Sunday 12th December 2021
West Midlands residents might think construction works which began on two major corridors across the conurbation (A34 and A45) a year ago are taking a marathon length of time but it’s all for a good cause, namely to introduce Sprint – the region’s new bus based rapid transport network with the ambition to “improve the public transport experience”.
The ultimate aim is for a network of seven routes and while other metropolitan areas are procrastinating about who owns and controls the regions’ buses West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) through its Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM) arm are getting on with delivering the first route ready for next summer’s Commonwealth Games being held in Birmingham.
This first route links Solihull and Birmingham Airport to the south east on a new bus priority corridor along the A45 into Birmingham city centre then continuing north westwards with similar priority measures along the A34 to Walsall.
It will create a Solihull/Airport – Birmingham – Walsall direct link for the first time, encompassing 21 miles across three local authority areas (Solihull, Birmingham and Walsall).
WMCA ‘s Board approved the “Full Business Case” expenditure of £87.8 million in February 2020 for Phase 1 covering “bus priority interventions, signal upgrades, shelter enhancements, ticket machines, utility diversions and resurfacing“. £35 million of this has come from the Department for Transport with £26 million from WMCA’s own Investment Programme. The balance coming from various other WCMA funding streams as well as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities funding the A34 section and Perry Barr Improvement Scheme.
The work has been divided into two phases with 70% of the new infrastructure in phase one scheduled for completion prior to the Commonwealth Games which “will provide all the shelters and the most significant interventions to support journey time reliability”. This will support the Games by improving access to Alexander Stadium and the Athletes Village at Perry Barr, Birmingham Airport and the NEC. TfWM are undertaking further work to deliver a park and ride site in advance of the Games on the A34 end of the route.
The second phase – needing a further £50.3 million funding – begins after the Games and is due to be completed by 2024. It includes sections of route closer to Walsall and Solihull.
Work got underway on Phase 1 involving digging up the tarmac, readjusting junctions and installing new bus stop locations for 95 smart new bus shelters earlier this year and is still seriously disrupting traffic using this busy dual carriageway corridor as construction continues.
I took a bus ride from Solihull to Walsall, changing in central Birmingham, recently to see how things are progressing after almost a year of construction albeit with some challenges caused by lockdown earlier this year.
By far the biggest project was demolishing a flyover at Perry Bar in February at the key A34/A453 junction. When I passed through there was considerable congestion even during the middle of the day as traffic continues to be disrupted with ongoing work.
We crawled along for about ten minutes with temporary traffic lights merging long streams of vehicles that used to just fly over each other.
I’m sure it will nicely free flow when completed especially with exclusive lanes for buses. Birmingham City Council justified the flyover removal explaining “demolishing the flyover creates enough space to provide an efficient road layout, including signals and junctions, to accommodate traffic movements between the A34, A453, A4040 and the One Stop Shopping Centre. Retaining the flyover would prevent this from happening and would ultimately lead to an increase in journey times in the long-term”.
There are road cones everywhere you look all along the corridor with many sections of dual carriageway reduced to single lane giving motorists a taste of what’s to come.
There are also many temporary bus stops while work continues to install the new improved facilities which will include “enhanced shelters” which “will improve passenger safety, comfort and experience. The shelters include CCTV that can be viewed in real time via a virtual private network connection, improving safety at stops and the surrounding area. Improved seating and advanced real time journey information will provide a further uplift for passengers. The change in stop layout and provision of off-board ticketing in key locations reduces the dwell times at stops and helps reduce minimise the delays often experienced with regular bus services”.
That description might be ‘pushing the envelope’ a little too much, as they say, compared to what I saw travelling along the route.
Many of the new “state of the art” shelters are already in place albeit not yet kitted out with information.
TfWM have taken as inspiration Translink’s Glider route across Belfast where officers are impressed with the ‘tram style’ bus stops at less frequent intervals along the route to achieve more of what they say will be a better balance between speed of journey and number of stops.
TfWM are also sold on the idea of ‘tram style’ articulated vehicles for Sprint similar to those which Glider use. I’m not a great fan due to the limited number of seats. Twenty or even thirty minutes is a long time to stand for passengers making lengthy journeys and a well designed livery can make double decks really stand out and as desirous as a tram or a ‘tram style’ bus.
Indeed Sprint will be kicking off next Spring using a fleet of double deck ‘Platinum’ style double deckers, including 20 Hydrogen powered, operated by National Express West Midlands with the ‘tram style’ buses following in 2023.
That sounds like a recipe for passenger dissatisfaction to me – get everyone used to lots of seats for a year – then take them away.
On the plus side journey times and punctuality will undoubtedly improve as will the profile of the service with what look like some very effective bus priority measures.
National Express West Midlands are taking the commercial risk of buying the vehicles. “An option for WMCA to part-purchase the vehicles in a grant scheme arrangement (and take on the commercial risk of contracting the service) was discounted in order to reduce the financial risk to WMCA and remove £12 million of cost to WMCA” according to the “Full Business Case”.
The decision to use zero emission vehicles for the operation of Sprint was taken at a late stage of the scheme’s planning hence why the ‘tram style’ vehicles won’t arrive until 2023 “due to additional infrastructure required to support zero emission operation”. The hydrogen powered double decks were already on order by NatExWM so will make for a useful stop gap.
Seeing NatExWM’s policy of running double decks all over the conurbation I suspect it’s not their ideal choice to be putting ‘tram style’ buses on to Sprint, especially as they’ll be taking the commercial risk. But that shows who’s really in control here.
The Walsall end of the route along the A34 currently enjoys a 12 minute frequency on NatExWM’s route 51 supplemented by a 10 minute frequency limited stop X51 with every other journey continuing to Cannock. I assume the latter will form the basis of the new Sprint route perhaps at an increased frequency with the 51 observing all the bus stops, but the precise arrangements aren’t clear at this stage.
The southern section of the new Sprint route on the A45 leaving Birmingham is currently served by NatExWM’s 10 minute combined frequency routes X1 and X2 (the former continuing to the Airport and Coventry and the latter to Solihull every 20 minutes each) as well as route 60 running to Cranes Park just north off the A45 every 9 minutes.
Sprint will be supported by a Voluntary Partnership Agreement in conjunction with an overall Enhanced Partnership for the wider area. This Agreement will cover frequency, hours of operation and service offer.
It’s certainly one to watch in 2022.
Next Blog: Tuesday 14th December 2021