Friday, 23 September 2016

Midland Metro growing ambition

The 20km Midland Metro tram line between Wolverhampton and Birmingham was officially opened on the 30th of May 1999. Plans for a network serving the West Midlands were first proposed back in 1984, however it took a further 4 years before a serious proposal was announced.

Plans for a new light rail network were announced in 1988 and in November of that year the Bill to give powers to Centro to build the first line was deposited in Parliament. The initial line would follow much of the disused track bed of the Birmingham Snow Hill to Wolverhampton Low Level Line.

The Bill became an act of parliament a year later, however construction of the £145m line (at 1995 prices) did no begin until 1995 and was expected to open in August 1998. The consortium building the new line missed the deadline by 10 months and was forced to pay compensation.

The new line which was initially constructed between Wolverhampton St George's and Birmingham Snow Hill, with 23 stops in between finally opened in May 1999. It was the intention that this first line (Line 1) would be the first of several lines which would be built connecting Wolverhampton to Walsall and Birmingham City Centre to Birmingham Airport. Unfortunately however in 1997 Centro had to concede that it was unable to find funding for it's ambitious 3 line tram network.

In 2005 The Nation Audit Office concluded that line had not reached it's full potential of 8m passengers a year, instead the number of passengers using the line reached a plateau of around 5m which was still the case in 2015. The reason given was that line did not serve Birmingham City Centre, stopping instead just outside at Snow Hill Station.

The trams

The line was served by 16 T-69 trams built by AnsaldoBreda in Italy, each tram had a capacity of 156 passengers, 100 standing and 56 seated. The trams were refurbished in 2013, yet only a year later the trams were phased out as new replacement trams arrived.

Between 2014 and 2015 the entire fleet of T-69 trams was replaced with 21 Urbos 3 trams built by CAF in Spain. These vehicles had a capacity of 210, 156 standing and 54 seated. The £40m contract for the new trams included the construction of a new maintenance facility at Wednesbury.

Urbos 3 tram passing New Street station

New Street extension

The arrival of the new trams coincided with a turning point for the Midland Metro line and a new extension to Birmingham New Street station. Government approval for the 1.3km extension from Snow Hill to New Street via Colmore Circus, Upper Bull Street, Corporation Street and Stephenson Street was granted in February 2012.

Work on the extension began in June 2012 and it was hoped the the first services would be operating by March 2015. Unfortunately a series of delays meant that by December 2015 trams were only operating as far as Bull Street tram stop. It wasn't until May 2016 that trams finally began serving New Street.

Urbos 3 tram at Birmingham New Street stop

The Future

A further boost came to Midland Metro in June 2016 when the then Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin gave the go ahead to a £18m extension of the line in Wolverhampton. The project will extend the line along Pipers Row with stops at the bus station and the city’s railway station. The scheduled opening date for the extension is 2019.

Plans to extended the line from New Street to Centenary Square by 2019 are also at an advanced stage. Currently the line terminates at the junction of Stephenson St and Pinfold St. At this point trams turn back to make the return journey to Wolverhampton.

Stephenson St is currently the end of the line

Tram approaching Snow Hill stop passing No. 2 Snow Hill

Tram bound for New Street stands at Snow Hill stop

With a new sense of optimism and with HS2 on the horizon plans are now being drawn up to build a new line branching out from Corporation Street to Curzon Street and further still to Birmingham Airport. There are also plans for an extension to Edgbaston which it is hoped will open in 2021.

It may have taken several decades but appears that the West Midlands may finally get a network worthy of it's size and importance.

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Monday, 5 September 2016

A556 Knutsford to Bowdon project August update

Work to construct a new 7.5km dual carriageway connecting the M56 and M6 has been progressing steadily since 2014 and despite a very wet 2015 the project looks set for completion in early 2017. 

If you are unfamiliar with the project you can find some background information here

My last update was published only 2 months ago, however since then a lot has happened so I thought I would return back to the project to check on progress. During this visit I was granted privileged access to parts of the site not easily photographed from the public highway. 

