. A local business, the Kitchen Garden Café, stepped forward straightaway to offer to act as a post-box for letters about the idea. Meanwhile, frequent street stalls gave the chance to chat about the idea but those outings attracted so much support that running out of blank pledges was generally the reason for us to pack up. Additionally, the MP Dr Lynne Jones spoke up on BBC TV for stations in her constituency at Balsall Heath, Moseley, and Kings Heath. By September 2007, 1500 people had taken a leaflet that showed the proposed route and had signed a pledge. A huge number of businesses in Kings Heath also backed the campaign, including a local fish and chip shop, which collected signatures on the back of chip wrapping paper.
Click for image of proposed route
Our own locally-controlled passenger transport organisation, Centro, has thought about increasing the coverage of Birmingham with local trains for years. Centro is no stranger to brave decisions taken about local railways. Not only did Centro press for and largely fund the Cross City Line revival (before which the railway to Redditch was on the point of closure), later it was a major funder of the electrification of that route, and part-funded new trains. Amongst the achievements of that initiative is Five Ways Station, the place that launches a thousand feet on their way to work and night-time trips to Broad Street. The Cross City Line, though it serves many settlements in Birmingham, exists alongside thriving bus routes so, for instance, from Selly Oak there is a choice of frequent buses on the Bristol Road or the trains. Balsall Heath Station could be a repeat Five Ways triumph, although it is for Centro, the Cross City Line was only the start.
Having rolled that part of Birmingham back into action, Centro turned its attention to the routes from Shirley and Solihull that terminated at Moor Street. To go beyond Moor Street, Centro and British Rail effectively built a new railway on a line long removed. The railway was furnished with new bridges, drainage, track and stations at Snow Hill, Jewellery Quarter and Smethwick Galton Bridge. Centro’s efforts have by no means been confined to these examples and, as their efforts in Birmingham have been an unqualified success, the new route to take trains to Kings Heath has a strong case.
If there can be common ground by all parties, there is a strong argument to fund the new local stations. These local stations can serve a large population catchment and people would mostly walk or cycle to them. Safe cycle routes to the stations can form a part of the scheme. The railway would further connect one of Birmingham’s areas of employment growth, Longbridge, with other areas. The South Birmingham suburb, through being easy for staff and customers to reach, could improve its chances of attracting new firms, preferably ones geared to a new low carbon economy.
The Birmingham Friends of the Earth proposal for the Kings Heath trains suggested that their introduction would need some signalling provision, a short length of new railway in the Bordesley area, and a number of new stations. The short length of new railway is proposed because the new Kings Heath route is not an extract from nostalgia corner but a new vision that would connect Birmingham Snow Hill to Bromsgrove.
The feasibility study, sponsored by the City Council, has now been completed. The consultants concluded that there is an economic case for having a local passenger train service and re-opening the long closed stations (except Balsall Heath). Given that New Street Station is heavily congested, the study recommended using the other central Birmingham stations of Moor Street and Snow Hill. This would be achieved by building a short connecting railway line in the Camp Hill/Bordesley area so that trains can run into Moor Street. The consultants proposed the direct chord line that, although shorter than that suggested by Friends of the Earth, probably means lowering the road level on the Middleway (and perhaps even the roundabout). The construction of the Bordesley connection, the platforms for new stations and other work, would cost around £40 million. On completion, passenger trains would run to a frequency of one train every 20 minutes. The report suggests that the work should be programmed so as to be complete in 2017.
None of this should have been breaking new ground. A few years ago a report by consulting engineers ‘Aspen’, the West Midlands Area Multi Modal Study (WMAMMS), had concluded that, assuming unchecked economic growth and unrelenting growth in transport demand, new railway capacity was called for. Whilst Friends of the Earth was scathing of the WMAMMS (‘an environmental catastrophe’), the railway improvements included a ‘Snow Hill Network’ that would divert local trains from places such as Walsall into Snow Hill to make space at New Street. The question is why the alterations required (such as that new line at Bordesley) are not already on a waiting list in some dusty railway file. As road building in the West Midlands seems set to go, where is the balancing railway aspect that the ‘multi Modal Study’ advocated?
Although the study was in favour of the railway and the early stages of Birmingham Friends of the Earth’s efforts have allowed 1500 people to write in favour of the railway, a lot more needs to be done. Individual actions count for a lot. Birmingham Friends of the Earth thinks that the completion date of 2017 is too far off. Please write a letter of support for new stations in South Birmingham – to your MP, your Councillor, Centro, or the Department for Transport (Great Minster House, 76 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DR; fax: 020 7944 9643; e-mail email@example.com)
With your help, we won’t have to wait too long for the train to Kings Heath.