It’s a Sprint not a marathon

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.

Routes include Walsall-Solihull as well as future plans for others from Birmingham to Sutton Coldfield, Dudley, Halesowen, Longbridge and Hall Green to HS2 Interchange via Solihull.

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.

Belfast’s Glider ‘tram style’ bus 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.

Roger French

Next Blog: Tuesday 14th December 2021

31 thoughts on “It’s a Sprint not a marathon

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  1. Really interesting to read your detailed and informed commentary on this project – as you say, one to watch in 2022.

    My immediate thoughts:
    – great that significant money is being spent on a sensible bus project
    – the present traffic troubles caused by the work are perhaps an answer to critics of HS2 who say ‘better improve existing lines’
    – your points about types of bus: here in Stara Zagora (Bulgaria) the city buses are all single-deck, 3-door, crew-operated, with stops at least 1/2 kilometer apart. They are fast to load/unload, speedy (esp. the trolleys), and popular. I love D/Deckers – the view from the top deck is a thing that the car cannot compete with; can we learn anything from the ‘boris-bus’ experiment to speed D/Ds up?
    – I do hope that ‘Sprint’ will be well integrated with the trams and trains

    Many thanks for the maps and pictures – as always, your blog makes great reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Single deck tram style vehicles in my view are not suited to the UK’s narrow and crowded roads and having to stand long distances is not going to help attract passengers

    TfL when they introduced the W routes in the wood Green area went for very large single decker’s with very few seats They did not last long as they had great trouble getting around the narrow and twisting residential road and people did not like the lack of seats

    Double decker’s use up less of the scarce road space and are still capable of carrying large numbers
    If need be on short commuter routes the downstairs could be made mainly standing

    Articulated buses have been found to be unsuitable for use in the UK other than in a few specific instances such as airport transfers

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nightmare reminder pictures of the daily scene in West Midlands traffic clogged roads (and most other parts of the UK now), and I assume the objection to vastly superior double-decks is the loading and unloading time. As suggested, I doubt if the public will be happy being relegated to standee status after enjoying the comfort of well designed seats, and as many passengers are making journeys to and from the City Centre, loading and unloading times should not be an issue. With on-going pandemics, I doubt if the public are too happy now standing under each others armpits. As also sensibly suggested, why not take a load of “Boris buses” with their three doors off TfL’s hands when this former “transport paradise” has to face reality and cut services to match demand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agree Stu, time will tell & unlike others who have replied you know too well my love, hate relationship with The Mayor, Sprint & Transport for West Midlands. A quite brilliant analysis of the Sprint project I have forwarded on to the powers to be at the WMCA


  4. Nice write up of the current state of play in my old “home town”. Historically speaking, the vast majority of Brum’s bus services were operated by double deckers (single deckers were a fairly rare sight when I was much younger!), so I just suppose it’s what’s (still?) expected.


  5. Sprint has been a total disaster for Andy Street since he sourced the original LEP funding. The whole scheme will be disastrous white elephant that will doomed to fall. No one wants it no one will use it after the games and the elephant in the room is another operators legal action over the WMCA procurement process. Transport for West Midlands are not a fit or proper public body. They are destroying the West Midlands Bus Network thru thier total ineptitude and are quite simply a laughing stock to those of who use the West Midlands Bus Network daily. I


    1. no one will use it?
      The X2 on the A45 is already well used. Which I presume this service will replace. So it will have some passengers already.
      Question is will the 72 be moved to serve Old Lode Lane with the Sprint service soon to be serving Hobs Moat Road. Basically swapping the X2 and 72 over.


      1. No I use the X2 daily and speak to the regular passengers the majority will not upgrade to TvWM Swift Passes but will simply use the 60 with NXWM app and relevant Swift Travelcard. Personally I won’t use Sprint I never use the ridiculously useless Metro either. Welcome to Brums White Elephant & that’s if another operators legal action doesn’t TfWM in its tracks.


