The Midland Metro opened in 1999, running for 13 miles between Wolverhampton St Georges and Birmingham Snow Hill. Unlike most tram systems, only the two stops at the Wolverhampton end of the line were on streets, the rest were all on closed railway line. At Snow Hill, the trams run into Platform 4 of the station, and 11 of the 25 stops roughly correspond with former stations on the railway to Wolverhampton Low Level.

Sixteen AnsaldoBreda T69 trams were ordered to run the new service. They were quite short at just over 24 metres long, and 2.44 metres wide. They had a capacity of 150 people and a 70% low floor with raised seating areas over the bogies.

A new depot was built on former sidings at Wednesbury, next to the Great Western Street stop.

First extension

Although an extensive tram network had originally been proposed, the single line remained as-built until June 2012 when work commenced on an extension at the Birmingham end. The line was to be diverted around Snow Hill station, releasing platform 4 back to heavy rail, and then on to Birmingham New Street station at Stephenson Street with intermediate stops at Bull Street and Corporation Street.

Additional trams would be needed for this extension. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the decision was taken to increase capacity by replacing the entire fleet with twenty new 32.4 metre long trams that would be 2.65 metres wide (an industry standard) and carry 210 people each.

The order for 20 new Urbos 3 trams was placed with Spanish manufacturer CAF with an option for an extra five.

As well as work on the new extension, the wider trams meant that platform edges had to be modified. Omnicom carried out a video survey of the existing line which revealed that the track would have to be slewed on some bridges as parapets were quite close to the envelope used by the new vehicles. As an interim measure, speed restrictions were introduced.

A major part of the work took place at the Wednesbury depot. The stabling area was more than doubled in size, as was the main depot building itself. In addition, a new, secondary building was constructed on the far side of the stabling area. This would initially be used by CAF to work on the trams once they arrived from the Spanish factory.

Fred Roberts, metro extension manager for operator National Express, explained that Morgan Sindall had been contracted to enlarge the depot while Balfour Beatty was building the extension to New Street.

The track layout in the new sidings includes a turning facility. Although the Metro is an end-to-end route, so trams never need to turn, this new facility will allow trams to be reversed from time to time, so equalising wear on wheels and tyres.

The new, larger building has also permitted the Atlas wheel lathe to be brought inside – previously it was outside in a tent!

As the trams are longer, more jacking units will be needed to raise the whole vehicle. These have been supplied by CAF and will replace the existing set.

Two-part delivery

The trams have five articulated sections, with wheels mounted on stub axles beneath the two ends and the central section. They are delivered from CAF’s factory in Spain on two articulated low-loaders. The two parts, one of three sections and one of two, are offloaded at a short siding and coupled together before being dragged by a road-rail shunter to the assembly shop. There, the two parts are coupled properly – they have couplings at roof level as well as under the floor – and the electrical systems are connected and tested.

Once back in one piece, the functionality of the brakes, CCTV, lighting and driving controls of each tram is tested. The first one to be delivered underwent additional type testing including EMC (electro-magnetic compatibility) testing supervised by Atkins. This made sure that the trams would not only operate trouble-free on the network but also wouldn’t interfere with heavy rail systems at Snow Hill and New Street.

Once that first tram was approved, and had done a little running inside the depot, it was released onto the network at night. Initially, it was accompanied by engineers walking alongside as clearances were checked and performance monitored. Covering 13 miles at walking pace was slow work, but eventually the entire route, and all of the crossovers, was checked and approved.

DSC_0694 [online]Sand and more sand

Then more testing could take place. Fully-laden brake tests required a full load of passengers, which was thought to be risky so sandbags were used instead. That explains the pallets of builder’s sand to one side of the new workshop.

Sand is used on the trams as well, for the sanding systems which ensure good wheel adhesion in bad weather.

Sheffield based Mechan has supplied two sand carts to the project which will be used to replenish stock on the trams. The two carts, manufactured by Klein Anlagenbau AG in Germany, are of different specifications as one is an ‘all terrain’ model which can still be used even if there is snow and slush on the site.

The contract included supply of the garage for the two machines and a storage silo for the sand. Having mobile machines increases the flexibility of the operation over the previous fixed installation, particularly important with the new, larger fleet.

Before being accepted from CAF by Midland Metro, each tram has to undergo 1,500km of fault-free running. This has to be carried out on the network, and the only available time is between 00:30 and 04:45 on weekday nights. However, all of this testing also presents a good opportunity for driver training.

With getting on for a dozen trams now in the country, services started in September. So far, four have run at any one time but that number will increase as more of the new fleet is fully tested.

The option to order five more trams could well be taken up as three further extensions to the network have recently been discussed and partially approved. Funding is in place for a further extension in Birmingham to Town Hall and Century Square, which will open in around 2018. From there, the line will be taken out to Edgbaston via Fiveways. At the Wolverhampton end, there are plans to take the line to Wolverhampton station, connecting with main line rail at that end as well.

Funding is also in place to examine other options, including a route to Birmingham Airport.

So perhaps Midland Metro will need even more trams in the future.