Friday, 11 November 2011

Brum's Moving On.....

Over the years, I've often been critical of Birmingham's seemingly half-hearted commitment to public transport. I've watched enviously places like London and Manchester pushing on with making the public transport user's lot better. For years, Brum appeared not only to stand still, but to actually move backwards by removing the bus priority on Tyburn Road - what did that tell us about the City's intentions towards public transport?
Now, for the first time in my living memory at least, things appear to be on the up.
£800m is being spent on us bus, train, tram and plane passengers and it's looking very interesting.
New Street Station has long been in need of a facelift. Why should railway stations not be places where you'd like to spend some quality time? I've often taken time out in places like Manchester Piccadilly and Berlin's Hauptbahnhof to have a bite to eat or drink. St. Pancras' Eurostar terminus surely sits proudly at the top of the list for the modern day theatre of railway romance. One of my favourite haunts is the delightful Centenary Lounge within the surrounds of the gorgeously restored Birmingham Moor Street. Lovely staff serving lovely food and drink as you watch the world go by. Hopefully we'll soon start to feel good about New Street, rather than the chaotic turn off it often portrays.
Birmingham Airport too is expanding. Whilst I'm more in favour of short hops around the UK and close neighbours in Europe being made by train (bring on HS2 as soon as possible, I say!), for longer journeys to different continents it would be great to go from Brum. For a relatively short time, Ryanair used to fly from Brum to Frankfurt Hahn, close to the Mosel Valley - my favourite German destination. How convenient it was to hop across to Birmingham Airport and in a couple of hours I was drinking the locals wine. Mr O' Leary withdrew that route and now, the trip to Stansted is more of a consideration for my German jaunts. Which is why, for selfish reasons in this example, I can't wait to see HS2 come to Birmingham. To link this into the existing HS1 would mean Brum to Germany becoming a really attractive proposition by rail.
And then there's the Metro. Ah, our dear Metro. Who'd have thought that, over 10 years ago when I rode on one of the first trams, we'd still be waiting to add bits to it. It's a damning indictment on the way us Brits do light rail that we're getting excited over a small extension to the Metro from Snow Hill through the heart of the City to New Street. Welcome, yes! By why does it have to take so long? We should be building a whole network of Midland Metro lines by now.
Nevertheless, excited I am. Cities need trams. It makes a statement of intent that public transport is important.
But the Metro City Centre extension is not without some concerns. I was interviewed on BBC WM a few days ago regarding not the positive side of the Metro extension, but the downside of kicking large numbers of buses out of Corporation Street to accommodate it. Centro are taking the opportunity to reconfigure most of the City Centre bus stops because of this and grouping services into "hubs". My view is that, whilst upheaval is always unsettling for some, we may be able to benefit from simplification. For example, if I want to catch a bus from Birmingham to Dudley, I can hedge my bets across 5 different bus routes, departing from large numbers of locations right across the City Centre. Now, whilst that may be beneficial depending on where I am in the City, it also means that I'm constantly wondering why the bus at my preferred location hasn't turned up. Should I walk to another location and try a different service? Or stay where I am in the hope that it turns up? By grouping services together into hubs, I can potentially stand in the "hub" and take my pick from several different services going to the same location. This already happens in the City Centre for several groups of services, but the hub idea may develop on that. And the longer-term plan to introduce a Statutory Quality Partnership Scheme for all buses using the City Centre (similar to Nottingham) can only increase the quality of the service being provided. What a pity the radio interview only focused on what it considered to be a negative impact.
Then there's the "Sprint" initiative, bringing tram-like buses to the City Centre. Initially planned to run from 5-Ways to Walsall using the excellent bus priority along the A34, this service will bring high quality service, with priority at traffic lights, and a real step-change from what we already have. It might even be the prelude to a Metro extension along a similar route.
This is all great news for the public transport user and proves what can be done if the vision is there, but more importantly the will to see it through.
I'd still like to see more improvements "at the coalface" such as more bus priority, and more enforcement of existing bus-only areas - in fact I've been really pleased to see the Police actively enforcing entrance to Corporation Street on two occasions in recent weeks.
We mustn't also forget the "Shiny New Trains" running through the City, introduced by London Midland, really upping the journey experience forv those using the Snow Hill lines, and the recent upgrade to Chiltern's services further afield to London, reducing the journey time, simplifying the fare structure and of course selling the best bacon rolls anywhere on the rail network! The bus operators too are placing new buses onto the network, some of them with hybrid engines that provide the cleanest, greenest emissions yet.
Add to this the long-awaited Oyster-style Smartcard and public transport will not only be more attractive and reliable, it will be simpler and de-mystified for many people.
Things are looking up in Brum for us public transport users. Long may it continue!