Dear fellow member,
Following a suggestion from Roger Blake who attended our March meeting, on 12 June members of your committee met with Jonathan Roberts, a respected rail transport specialist and consultant with over 40 years’ experience of the industry. His C.V. includes much work towards the Overground network in London, now implemented (and a great success), and currently involvement in the proposed Colne-Skipton reopening on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border. Jonathan had kindly offered to meet us (without charge beyond travel expenses) to give his thoughts on how to achieve our aspirations aim to get passenger services re-introduced between Lichfield and Burton and Lichfield and Walsall, and to explore our more recent ideas for a fast Wolverhampton to Nottingham service passing through Lichfield rather than New Street.
Michael Byng, who lives in the Midlands and works on some projects with Jonathan, also attended most of the meeting.
Jonathan had “done his homework” about our area and made some cogent points which we have not in the past considered sufficiently. The most important was that it’s no good a group like ours wanting to see new services; other people have to want the services which could be offered, and they will only come to this view to satisfy their own wider objectives.
The discussion focussed on two things: extension of the Cross-City Line northwards to provide transport for new housing envisaged by private developers in the Brookhay area; and the inter-regional idea.
Taking the first, new housing is a priority for central government and thus for local authorities. In particular Birmingham is unable to provide its allocated number within its own borders, so is seeking to “export” some of it to other Council areas such as Lichfield. (While Lichfield DC are obliged to co-operate, we understand they are not yet looking to Brookhay as one of their preferred areas).
Jonathan suggested that such an extension could logically be pushed as far as Burton and connect into trains northwards to Derby and Nottingham to provide a northern outlet for employment for residents in the new houses. There is already a big population in the Sutton Coldfield area which as well as Lichfield would thus gain a rail outlet north, albeit with a second change at Derby for further distant destinations. (He used published ORR figures of station usage as an indicator of catchment areas).
As well as the cost of electrification and restoring the bay platform at Burton for turnbacks, he warned that Network Rail might insist on improvements to make the line suitable for regular half-hourly trains in addition to existing empty stock movements and diversions: for instance, to replace level crossings, to improve Wychnor Jc, and to shorten signalling headways. Stations cost money too; Network Rail might provide the platforms only, leaving other bodies to fund any commercial buildings, car parking etc. (As well as Brookhay, we’d want a station at Alrewas; and Lichfield Trent Valley would need a southbound high level platform and/or signalling alterations). We might learn from the process which led to the new station at and electrification to Bromsgrove (this added 4 miles to the Cross-City Line, against 10 miles for Burton).
An advantage of this limited project is that it would be within Staffordshire, involving Birmingham/West Midlands Mayor and Staffordshire Councils and just two relevant LEPs, largely within Network Rail’s LNW zone, with WMT the only TOC. (Going beyond to Derby would involve more bodies). It would also be a start towards getting through trains to Derby and beyond, unlikely till Birmingham–Tamworth-Derby gets electrified. Other successful reopenings have been “incremental” – Walsall to Hednesford, then Rugeley, for example.
To justify an inter-Regional service would need Wolverhampton/Walsall to want faster links with Derby/Nottingham, and vice-versa. There is little evidence of such aspirations; the quango Midlands Connect, set up to improve such links, has shown no interest whatever. (Jonathan shared our poor view of their people). Were there to be interest, there were other ways of achieving it; he demonstrated that alternative routes (via an upgraded Sutton Park line, or even a new 3½ mile Aldridge-Shenstone link) could be almost as quick, and cost a lot less, than reopening Walsall to Lichfield. Incidentally, from usage figures Nottingham is the dominant destination for such a service. (HS2 could eventually provide other options).
I have set out at some length the main points of the discussion as it is important for all members to be aware of what is involved, and not just the few who were able to get to the June meeting. It is also important for the way forward for our Group to be supported by a significant number of members. It is not for me as Chair to decide what we do next, but it may help your own thoughts if you know my present thinking.
In regard to heading north, Jonathan’s scenario seems to me soundly based, and I would support developing it. But we must, if we do, do it properly.
In regards to inter-regional services, our local interest was that they might serve Lichfield; in the absence of enthusiasm elsewhere, this seems a “dead duck”. (Our other idea, of a Derby-Birmingham International service in the new East Midlands franchise, has not found favour with Department for Transport). I would therefore make no further efforts towards it until others pick it up; nor would I press for reopening to Walsall, unless Walsall/West Midlands Mayor revive ideas for Walsall-Brownhills, in which case we can jump in again.
We can work out the next steps once we have decided what we want to do. Jonathan may (for a fee) be willing to propose a strategy; with no significant funds ourselves, this would depend on a grant which Railfuture may be willing to give us. We’d need to decide what we’d ask him to do. But before looking at this, we would need a commitment from at least a few members to help with the hard grind of trying to get things moving. This could include:
· review of planning documentation
· attendance at stakeholder and associated meetings
· lobbying County and District Council officers and councillors, LEPs and others
· distribution of questionnaires and marketing surveys
· introducing new and younger members to our group
We can have a further discussion at the July meeting, and I propose to do so if we have a reasonable number present who weren’t here in June. Beyond that, individual responses from members would be most welcome: to me please, copied to John Adams as Secretary. These could cover:
1. Whether you still share the Group’s long-standing aim of seeing passenger services reintroduced from Lichfield towards Burton on Trent and Walsall, and the importance to you of each;
2. Your thoughts on how our objectives might be tackled, in the light of Jonathan’s contribution;
3. How you can contribute to the work that will be needed, and to what extent you are willing to do so.
It would be a long-term effort (it already has been…) if anything is to be achieved. And the work involved shouldn’t be underestimated. But worthwhile if we can get things moving.
Chairman, LRPG, 29 June 2018