Is the Site of Birmingham City Centre’s Proposed HS2 Station the Best Option?

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Whatever the merits or otherwise of HS2, I seriously doubt that the proposed location for Birmingham city centre’s HS2 station is the best, possible option.  I take the view that it does not exploit in full the benefits that might accrue to Birmingham from HS2.

Birmingham New Street at track level was last rebuilt in the mid 1960s.  The preparatory demolition work started in 1964.  The station was rebuilt at a time when people thought that rail travel was steadily declining in the face of increasing car ownership.  The Beeching Report had only been issued a year before in March 1963.  Therefore, the new station was built with very little spare capacity.

Always be wary of received wisdom.  Rail travel did not continue to decline and, despite the best efforts of Mrs Thatcher, Sir David Serpell and his famous report, rail travel started to enjoy a renaissance that has continued to this day.  A rebirth that has put ever increasing pressure on Birmingham New Street Station, the central hub of the British railway system.  Sorry, London, but Clapham Junction is not in the same league as New Street.  In fact, it is in a league of its own.

Birmingham New Street long passed the point where it was fit for purpose as the hub of the country’s inter city services.  The current facelift of Birmingham New Street, though very costly is fundamentally a cosmetic procedure.  Future users of the station will now have a nicer place in which to wait for their late train.  An occurrence which is likely to become ever more frequent.

The proposed HS2 station will not make a significant difference to track level congestion at Birmingham New Street, but it could.  Let me take you back in time to the last days of British Rail.

By the late 1980s it was becoming clear that Birmingham New Street’s 1960s rebuild was no longer able to adequately cope with the increasing number of trains passing through it.  But what to do?

Option One: Rebuild Birmingham New Street at track level to make better use of the existing platform configuration.  Perhaps even look seriously at reshaping the two tunnels and related trackwork at the Wolverhampton end of the station.

Option Two: Find a new city centre site for Birmingham New Street that could be built with sufficient capacity to ease existing congestion and anticipate future increases in traffic flows.

Option Three: Find a completely new site for Birmingham’s main railway station, perhaps even outside of the city centre.

Well Option One would be costly and might not do very much to increase capacity.  Option Two was just not practicable, given the built up nature of much of Birmingham city centre.  And Option Three?  Well how would that match up with the benefits to travellers of the main station being in the centre of Birmingham?

Then someone at British Rail had the idea of undertaking a traffic survey of passengers using Birmingham New Street.  Unsurprisingly, most travellers on commuter trains were travelling to and from Birmingham New Street.  Surprisingly, most inter city passengers were passing through or at most changing trains at Birmingham New Street.  So the central location of the station was immaterial to them.

The possibility now existed to separate out the trains passing through Birmingham New Street to the benefit of both local and long distance rail travellers.  But where to site any new inter city station?  Well the best location was felt to be in East Birmingham where the overhead electrified line from Stechford to Aston crosses the line from Water Orton into Birmingham New Street.  A brownfield site with plenty of potential for future development.  No city centre site, including that identified for HS2 has similar capacity to cope with growth.

If you are trying to visualise what Birmingham Heartlands (or Birmingham Parkway, if you would prefer) would look like then imagine a bigger version of Tamworth Railway Station with its Low and High Levels.  A similar arrangement at Birmingham Heartlands would make it easier for passengers to change trains.  Much easier than even new New Street is planned to do.

I will not in this blog go into all the various benefits that British Rail felt that the East Birmingham site offered.  However, the idea never got off the drawing board.  Railtrack was coming into being and it was more interested in exploiting the rail network’s real estate rather than investing in rail infrastructure.

In addition, the Birmingham Post and Mail objected to the idea that Birmingham’s premier station could be anywhere, but at New Street.  About a decade later it campaigned against new New Street and, instead proposed a new station with increased capacity roughly where it is now proposed to build the HS2 station.

If you have read this far, thank you!  But you must be thinking what this has to do with HS2?  The fundamentals remain the same.  Birmingham New Street is not fit for purpose.  The HS2 station will do little to remedy that.  Birmingham Heartlands is even more of an option than it used to be as a result of the closure of LDV and GEC Alsthom.

It is a big assumption, but what if passenger usage is the same as the traffic survey showed in the mid 1990s?  Then siting the major station in East Birmingham would provide a stopping place for HS2 services that would link directly with the network of inter city services currently centred on Birmingham New Street.

Birmingham Heartlands would do away with the need for an HS2 station in Birmingham city centre.  Why?  Well, with space freed up at Birmingham New Street HS2 services could terminate there, after stopping at Birmingham Heartlands.

The significant cost savings from merging HS2 into the existing rail network well before Birmingham New Street would help pay for necessary rail improvements in East Birmingham.  And it is hard to see how building a new station, in an easily accessible brownfield location could work out more expensive than the proposed HS2 location.  And then there is the cost of the major engineering works required to get HS2 to that location.

In short, a traffic survey, similar to that undertaken by British Rail in the 1990s is not going to put much of a dent in the HS2 budget, but its results could be out of all proportion to its cost if they replicate the results of that first survey.  Anyone for evidence based approach to this issue?

Further blogs will follow looking at the various potential benefits that Birmingham Heartlands would make possible.