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Wednesday 1 March 2023

INSIGHTS: The Midlands Rail Hub — a real 'no brainer'

A ‘no-brainer’ is an overused phrase, but we believe we have a genuine one here.

Midlands Rail Hub is the flagship rail scheme for the Midlands and the centrepiece of our Midlands Engine Rail portfolio. Through providing new chords at Bordesley, and platforms in Birmingham, it provides capacity for up to 10 additional trains per hour to operate into and out of the city, to points in the Midlands and beyond.

The strategic case for making this investment is compelling – through providing excellent interchange between conventional and HS2 services at Moor Street and Curzon Street respectively; through providing much improved links from the West to the East Midlands; and through providing a high capacity, high performance railway with flexibility for the future. For the first of those, think of this scheme as a Kings Cross / St Pancras layout right in the heart of Birmingham, as people seamlessly switch between two adjacent stations at Moor Street and Curzon Street.

Whilst work on the Strategic Outline Business Case, the first of the business cases, started back in 2017, the origins of the scheme came as long ago as the 1990s with two new chords into Moor Street station identified a way of increasing capacity in central Birmingham. Birmingham New Street is full, so shoehorning more trains into that station is simply not practical. The operational headaches at New Street were publicly evident back in 2018, when a timetable rewrite led to a plummet in the reliability of the railway. Thankfully we are now back on solid ground, but the message is unchanged – don’t sweat the asset and add more trains to an already busy station!

Fast forward to the current day, and an Outline Business Case has now been prepared by Network Rail for the scheme, providing lots of detail on a shortlist of options:

  • Option A provides a new West Chord at Bordesley, which enables three additional regional services to operate each hour – to Hereford, to Cardiff and to Bristol. In addition, the soon-to-be introduced Camp Hill local services, from Kings Norton to Birmingham, can also be routed into Birmingham Moor Street. Last but by no means least, there is capacity for the busy Birmingham Cross City Line to be reinstated to its pre-Covid frequency of six (currently four) trains per hour, providing a ‘turn up and go’ service for swathes of the population in the north and south of the city.
  • Option B does everything that Option A outlines, but also provides a new East Chord at Bordesley, which enables additional Birmingham to Leicester services to operate. Crucially, it also provides capacity to go above and beyond, with additional, as yet unspecified, services also able to use this chord.

It will come as no surprise that as Midlands Connect, we are firmly backing Option B, given the strong alignment with our three railway outcomes and the clear opportunity it presents. Put simply, without the two chords, future growth in the railway through higher frequencies can’t happen.

Whilst the headline infrastructure measures are in central Birmingham, the additional infrastructure extends far beyond. For example, we rebuild Kings Norton Station, bringing the long-disused island platform back into use. Between there and Barnt Green, at the summit of the infamous Lickey Incline, we provide a fully electrified four-track railway. Further east, we are seeking additional capacity at Water Orton, a busy junction today for passengers and freight, as well as improvements east thereof, including reducing signalling headways. These are big schemes, but they are also bread and butter schemes for the railway industry. This sort of thing has been done elsewhere, time and time again, so we can have a high degree of confidence in the cost estimates that have been prepared.

We are pleased that Network Rail is a strong advocate of the scheme, placing it at the heart of the recently published West Midlands Strategic Advice. This is on the basis that Midlands Rail Hub provides the first building block to aspirations across the Midlands and beyond.

Suffice to say that the scheme has not been without its challenges, particularly from 2020 onwards. But the same could be said of almost all major schemes. Of course, it remains to be seen what the long-term impacts on rail travel will be following the Covid pandemic, but across the country we are witnessing a good return of patronage, albeit with different patterns and types of trips being made. Gone, it seems, are the Monday to Friday ‘high’ peaks, with the leisure market, including weekends, increasingly buoyant and in some cases surpassing pre- Covid levels. Having recently taken some trains to and from London during the half-term holiday, I can vouch for the fact that leisure travellers (and on this particular journey, lots of day-trippers talking excitedly about a day of sightseeing!) are back on the railway in droves. It’s great to see – without these folk, it’s hard, if not impossible, to make the maths stack up for enhancing the railway.

Back in 2021, the Integrated Rail Plan was published, and provided an updated plan from Government for the HS2 network from the West to the East Midlands, with a new section of high-speed railway between the Birmingham Area and East Midlands Parkway. From East Midlands Parkway, the high speed ‘conventional compatible’ trains then use the existing railway network to access cities in the East Midlands and beyond. For Midlands Rail Hub, this has meant some changes – for example, we now don’t need to provide additional Birmingham to Nottingham conventional services in the way that we originally envisaged when the Strategic Outline Business Case was published. It’s not a case of sit back and wait for HS2, though, and we are working with our partners to see how we can speed up the existing services in the shorter term.

Finally, any discussion of challenges would be incomplete without a reference to the fiscal environment facing not only rail enhancement schemes, but all areas of the rail industry. It is no secret that funding through the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP) is in short supply and we have therefore had to work hard to demonstrate why this scheme is a priority for Midlands Connect and partners alike. In short, why invest at all, and why now? As you might imagine, we are by no means the only industry banging on the door of the Treasury for more money. So, speaking with one voice, about a credible, investable, proposition, is critical.

So, what’s our message?

We have a decent scheme that complements HS2 in the Midlands.

We have a strong value for money case and return over £1.50 for every pound invested.

We have a strong strategic rationale for investing.

We have support for the scheme within and beyond the Midlands.

We have support from businesses and the general public.

What don’t we have? Funding for the next stage – the Full Business Case – yet.

To finish where we began, can you think of a better ‘no brainer’?

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