Next month will see the opening of the new section of concourse at Birmingham New Street station. This will be the first major public milestone in the Birmingham Gateway project, the progress of which THE RAIL ENGINEER has covered for the last few years.
However, New Street is not the only major transport project underway in Britain’s second city, although the two are very much linked. The £128 million extension to the Midland Metro moves into its next stage at Easter with the temporary closure of the line. Principal contractor Balfour Beatty is taking the opportunity to enlarge platforms on the network, in readiness for the new fleet of trams that will enter service late in 2014.
Currently, the Midland Metro runs from Wolverhampton to Birmingham over a 12.5 mile route which largely uses the trackbed of the former Great Western Railway line from Wolverhampton Low Level to Birmingham Snow Hill. The first two stops in Wolverhampton are conventional, street- based tram halts, but the line then joins the old GWR route at Priestfield. From there, the
Metro follows the old GWR route exactly, with tram stops replacing the original intermediate stations, through three tunnels, over four canals and under the M5 to Birmingham Snow Hill.
Opened in 1999, the line is run by a fleet of sixteen T69 trams made by AnsaldoBreda in Italy. The 24.5 metre long vehicles have a capacity of 158 people (56 seated) and a top speed of 43mph.
Plans for the Birmingham City Centre Extension were first proposed in 2005. This would take the tracks through the city centre to Five Ways Island on the ring road at the far end of Broad Street. After a brief look into the cost of building an underground railway instead, found to be prohibitive, a scaled-down version of the plan was adopted in late 2008.
The extension will branch off between St Pauls and Snow Hill station. A new stop, still called Snow Hill, will be constructed on the existing railway viaduct at Livery Street/Lionel Street. From there, the extended line will take in stops at Bull Street and Corporation Street before reaching the new terminus at Stephenson Street, alongside Birmingham New Street station – a total extra distance of 0.8 miles.
More vehicles will be needed to run the extended service and, rather than adding a few new ones, Birmingham City Council decided
to replace the entire fleet. Twenty Urbos 3 trams have been ordered from Spanish manufacturer CAF, similar models to the ones recently supplied to Edinburgh. Longer than the originals, with the capacity increased to 200, each five-section air-conditioned tram has two dedicated spaces for wheelchair users and its features will be fully compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act. In addition, each section will have passenger information and CCTV information and protection. The £40 million contract includes an option for a further five vehicles.
So, back to the work that is taking place at Easter. The line between Birmingham and Wolverhampton will be shut after the last tram on Good Friday (March 29) and reopen on Monday April 15 to allow engineers to modify existing platforms to accommodate the fleet of larger trams. When these enter service, the current route during 2014 they will enable Centro, the region’s transport authority, to increase the system’s frequency to 10 trams an hour throughout the day. This will increase capacity by 40 per cent, easing the overcrowding that can sometimes occur during the morning peak.
All the new trams will be running by 2015 when the extension opens. Before then, and after the platform works are completed, the new track will be laid through the city’s streets. Already, Stephenson Street is closed to traffic as services are diverted in preparation for the track-laying works. However, laying tracks on Corporation Street, used by over 140 buses an hour during peak periods, will certainly be a challenge for the project team.
New signalling will be needed, in a contract yet to be let by Balfour Beatty, and this will be controlled from the existing signalling centre at Wednesbury.
Any £128 million project is significant. Only because the new extension is overshadowed by the £600 million refurbishment of Birmingham New Street station has it not had the coverage it might have. But The Rail Engineer is on the case, and will publish further details as they develop.