The release last week of plans to enhance connectivity between The Midlands’ regional hubs and Birmingham International has been one of a light return to normalcy for many in an industry which has been rocked in recent months during the COVID-19 pandemic – and signals where the region is looking to invest as the country looks to recover from the virus. Quadrant Transport sits down with Simon Statham, head of Technical Programmes at Midlands Connect, to find out more.
Midlands Connect, the planners behind the proposals, state the ‘Birmingham Airport Connectivity’ rail improvement scheme, estimated to cost between £125m and £180m, will provide direct services to the two major stations at Coventry and Birmingham International for 2.2 million more passengers, from areas including Derby, Sheffield, and Newcastle. The transport body has submitted an Outline Business Case to the DfT, requesting an immediate £20m to develop a comprehensive design, planning, and costing portfolio.
Infrastructure enhancements will centre around a much-needed redoubling of part of the track between Leamington Spa and Coventry, and utilising additional network capacity created by HS2. The doubling of track sections of the railway between Leamington, Kenilworth, and Coventry is hoped to alleviate major overcrowding on the Coventry to Birmingham rail corridor, which hosts a range of varying services and is one of the busiest in Europe.
Additionally, services will also be doubled to twice per hour in connections to Banbury, Oxford, and Reading, and a new direct service from Birmingham Moor St. to Oxford via Solihull and Warwick Parkway.
Simon Statham, head of Technical Programmes at Midlands Connect, told Quadrant Transport the ambition of the plans builds on the additional capacity on the West Coast Main Line, brought about by the completion of Phase One of HS2: “The original plan behind the scheme was how we can make use of a path that’s freed up by HS2 on the WCML,” Simon explained. “We felt that there was a bit of infrastructure needed near to Leamington eventually to divert the second Cross Country service that goes into Birmingham – there’s two an hour, one goes via Solihull and one goes via the airport.
“We felt we could divert that second Cross Country service, utilise parts of the WCML freed up by the arrival of HS2, get more passengers through Coventry, through into the airport, creating those links to international gateways and so on.”
Planners then turned their attention to capacity freed up on surrounding lines, highlighting running additional services from Oxford into Birmingham as a “backfill” service on the Solihull line. “We saw it as a 2for1 – improve infrastructure around Leamington, and not only would it enable us to get the benefit of more services used at the airport, but it also means that we could then put in a new service at the Solihull line, and get a benefit from what that service actually provides in terms of regional connectivity.”
The HS2 impact
The capacity freed up by the completion of HS2 Phase 1 clearly gives transport planners flexibility to deal with increased demand on commuter lines in the future – but with the uncertainty of HS2’s future and completion date, many have raised concerns that this additional capacity may fail to be realised until the completion of Phase 1. Simon stressed that the introduction of direct services to the airport and Coventry are not dependent on the completion of the multi-billion-pound project.
“We know that if HS2 is delayed, or that the exact timing isn’t quite known yet, we have an interim service that makes use of that extra capacity near Leamington before HS2 comes along,” Simon said. “The idea is that you’re putting on the extra capacity allowing us to run an additional service between Oxford and Birmingham International – so not all the way into Birmingham.” Simon added the additional service would allow Midlands Connect to “leave the second Cross Country service where it is.”
When HS2 Phase 1 is completed, Simon added, “We can flip it to the final configuration to the Cross Country service to run via the Airport, and we can flip the Oxford service back onto the Solihull line which would then run all the way into Birmingham.
“We have thought that through – it means that you could effectively start running that service as soon as the redoubling has been built, and you would get benefit. We’re not reliant on HS2 to come along in order for any of this to actually work – we just have an interim arrangement, before HS2 comes along.”
