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19.03.19

The West Midlands 30-year strategy

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

Malcolm Holmes, executive director of West Midlands Rail Executive (WMRE), outlines the West Midlands Rail Investment Strategy 2018-2047.

The West Midlands Rail Executive was formed three years ago to give local authorities a direct influence over the award of the region’s main rail franchise. Working with the Department for Transport, we set out our ambitions for more frequent services, more carriages, and better stations for the thousands of commuters who use the local network each day. The West Midlands franchise was awarded to West Midlands Trains Ltd (a consortium of Abellio, JR East, and Mitsui), which pledged to invest £1bn in services.

Meanwhile, work is underway on HS2 with two stations at Birmingham Curzon Street and the Interchange station at UK Central, as well as a much wider investment in regional links into those hubs. The Midlands Engine is also looking at transport links across the wider region – particularly developing the routes between the cities of the East and West Midlands.

This is all underpinned by the region’s great economic and cultural renaissance built on strong growth and increasing investor confidence. Strong performance in the automotive, advanced engineering, life sciences, professional services, and digital sectors have led to a growth in job creation and greater demand for public transport. The success in securing the 2021 City of Culture for Coventry and 2022 Commonwealth Games are both signs of that growing confidence, and will be catalysts for further investment and development.

This major investment in rail – not seen since Victorian times – coupled with strong economic growth will both increase demand for rail and generate further investment opportunities. We are also likely to see demand shift as homes are built and businesses move to those areas of investment, including the UK Central site along with the Commonwealth Games stadium and athletes village sites at Perry Barr.

It is also true that we have to work with six passenger rail operators and franchises, between them responsible for 150 stations with 21 different types of train. The West Midlands has also been the fastest growing region nationally for rail journeys over the last 15 years.

It is against this backdrop of rapid change and diversity that we have launched our new West Midlands Rail Investment Strategy – designed to coordinate activity, drive investment in our rail network, and develop a shared vision for the industry over the next three decades.

We will need to work closely with our partners within the rail industry and local and national government as we move forward with delivering the strategy. WMRE is also actively looking at how rail services and rail projects can be delivered more efficiently and effectively in the future.

The strategy brings together the existing plans and proposals and sets out some longer-term ideas for the industry to think about. It is a document designed to evolve as demand changes and new opportunities arise.

Some parts are well on the way to being delivered. Later this year, West Midlands Trains will be delivering on its commitment to introduce more frequent services and more carriages on key routes. WMRE, working in conjunction with Transport for West Midlands, has secured significant investment to deliver an extensive and exciting investment programme of new stations and services in the West Midlands area. This West Midlands Rail Programme (WMRP) will have a transformative impact on the region's rail network. It includes plans to build new stations and restore passenger services to the Camp Hill Line in Birmingham and the Walsall to Wolverhampton line by 2022.

A key innovation has been the development of the ‘6-4-2’ service frequency concept that would see a turn-up-and-go, high-frequency service provided at urban stations, four trains an hour at major regional stations, and at least two trains per hour at the other local stations across the region. However, this concept is ambitious. It will be a challenge and require significant investment over the long term to make it a reality – but thanks to our strategy, rail operators and authorities know that is our target, and can work with us on delivering it.

There is a huge opportunity for us through delivery of the full HS2 network, which should enable many of the fast inter-city flows to move off the current network. It means we can deliver better local, regional, and freight services in the medium term.

However, there are some corridors where even this is unlikely to be sufficient to satisfy future demand, and we will need to start investigating some of the longer-term and more radical options – such as four-tracking on the Coventry to Wolverhampton corridor, or tunnels under central Birmingham – sooner rather than later, given the very long timescales that these major projects would have.

Our Rail Fares Review is looking at ways to transform fare structures. We need to make investing in rail better value for money for taxpayers and challenge some of the industry costs and processes to secure the future investment that will be needed to support this strategy. The Rail Investment Strategy is a key step in delivering a future rail network that West Midlanders will be proud of.

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