Plan for Whitacre link gains wide support

THE report that I have co-authored with quantity surveyor and construction economist Michel Byng — in which we propose restoration of the former Stonebridge Railway between Hampton-in-Arden and Whitacre Junction in Warwickshire to serve the HS2 Birmingham Interchange, the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham Airport and the M42 business corridor — has caused quite a stir.

And, despite some of the comments left on the Railnews website, most of the reaction has been extremely positive — from MPs, the City of Coventry, the Black Country, and even organisations representing small businesses and the tourism and travel industry.

A major concern in the Midlands about the plans for HS2 has been that many places have felt they will be unable to benefit from the new railway due to inadequate connectivity. For example, Coventry City Council joined the 51M group of local authorities opposing the scheme — even though its reason was quite different to all the others who oppose the new line:  they don’t want it passing through or near their areas.  Coventry, on the other hand, opposed the scheme because it wanted the route to serve the city — but it didn’t.

However, within 24 hours of our report being published [http://www.railnews.co.uk/news/2013/06/05-plan-to-restore-crucial-midlands.html] the news broke that Coventry City Council had withdrawn its opposition to HS2.

The Coventry Telegraph reported: “The new council leadership … believes the high speed rail line is now inevitable, as it has cross-party support in Parliament. They think ending Coventry’s formal opposition will give the city a better chance of negotiating the best possible outcome for services in and out of Coventry station – and links to HS2.”

And, of course, the proposal to recreate the Whitacre Link from Hampton-in-Arden to the Interchange and then on to Whitacre Junction, would provide Coventry with a quick link to HS2 — avoiding the need to travel to the present Birmingham International station and then transfer onto a People Mover to the HS2 station, taking overall about another 12-15 minutes.

The link would also provide other connectivity benefits in the Coventry/Nuneaton/ North Warwickshire/South Staffordshire areas, including creating alternative routes for both passenger and Strategic Freight Network train services, and would help improve operational resilience of the rail network.

Cllr Phil Townshend confirmed Coventry’s decision: “We accept this is a controversial project [HS2] but we have to make the best of this situation and we’re being pragmatic and realistic. We have to get the best deal for Coventry. We will try to influence a positive outcome.”

Similarly, organizations in the Black Country, which have been concerned that they will be left remote from HS2, have seized on the opportunity the Whitacre Link means for them.

With the old Stonebridge Railway line rebuilt — and with passenger services returned to the Sutton Park line and stations reopened, as already proposed by others — passengers from Walsall, Aldridge, Sutton Coldfield and Streetly (which together have a population of more than 400,000) could be within half an hour or less of reaching HS2 or checking in for flights from Birmingham Airport … a journey that from Walsall today could take up to an hour via Birmingham New Street, where an inconvenient change of trains is also necessary to reach Birmingham International station where passengers must change, yet again, to take the present People Mover to the airport terminal before they can even begin checking-in for their flights.

No wonder relatively few airline passengers use trains to access Birmingham Airport at present!

However, under our Whitacre Link proposals there would be an international passenger terminal connected to the HS2 and Whitacre Link stations at the Interchange so that passengers could check in and go through security, immigration and customs formalities before joining trains via the Channel Tunnel to Continental Europe or transferring (by secure People Mover) directly to Birmingham Airport’s departure lounges.

So not only would many passengers gain the opportunity to travel straight to the Interchange Hub, and have no need to change trains (or stations) in Birmingham, as many have to do today, but they would have a more satisfactory journey experience because much of the present hassle would be avoided.

Small business support

Recent surveys have suggested small businesses in the Midlands are not very supportive of HS2.

But following publication of our report proposing restoration of the Stonebridge Railway, Michael Byng and I were invited to make a presentation to a joint meeting of the Business Transport Groups of the Local Enterprise Partnerships for the Black Country and Greater Birmingham (also embracing the Staffordshire towns of Tamworth, Lichfield and Burton-on-Trent) and Solihull.

And after studying our report, the Federation of Small Businesses made the following comment: “Any initiative to improve the transport infrastructure in the way this concept has been presented is worthy of support.

“There don’t seem to be any negative features in the proposals, except maybe the lack of secured funding (accepting this is not part of the proposal in this early stage, but is something which needs some assurance before much more time and effort is expended on taking the proposal to a next stage).”

The hotel, travel and tourism industry was equally welcoming of the proposal, recognising the opportunities it presents to link up many areas attractive to tourists in Central England — including Stratford-upon-Avon, which has never had direct train services from Birmingham Airport — without the need to go into and out of central Birmingham (and, often, involving the inconvenient need to change trains and — such as in the case of accessing Stratford-upon-Avon — changing stations too).

Several MPs (and at least one MEP) of all three principal political persuasions have also expressed considerable support for the proposal.

WHITACRE LINK FUNDING CONCERNS – NEED TO KEEP A PERSPECTIVE

GLOBAL infrastructure consultancy WSP was among those to support the proposed reopening of the Stonebridge Railway. Its Head of Rail Planning, Ian Brooker, said: “This link looks promising as it contributes to a number of important transport objectives. It would significantly improve regional connectivity, it would provide a range of new direct journey opportunities to Birmingham Airport, and it would add to the benefits of HS2 in supporting growth in the region’s economy.