A long-term focus
The Rail Delivery Group’s suggestion earlier this month that it may take five years for the passenger numbers to reach just 90% of its pre-Coronavirus levels would lead many to reconsider the suitability of commitment to major infrastructure projects such as the likes of Transport for the North and the £3.5bn Midlands Connect scheme, of which this airport scheme is one of seven planned for the region. From Simon’s perspective, however, his team considers itself “quite lucky” that the emergence of the pandemic has coincided with his team refreshing their overall strategy, allowing them to take bake the demands of the ‘new normal’ into their railway plans.
“And that’s our core principle at Midlands Connect and Transport for the North, is to do that long-term strategising for our region and telling government ‘if you’re going to come and spend money in this region, spend it on these things’, because these are the things that we think will have the greatest economic impact
At the end of the £20m full business case Midlands Connect is requesting funding for, a two-year operation, Midlands Connect will “have more information about what the longer term impacts of COVID and new ways of working actually are, and we’ll be able to build those things into the business case,” Simon told Quadrant Transport.
“We’ll know the impact of that work, whether it’s still right for value for money and investment. We’re not banging a drum and saying ‘you’ve got to come and invest in that thing now’, but if we stick and wait to let the world adjust itself on its axis and we don’t do anything for the next two years while we understand what these longer-term things are going to be, then everything is two years further away from being implemented than it would have been before.
“We feel that we’ve got to continue our pipeline development, we’ve got to continue to understand what the right kinds of infrastructure investments are for the Midlands, and we can do that with falling back on what we’ve got, but at the same time we’re refreshing our overall strategy – not just rail – and we’re taking into account what the potential impacts of post-COVID, post-Brexit, all of these post-positions might actually be.”
Despite the short-term concerns over passenger footfall and alarming speed to which the UK Government is hastily encouraging passengers back onto commuter lines and back into city-centre offices, more broadly on the topic of the government’s commitment to major infrastructure projects, Stephen believes planners at the DfT are still looking at regional investment with a long-term focus: “I’m not sure they’ve changed tack – at the moment they’re looking at things separately.
“The immediate issues of trying to bring people back to the railway, trying to get the away from car use, trying to kick-start the economy and all of those sorts of things are almost day-to-day operational things. But what they’re also doing is they’re looking at the long-term planning.
“That’s why the idea of the Integrated Rail plan has come from; if you look the interim report that the NIC produced at the end of the last week where they talked about what options are on the table for integrating HS2 and with Northern Powerhouse Rail and with Midlands Engine Rail, it shows you that government and its agencies have still got this long-term lens on where the country needs to go in the future.
“And that’s our core principle at Midlands Connect and Transport for the North, is to do that long-term strategising for our region and telling government ‘if you’re going to come and spend money in this region, spend it on these things’, because these are the things that we think will have the greatest economic impact.
“But also, and possibly more important for the government, these are the things that have the greatest political consensus, and therefore they’ll be the easiest things for you to come and deliver.”
Local, regional, and national levels
Though Midlands Connect is traditionally seen as a region-wide body, the airport plans highlight its intention to open the region up to national and international links to the nation’s airports, ports and freight links, in a bid to encourage external investment in the area following Britain’s departure from the EU and its economic recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic.
The Oxford to Moor St. line, Simon highlights, is evidence of the body circling areas of investment that can provide great economic benefit not just for the region but nationwide as well. “That Thames Valley connection into the Midlands is one that we’ve always had our eye on if you go back to our original strategy back in 2017; how we get better connections from the Thames Valley into The Midlands has always been something we’ve had our eye on – and this is actually enabling us to do that. This is the culmination of theory into the practical example.
“So that’s one of the reasons why the local agenda is tied in quite closely with our regional agenda. It’s actually one of the reasons why the likes of the leader of Coventry Council is very passionate about this particular scheme, despite the fact that really what Midlands Connect is looking at is the extra connections down to the Thames Valley and surrounding areas, that’s the stuff that we’re interested in because of the regional connectivity – but that’s how we’re able to bring local leaders into what we’re promoting because we can demonstrate local benefit as well as regional.”