Midland Metro extension moving forward

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Oct/Nov 2014

Paul Griffiths, Metro and Sprint programme director at Centro, discusses the developments and progress on the Midland Metro extension.

Midland Metro’s multi-million pound extension is due to be operational by autumn 2015, coming online at around the same time as several other major projects in the Birmingham city centre area, Paul Griffiths, Metro and Sprint programme director at Centro, told RTM.

Although no firm date has been set yet, he said: “The work, which first started in 2012, is coming along nicely.

“We’ve got a series of projects within the first phase of the programme, which includes an extension to the depot at Wednesbury, introducing the new tram fleet and the extension into Birmingham city centre itself.”

Wednesbury depot

As part of the work a new 42m x 30m three-storey extension to the existing depot Operations and Maintenance Centre (OMC) is being built, with two new maintenance roads, rooftop access, a vehicle jacking area, heavy crane and general additional tram maintenance facilities.

In addition to the main depot extension, a new testing and commissioning shed and four stabling sidings have been constructed, to accommodate the new Urbos 3 tram fleet. However, with National Express, the route operator, continuing to maintain the existing fleet of trams, coordination of all the works has been particularly important.

“The works at the depot in Wednesbury are coming to a close in the next few weeks, which gives us the capacity to deal with the new fleet and maintain them as we bring more of them into service,” said Griffiths. “National Express has had to put up with a lot of disruption to their depot as they’ve been trying to operate a live depot while we’ve been trying to extend it, but the project has gone well overall.”

New fleet

It has been a year since the first of Centro’s new 21-strong fleet of Urbos 3 trams, built by CAF, was unveiled. Now the trams are coming through from Spain at “a rate of knots”, Griffiths told us. When we spoke to him in mid-October, 16 of the initial order of 21 had arrived. He said that Centro envisages that by the end of the year it will have enough of the Urbos 3 trams in operation to replace the existing Ansaldo T69 fleet.

“We’ll be able to take those out of service over the next few months,” said Griffiths. “And certainly, as we get into spring next year, we’ll have the full order of 21 and we’ll have the full fleet available.”

RTM was told that the Urbos 3 roll-out seems to be going “really smoothly” and Centro is “very pleased” with it. There has also been good passenger feedback with many saying they like the “light, bright and airy experience”.

He added, though, that there have been some minor bugs to fix whilst bringing the fleet online. “We found, for instance, things like the air conditioning settings weren’t quite right when we first started operating,” said Griffiths. “So the software has been tweaked to deal with that. I guess the last place the Urbos 3 trams ran were in Zaragoza and perhaps the people of the West Midlands have a different view on what a comfortable temperature is compared to those in Spain. But the issues are down at that level.”

He said Centro is working with CAF and National Express to make sure any such issues are identified and rectified quickly.

Work on the line

In Birmingham city centre, work is ongoing to finish the £128m Midland Metro extension between Snow Hill and New Street stations.

The route will see a new stop at St Chad’s which will link to Snow Hill via a second access then travel through the new development at Snow Hill Queensway and onto the road.

With a second stop located on Upper Bull Street, Centro says the Metro will then turn on to Corporation Street, where it will stop at the heart of the city centre next to the junction with Cherry Street, carrying on to Stephenson Street where the final stop will be just outside the entrance to New Street station.

Tracks have been laid recently along one side of Corporation Street, with work continuing on the links around Colmore Row.

Griffiths said: “Most of the inbound track, down one side of Corporation Street, is in and in the last week Balfour Beatty, the contractor, has had a big traffic management changeover.

“This is key to managing city centre works, and they have moved over to the other side of the street and are working on another series of work before we come into the Christmas embargo period, which is critical for the shopkeepers.”

Griffiths reiterated that Centro plans to have the extension operational by autumn 2015 as it is a big ‘change over’ time for Birmingham city centre. “With projects like New Street station opening its main atrium and entrances and John Lewis opening, we hope to be coming online at a similar time,” he said.

RTM was told that Centro and Balfour Beatty are trying to get ahead of the curve with regards to the next phase of the scheme: Centenary Square. “We’re trying to do some of the utility diversions now, so we have got a better run at those works later on,” Griffiths added.

“We’re trying to plan for the future extensions we’ve got in mind, in a similar way that we’ve altered our design and the alignment at the Corporation Street/Bull Street junction to allow for the future extension out to Eastside and HS2.”

He added that the team has tried to mitigate as many potential challenges as possible. And the key lesson he believes can be learned for all light rail systems is “to try and clear as much of the utility pipe work and electrical cables along the route as early as possible,” he said. That lesson has certainly be learnt on the Metrolink extensions in Manchester, as you can read on page 32.

“We’ve learned that lesson and we did most of that work in advance. Inevitably, though, you find things you weren’t expecting and they can have an impact,” Griffiths said.

He has been happy with the collaborative working between Balfour Beatty and Centro and their ability to be “nimble enough” to react to any changes to the work along the route, and the ability to “work together” to solve any problems that arise.

Some members of the Centro team are now co-located in Balfour Beatty’s office on Corporation Street. “They’re all very close to the job,” Griffiths said. “They are all working collaboratively to make sure the issues are addressed, problems are identified early, and everyone is focused on the project.”

Eastside extension

On top of the current work, Centro has unveiled design plans for two options (see box out) to extend the Midland Metro through the heart of the Digbeth area of Birmingham, with the public invited to give their views on the plans.

Following an initial consultation in February, a tram route from Bull Street in the city centre to the proposed HS2 station at Curzon Street has already been agreed.

The Eastside extension, which includes the construction of the extension and more trams, could cost up to £130m – depending on the route chosen.

Griffiths said: “Both options have got different things going for them. One option is very much about getting right into the heart of Digbeth, which doesn’t have great transport links and is a huge regeneration opportunity.

“The other one is more about linking up existing nodes on the network, so it would allow us to link up with existing areas of the Arts Quarter like the Custard Factory, but also linking up with the coach station, which is hugely important for a transport perspective.”

The consultation suggests one option will be built as a light rail scheme, and the other as a bus rapid transit initiative. This should mean, Griffiths said, that both areas benefit from transport improvements of some kind.

Award winning

At this year’s Light Rail Awards, organised by RTM partner Mainspring, Midland Metro came away with three big trophies: ‘Operator of the Year’, ‘Manufacturer of the Year’ and ‘Project of the Year’.

Operator of the Year was awarded to National Express West Midlands, which runs the Metro on behalf of Centro. Manufacturer of the Year was awarded to CAF, for the new Urbos 3 tram fleet, which began running on the Metro this autumn. And ‘Project of the Year under €50m’ was awarded to Centro for the way it introduced the new trams into service on the line.

Griffiths told us: “The awards were hugely important for us as a light rail system and for those working on it. It recognised that everybody has worked together, bringing in a new fleet while bringing in an extension and changing quite a lot of the existing infrastructure.

“We want to bring the expansion online with as little heartache as possible for all concerned. I think that the awards have recognised all of that.”

The next extension: the two options

Option 1 is the shorter of the two, at just over 1km, and follows Fazeley Street before turning onto Liverpool Street. There would be a stop close to the junction with Great Barr Street and Heath Mill Lane. Trams would then continue along Liverpool Street before turning into Adderley Street.

Option 2 is just under 1.5km long and runs along New Canal Street and Meriden Street before turning left on to High Street Deritend. It would then run along the centre of the carriageway with a stop close to the junction of Milk Street to serve Digbeth Coach Station and the Custard Factory. It would then turn left into Adderley Street.

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