Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Next month, rail users in the West Midlands will see the introduction of a new timetable representing the most significant improvement in the region’s services since the turn of the millennium.
Passengers will benefit from changes introduced by West Midlands Railways, which took over the franchise in 2017. There will be new cross-Birmingham linkages providing improved connectivity to Birmingham Airport and on to London, extra evening services on most routes with more later trains running, as well as the introduction of new rolling stock and electric services in other areas.
At a time when services elsewhere in the UK are subject to criticism, growing passenger numbers and changing commuter habits in the West Midlands provide clear evidence that our approach to our railways is working. After decades of underinvestment, I’m proud that, with the support of a Conservative Government, the people of the West Midlands are seeing their rail network reshaped to provide the services they need.
Initially planned for last December, Chris Grayling rightly deferred the introduction of our timetable until May to ensure local rail users avoided the much-publicised problems experienced elsewhere in 2018. Now we are ready to roll out changes which will connect our residents with the opportunities being created by our economic growth.
But as ambitious as these timetable changes may seem, they are only the latest arrival in a West Midlands rail renaissance that is changing the mindset of commuters and reinvigorating the network that serves our seven constituent boroughs of Birmingham, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Walsall, Sandwell, Dudley and beyond.
Arguably, the rebirth of New Street Station is the most emblematic change of that renaissance. Birmingham’s dingy old main station, for decades a symbol of a dated and tired transport network, was reimagined through a £550 million rebuild. Crowned by the impressive Grand Central shopping centre above its main concourse, it is now a fitting entry point for visitors to the nation’s resurgent Second City.
This was just the beginning of a huge investment programme in local stations that is still ongoing, supported by Government investment. In Wolverhampton, work is progressing at pace as the region’s best transport interchange is constructed. In Coventry, work has begun on a major revamp of the city’s main station, which will complement Coventry City Council’s transformation of the area that links the station with the city centre.
Both of these redevelopments are backed by cash from the West Midlands Combined Authority and represent our determination to see visible improvements across the region. They will drive investment in the heart of these cities, just as New Street did in Birmingham. We can expect the new HS2 station, being built in Curzon Street, to have the same effect on a different part of Birmingham.
However, this isn’t just about flagship builds in big cities – it is about reinvigorating the region’s rail network at all levels, to ensure it provides the services demanded by our economic success. Our growth, fuelled by Conservative policies, is revitalising communities where local railway stations were once deemed uneconomic. In the West Midlands, we are on the cusp of seeing Beeching cuts reversed.
In South Birmingham, plans to reopen three stations in the bustling communities of Moseley, Kings Heath and Hazelwell are well advanced, with design options and timetabling now being finalised. In Walsall, passenger stations in Willenhall and Darlaston are set to reopen on a line that has only carried freight since Dr Beeching swung his axe during the 1960s. I am ambitious to investigate the potential for more of these resurrected stations, with Aldridge in Walsall now under consideration and more in North Birmingham, Sutton Coldfield and Coventry being discussed. These re-openings are the result of in-depth research that sets out a genuine business case for passenger services.
National changes are likely to see Network Rail services devolved to a regional level, making the system more responsive to passenger needs. With the West Midlands Rail Executive (WMRE) driving local rail policy, and Transport for the West Midlands co-ordinating connectivity, we have built a strong structure to make the most of this latest devolution of influence.
By working alongside Government, train operators and rail regulators, the WMRE is providing local leadership to ensure the right decisions are made here in the West Midlands, not in Westminster.
I look forward to welcoming the Transport Secretary to the region this week, to show him some of the work being done here and maintaining the partnership that is driving our rail renaissance.
While the Government’s Williams Review, into the future of the national network, has expressed some concerns over the current franchising structure of the UK’s railways, here in the West Midlands we are seeing how a franchisee can revitalise a network by working with the Mayor’s office and other partners. A key factor in its success has been the close fit between the franchise area and the economic geography of the West Midlands.
In the 14 months since West Midlands Railway (WMR) took over the franchise, we have seen a number of milestones reached: a new quality regime, fleets of trains ordered, better compensation for late or cancelled services, more staffed gates, the abolition of lost property charges and constructive dialogue with unions on further potential changes. The sight of WMR livery and branding on stations and trains across the region has reinforced a sense of rebirth for services that so many of our residents rely on.
The pace of change has not slackened this year: WMR has a number of obligations to meet beyond targets on punctuality and reliability. These include new ticket machines, information screens and free wi-fi on all trains. As mayor, I will be monitoring WMR’s performance to ensure they deliver on these promises and more.
Investment lies behind this railway renaissance in the heart of England, but much remains to be done. As our economy grows, passenger numbers are well up. In Birmingham, rail has recently become the leading mode for commuting – overtaking the car. This makes Birmingham the only city outside London where this is true.
It is vital that, as opportunities are created for our residents, we provide them with the public transport means to reach them. All this means that we must ensure investment in our railway network keeps pace with the needs of society, and that operators, regulators and Government recognise that the passenger is always the most important factor in any transport system.
By adopting this mindset, we are building a West Midlands rail network fit for the future – and we have some big developments on the horizon that are helping to focus our efforts. With Coventry being UK City of Culture in 2021 and the Commonwealth Games coming to Birmingham in 2022, we can expect an influx of visitors to put our transport ambitions to the test. The arrival of HS2 into the heart of Birmingham, before extending into the north, will connect our growing network to the rest of the UK in a new and dynamic way.
As we look down the track to these approaching challenges, I’m confident that the twenty-first century rail service we are creating will arrive on time.