“There is increasing interest in using disused rail infrastructure to provide a cost effective corridor for new rail services, and the availability of the corridor should help early delivery of this project.”

Funding such a scheme is, of course, a significant matter (although, at this stage, the most immediate concern is that the opportunity to develop the proposal at a later stage is safeguarded, and the ability for the Stonebridge Railway and HS2 to cross over each other near the Interchange station is protected in the hybrid Bill to go before Parliament later this year).

Funding has clearly concerned some Railnews website commentators [http://www.railnews.co.uk/news/2013/06/05-plan-to-restore-crucial-midlands.htm] who seem to believe that the estimated cost of around £240 million is out of the question.

But I would ask people with such concerns to keep things in perspective.

The Government’s policy for the rail industry during the next five years envisages some £35 billion being spent on maintaining, improving and expanding our railway system — an average of around £7 billion a year.  Restoring the Stonebridge Railway would take about three years, so its cost would be about £80 million a year . . . equivalent to only a fraction over one per cent of the total annual expenditure currently planned.

In another context, let’s also look at the cost against road construction, and there are two current examples in the Midlands that help make the point.

Birmingham Airport’s runway is now being extended to enable the longest-haul flights to take off with full payloads next year.  This is necessitating a diversion of about 2 kilometres of the A45 trunk road — at a cost of some £35 million (or about £17.5m per kilometre).

A few miles down the same road, the Chancellor has approved a scheme to widen the A45 Coventry bypass between its two junctions with the A46 — a distance of just 1.9km (1.2 miles) — from four to six lanes and to construct a grade separated junction at Toll Bar End.  The cost is estimated at a massive £160 million.

Restoring the Stonebridge Railways is a substantial engineering challenge — including a 500 metre long viaduct over the M6 and M6 Toll Link motorways, 31 rebuilt bridges, a four-platform station alongside the HS2 Interchange, a grade-separated junction towards Birmingham International station, and at the northern end of the route there would be three further grade-separated junctions (towards Water Orton, Sutton Park and Birmingham, towards Tamworth and Derby, and towards Nuneaton, the West Coast Main Line and Leicester).

The restored link between Hampton-in-Arden and Whitacre — including the connecting lines over the grade separated junctions — would add up to 40 single track kilometres . . . so Michael Byng’s expert estimate of £241 million at current prices is equivalent to £6 million per single track kilometre (£9.6m per mile), or £12 million per double track kilometre.

Compare that with the present cost of diverting the nearby A45 dual carriageway and the forthcoming A45/A46 project at Coventry!

So, in terms of present-day transport infrastructure costs, our proposal for the Whitacre Link is not out of the ordinary — and is also relatively small compared with, say, providing a link across London between HS2 and HS1. Yet it could have a similar impact.

A recent study by Greengauge21 and MVA, published on 31 May, shows that the HS2/HS1 link is not just required for international services but can be justified principally by the significant demand for domestic journeys between the North West and the Midlands and South East England. The study suggests the demand for cross-London travel is such that one in four HS2 trains could continue beyond London Euston, serving either Stratford International and/or Ebbsfleet International and/or Ashford International stations on HS1.

In the Midlands, the Whitacre Link could have a similar effect, giving many more people easy access to HS2 and enhancing its business case, just as a proper HS2/HS1 link will attract many people east and south east of London onto high speed train services and away from the M25.

Significant to Birmingham Airport plans

And now that Birmingham Airport has started to unveil its long-term proposals to the Aviation Commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies, the proposed Whitacre Link takes on further significance.

The airport currently handles around 9 – 10 million passengers a year, of which about 1.4 million travel by train (with 78 per cent of those, around a million, having to change trains in Birmingham).

Birmingham Airport says it has capacity with its single runway, now undergoing extension, for up to 36 million passengers a year. It also wants to raise the proportion using public transport (mainly trains) to around 25 per cent. At maximum capacity of the single runway, that could mean some 9 million airport passengers using trains — which will be quite possible with HS2 (which will put London, Manchester and Yorkshire all within an hour of Birmingham Airport), while the Whitacre Link could potentially give up to another 8 million people direct access to the airport, as well as to the HS2 interchange for domestic and international train services.

Overall, up to a quarter of the population of England and Wales could become within around an hour’s journey time of Birmingham Airport.

One of the questions the Aviation Commission is currently asking is how airports like Birmingham’s and Manchester’s would cope with continuing growth in passenger demand in, say, 30 or 50 years time.

Birmingham Airport’s answer is that, if it eventually exceeds the capacity of its single extended runway, it would build a second runway about 4km to the east, occupying what is now a giant household waste site, which the Stonebridge Railway’s Whitacre Link skirts around, between the A442 and Packington Park. Technically this is green belt.  But the airport suggests that, as it contains a vast mountain of domestic waste, it is really a brownfield site.

The airport says that if its second runway is ever built, the Whitacre Link tracks would pass beneath it.

But the real significance for the rail system of this long-term proposal is that the HS2 Interchange and Whitacre Link stations, and our proposed International Terminal for both rail and air passengers, would be ideally located — midway between, and within 2km of, both runways.

To quote a modern colloquialism, restoring the Stonebridge Railway and creating a new Whitacre Link, really might be considered to be a ‘no brainer’.

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