With the help of my guide for the afternoon I was able to get some close up shots of a number of bridges being constructed. It was also a chance to see close up how much work had progressed on the road itself, with some stretches requiring only 1 last course of tarmac and lines to be painted. 

The first major milestone to report is the completion of the bridge that will carry traffic travelling on the A50 over the new A556 alignment when it opens. The A50 was realigned on the night of Thursday the 28th of August and reopened to traffic on Friday morning.

The A50 was scheduled to be closed on 2 nights between the 28th and 29th of August, however work was completed ahead of schedule so only 1 night time closure was required. 

Traffic travelling over this section of the A50 is currently under traffic light control whilst the remainder of the work is carried out to complete the tie-ins that connect the existing A50 to the new alignment over the bridge.

The images below were taken from the old A50 road alignment and show traffic using the new bridge to pass over what will be the new A556 road. 

As well as the A50 bridge a number of other new bridges are being constructed to carry traffic over the A556.

Starting from the southern end (closest to the M6), Old Hall Lane underpass is now complete and work to infill the area surrounding the underpass is at an advanced stage. The entrance to the underpass is just visible at the bottom of the image below. 

The bridge in the image below, also visible in the image above will provide access for traffic wishing the access the M6 from the existing A556 alignment and the service station located next to junction 19 of the M6.

An exit slip will carry traffic travelling north towards a newly constructed roundabout before travelling over the bridge. A road will link this and a southbound entry slip to the existing A556 alignment. 

The road, slip roads and bridge are close to completion. On the day of my visit a Cat D6T dozer was working in in tandem with a Bomag smooth drum roller to prepare the road foundation, before the sub base and subsequent courses are laid. 

Travelling northwards the next bridge which will provide access for Bentley Hurst Farm is almost complete. The earth mound behind the bridge is the existing Bentley Hurst lane, once the lane has been diverted over the new bridge the earth on which the existing lane sits will be excavated to make way for the A556.

After Bentley Hurst lane travelling north is the green bridge. This bridge is being constructed solely to provide a link for wildlife to pass safely between habitats thus reducing the impact on the natural environment.

During the project a number of other environmental mitigation methods will be employed, such as the creation of 50 hectares of new habitat woodland and the use of "bat overs". The bat overs are wooden fences erected between areas of woodland which are used to redirect bats up and over the road and safely over HGVs and other vehicles. 

The green bridge is in a relatively early stage of construction as can been seen in the image below. However with all other bridge structures constructed work can focus completing the green bridge.

The image below shows an example of a bat over used to help divert bats up and over traffic. 

The structure for what will be Chapel Lane bridge pictured below is complete, work is now focusing on building up earth around either side of the bridge in order to build approaches. Once the approaches are built Chapel Lane can then be diverted and the existing road excavated.

Unfortunately there wasn't a safe vantage point from which to photograph Millington Lane bridge, however the bridge structure is complete and work to infill earth around the bridge is under way. 

During my visit I got to see some of the completed sections of the road, the image below shows the new concrete central reservation barrier of which a large section has already been complete. The road surface on this particular section has already been laid up to it's 2nd to last course, which means this section only needs a final surface dressing and lines painting before it is complete. 

There is still a great deal of work to be carried out on other sections of the route however, the existing Bentley Hurst lane for example still has to be excavated down to a depth of around 5 meters before it is level with the new A556 alignment. Millington Lane is also yet to be diverted and excavated.

Work on Chapel Lane and Millgton Lane will take place during September to divert the existing roads to the new aliments. The works will require a number of closures therefore residents are urged to check local press and social media for updates.

Some stretches are nearing completion (above) whilst others are still being excavated (below)

At the M56/A556 junction engineers are pushing to complete the new junction in order so the M56 eastbound exit slip can reopen in December this year.

As this project draws to and end I will be keeping a close eye on progress and report any major developments over the coming months.

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