What should a Regional Rail Network Achieve?
The Network should be one that is consistent with other policies such as Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS), West Midlands Regional Economic Strategy, Local Transport Plans, National policies (such as those relating to Climate Change), demographic changes (accommodating different groups). To work, the Network has to be structured support passenger journeys of those not using the private car (rather than assuming that all have access to a car), and must address the following:
- Movement of goods and materials (so it is not solely about passengers)
- Reliability in all seasons
- Low energy demand
- Improved quality of life
- Incorporation of innovation to design, maintenance of the railway
- Changes in the type of rail vehicles including those for freight
- Upcoming challenges such as Peak Oil, Volatile energy prices, reduction in long distance commuting, localisation
- Railway as a workplace
- Accommodating tourism, coping with other languages
Trends in demand
The market for rail is large and being fixed infrastructure, customers and users have confidence that it will remain in place.
Access to the railways for potential freight in Birmingham is currently very limited as the provision is for large volumes to a limited number of destinations. To achieve the Climate Change mitigation targets, the current arrangements whereby goods are moved principally by road and over long distances, has to change. Rail has to play a part in such change and to suit such change, current short termism (such as eliminating the freight potential of Longbridge and (outside Birmingham) Longbridge, has to be reversed.
Department for Transport statistics on bus travel indicates that of non bus users, half would be willing to use buses. This indicates that there is potential for growth in bus as collector for the rail network (and for journeys wholly undertaken by bus). Currently residents of Birmingham communities suffer the severance resulting from high volumes of car traffic; reduction in traffic levels and transfer to bus and train can improve road conditions for other travellers (including pedestrians and cyclists) and enhance journey time reliability.
Contact with the public by Birmingham Friends of the Earth has clearly established that there is strong support for available rail transport within walking distance of homes and workplaces at such places as Balsall Heath and Kings Heath. The case for reviewing past studies such as the Multi Modal Study for the West Midlands (that advocated Benson Road Curve, Bordesley Chord and other passenger train enhancements including stations), should be undertaken but with a fresh perspective.
The market for rail to serve journeys for recreation has barely been explored: many attractions that target Birmingham residents are genuinely (or are perceived to be) not easily accessible by rail or bus. This applies also to some towns that are not served by a rail station such as Market Drayton, Alcester, Newport (Shropshire). Need for a comprehensive Network Transport planners have a hierarchy of passenger flows and the type of public transport provision that is justified. Generally, however, each settlement in the West Midlands Region should be setting out to improve its degree of sustainability. This means that shared use developments (i.e. employment and residential and services) and increased attractiveness of each settlement should be the policy around which transport is based. The current policy of accommodating long distance commuting is not consistent with meeting carbon targets.
Taken in this context, all settlements should be connected by public transport feeding into the railways. The current layout of the railways and the way that they are used, directs many passenger train services to or through central Birmingham even if that is not on the way. In future, connections between substantial or expanded settlements shall be required to be by rail and this will require some railway reinstatement or new provision: the rail strategy should state this. Settlements that currently have a station (such as the town of Polesworth) should retain that station, and if patronage is low, measures to promote the usage instigated. Passenger growth has been substantially developed in the past at various places including Lichfield, Cannock, Pershore, Redditch and Bromsgrove.
Door to door journey
Overall journey time is generally dictated by time spent waiting for a connection rather than by the speed of the bus or train. In Birmingham, particularly if the pressures imposed by peak journey to work usage can be reduced, a frequent service to all Birmingham local stations (including the new ones on the Kings Heath /Camp Hill route), will attract more passengers to the West Midlands Rail Network. To benefit the greatest number of people at the lowest cost, provision has to be concentrated on those arriving at their station without wishing to store a vehicle (i.e.on foot, cycle, bus, taxi, dropped-off).
The occasional user of the railways can feel daunted by uncertainty of frequency, time of last train etc. The railway in Greater London addressed this by its underground map and successors showing conventional lines. The key to building confidence is continuity, if this is not there patronage will suffer. Close to Birmingham, interchange at Smethwick Galton Bridge varies year by year whilst uncertainty hung over the link between Walsall and Wolverhampton for so long that passengers all but gave up on it.
Generally, access to information needs to be a portable and affordable version of the Traveline website (with fixed versions at stations). For the motorist, navigation is simplicity itself with the talking map ‘sat nav’.
Visitors to Birmingham are deterred from arriving by train because the local rail network is geographically incomplete. The Rail Strategy has to acknowledge that businesses operate in parts of the city served by a railway but with no local station or with an infrequent service. For the city to exploit its rail infrastructure, this needs to be addressed. There are opportunities for businesses to locate to Birmingham if local rail services are available. Local rail provided by the Docklands Light Railway was a major factor in East London regeneration.
Effect of Climate Change
The effect of climate change has been variously interpreted. For the rail network, having a human presence is probably prudent. For this reason, removing such on the spot monitoring such as that from permanent way inspectors and gangs and staff at stations, should be undertaken with caution.
Previous episodes of extreme weather have already caused disruption, for example the storms during the summer of 2005 which flooded a number of routes around the West Midlands. Predictions of more occurence of extreme weather conditions such as intense rain that overwhelms drainage and damages signalling, intensely hot summers that result in rail expansion, and extreme storms bringing down trees, signal trouble ahead. We are surprised that there is no identification of the issue in the draft strategy.
If there is unavoidable disruption to the West Midlands Rail network, on an increasingly frequent cycle, contingency measures need to be in place.
The Business Case
For interventions on the rail network that are seen as enhancements, a Business Case has to be prepared. Unfortunately, enhancements that are required as part of a regeneration or for other external benefit, are unlikely to emonstrate the required rate of return. This has to change. This has long be n the case when construction of an access road has to be justified, those circu stances using a Cost BenefitAnalysis model; an equivalent model for rail is needed. For Birmingham, funding for rail improvements other than through Network Rail and Central Government may have to be sought.
The Role of the RUS
The Railways Act 2005 envisaged that the railway infrastructure owner, Network Rail, would be given instructions when it came to strategic planning decisions. Network Rail’s role is a ‘steady state’ one and it is therefore envisaged that the Regional Rail Strategy would be imposed and its direction reflected in the Route Utilisation Strategies. The RUS (Route Utilisation Strategy) is a mechanism set up under the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) to plan maximum return from the existing rail network. In the days of the SRA, there was a degree of involvement in RUS preparation from transport planners and some consideration of the Local Transport Plan (LTP). Abolition of the SRA has meant that the RUS preparation has passed to Network Rail who do not have a duty to consider strategic rail planning.
It is evident from the content of recent Network Rail Route Plans that they are the output of train planners. Whilst done with the best intentions, the approach has harmed the Birmingham local train services. The services have been reshaped (for instance to accommodate additional long distance trains whilst avoiding addition of new track), examples including the skip stop service and irregular intervals on the Coventry route. The old fashioned hierarchy of displacement of local train services to suit long distance trains (rather than building capacity and signalling that copes), is at variance with the Department for Transport DaSTS policies. This Regional strategy needs to make a stand on this issue.
Currently the RUS and Network Rail’s business plan submissions for funding are separate and sometimes opposed to the Local Transport Plan process. It would be progressive for the railway expenditure process to be directed by a Regional Planning body.