Thursday 19th December 2019
Following Monday’s disappointment at missing out on the inaugural GWR Paddington to Bristol Parkway non-stop journey at 09:15 after the journey was cancelled following a signal failure in the Slough area, I decided to give it another try yesterday.
Having got my fingers burnt on Monday by GWR’s sneaky retime last weekend when off-peak tickets become available – it’s now 09:16, one minute after the 09:15 journey – I decided to save half the travel cost and take the first non-stop departure in the off-peak which isn’t until 12:45 (a journey continuing on to Weston Super Mare).
Frustratingly this journey was also cancelled when I arrived at Paddington yesterday morning – due to a Network Rail imposed speed restriction – not particularly helpful when GWR are promoting the first week of a speeded up timetable. Apparently there was a crack in the track at a set of points at Slough.
I’m assured non-stop trains have been running this week having read positive comments from appreciative passengers on social media; it just doesn’t seem to be working out for me.
Undaunted I’ll try again another day, and decided not to hang around at Paddington for the next non-stopper which isn’t until 14:45 so instead once again invoked Plan B entailing another ride with Avanti West Coast out of Euston.
This time to Birmingham New Street to check out the new Metro tram extension beyond New Street Station (now also called ‘Grand Central’) via the city’s historic Town Hall to Centenary Square by the Library – which opened a week ago; so as promised on time “in December 2019”. Work to construct the extension had began in 2017. It’s reported that since the tram was extended from Snow Hill to Grand Central in 2016 passenger journeys have increased from five to seven million a year and there are high hopes for further growth from this latest extension.
The extended tracks are noteworthy for their lack of overhead wires to respect the heritage of the buildings in this part of Birmingham – it was felt too controversial to affix the wires to historic buildings, particularly the Town Hall which is one of two stops on the extension. It’s also been explained cantenary poles would have had to have been very substantial in some parts due to curves and inclines and would be a blot on the street scene.
A first for the UK therefore is the use of on board batteries to power the trams along the extension with the trams’ pantographs being lowered and raised at the stop by Grand Central. West Midlands’ fleet of trams have all had to be adapted with batteries being fitted for this extension.
Journey time for the extension is scheduled for five minutes but barely takes that.
The new terminus which is alongside Centenary Square has two platforms with both being used if one tram is still laying over or just departing as the next arrives.
Construction is underway on a further extension from Centenary Square on to Edgbaston which is due to open in 2021 so this is only a temporary ‘end-of–the-line’ terminus for a couple of years.
Both the new Town Hall and Library/Centenary Square tram stops have new timetables and signs acknowledging the extension ….
… but I was shocked to see no updates have been posted at the busy Grand Central/New Street Station stop with route diagrams still showing the extension under construction….
… and the stop immediately outside the exit/entrance to the station still showing it as the terminus ….
… shwoing erroneously trams departing from there bound for Wolverhampton ….
… whereas they now leave on the other side of the road. While I was there yesterday afternoon I saw many passengers obviously confused and having to dash across the road when a Wolverhampton bound tram appeared from the direction of the new extension (as below).
It’s not helped by the destination on the front of the tram merely displaying ‘Birmingham’ so you wouldn’t know it’s continuing on to Centenary Square/Library – the same will apply right back along the route as I assume no other stops have been updated either.
I enquired in the West Midlands Travel Office just inside the station if they had an updated timetable leaflet for the tram but was told ”they haven’t come back from the printers”.
The opening of the extension has all the hallmarks of “the test running has gone well so let’s get it open a couple of weeks before Christmas” about it with a “we can do a razzmatazz PR type launch with ribbon cutting, balloons, cupcakes and the rest (including new timetable leaflets and updated information throughout the route) in the New Year”.
The only drawback with such a ‘soft launch’ strategy is passengers get confused in the short term having to work out for themselves what’s happening. I guess they’ll soon learn, but it’s a cavalier way to treat passengers.
There are extensive plans for further Metro extensions to other parts of the conurbation with a short addition at the Wolverhampton end of the route to the rail station well advanced for opening next year. A further 21 trams costing £83.5 million are on order from CAF for delivery in 2021 for use on the planned network extensions – these will all come equipped for battery running. Tram systems don’t come cheap. The proposed line from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill was originally estimated to cost £343 million, rising to £402 million in 2017 and reviewed and increased again in March 2019 to £450 million. From the diagram above that seems like a lot of money for some track and four tram stops, however it’s around 11 kms and there are many more new tram stops than shown above (see below).
The original tram line from Wolverhampton to Birmingham is 25 km. By the time all the extentions have been built the network will more than double to 57 km with £1.3 billion invested in the expanded system. A big investment for the Midlands.