      2. Personally you can see the disaster Sprint will be for Transport for West Midlands you only have to look at the new Coventry Railway Station TfWM have given priority to taxis on the forecourt & moved the buses to a 5min walk outside the station. Transport for West Midlands is an unaccountable organisation that is out of control & destroying the West Midlands Bus Network thru its total ineptitude


      3. Richard since when did the 60 go to Solihull? What about all the people who work at the LandRover? People who go to Solihull Town Centre? Patients and staff at Solihull Hospital? Childeren going to school. etc
        The 60 as far as I know terminates on a housing estate in the middle of nowhere basically.

        It would make sense for Sprint to be added to the exisiting NX Bus Travelcards to.
        It may be that this service is of no use to you or you’d make a personal decision not to use it. But that by not means dictates that nobody else will use it.


        1. I am mentioning the 60 which goes to Cranes Park & duplicates the route to Sheldon. Although I use it I have never been on a X2 where anyone else uses it to Solihull. Most would use NXWM 4 as it is much more regular. The JLR reason is also a red hearing the X2 Is used simply as a local service. The majority of users of the X2 are from Sheldon to the City I doubt they will use Sprint & simply return to what was historically the 57 58 & 60.


      4. The X2 has many users going to Solihull from Hay Mills, Yardley and Sheldon. Try catching one of the peak time journeys like the 07:53 from Birmingham next week, it will normally be full.
        I’ve also seen people commute from Birmingham to Solihull and vise versa on it and the Land Rover workers pack the bus out at certain times of day to.
        The X1/X2 are also supposed to be express routes to Birmingham City Centre by missing out Small Heath so no it does not duplicate the 60.

        I’ve never seen any X2 into/out of Solihull empty. Off peak they are busy and all the concessionary pass holders are out using it to normally from what i’ve seen.


        1. The X2 between Solihull & Sheldon is an all stops local bus service which would run regardless of number or Sprint. Sprint makes no difference to this section of route quite simply it’s a white elephant that no one will accept is a laughing stock. If NXWM felt there was no need to a stopping non Sprint service between Solihull & Sheldon I am sure Rotala would provide a replacement. As I posted previously I see no evidence of significant thru traffic between the City & Solihull on the X2


      5. Richard, yes largely all stops from Hay Mills but it misses out a couple of stops on the Coventry Road, there is one by the Job Centre at the Swan Island it misses out, where i’ve never seen a single person waiting.
        My point was the service from Hay Mills, Yardley and Sheldon to Solihull is an important and well used service. End to end traffic may be small, like a lot of routes probably.
        And of course some people probably use the train to from Moor Street to Solihull.


        1. As I posted previously I would expect something resembling the erstwhile 57 to operate on this section of route alongside Sprint. Let’s face it if it ever made it to Quinton Sprint would run alongside existing Hagley Rd services & not replace them . Sprint is totally idiotic idea from an incompetent Mayor who wouldn’t recognise a bus if one ran him over!


    2. If the Sprint route runs at a higher frequency than the X2 it could be an excellent replacement I think. And if NX will be operating the Sprint route, perhaps they will want people to use that instead of the X2, presumably that will give the route the best chance of being successful to, as there is not much difference between the X2 and the Sprint Route other than Old Lode Lane.

      The service along Old Lode Lane to and from Solihull Town Centre has always been well used from my observation. So sending the 72 up there could be a good frequent replacement to and from Solihull.


      1. Though if the sprint route along the Wolverhampton Road happens that could probably see the 126 replaced to perhaps as its basically the full route.


        1. Highly unlikely the 126 will continue but part of 12/A 13/A duty workings as the majority of 126 isers would not use the Sprint service. Sprint is not designed replace existing bus services but simply compliment them. Personally like the Metro I wouldn’t be seen dead on the fiasco & would REFUSE to use such a stupid scheme.


    3. I don’t think that the majority of users would not use an improved sprint service of an identical route. What simply needs to happen is for the sprint service to be added to the current monthly/weekly tickets so passengers are not charged a premium price for using it. It was in the BSIP that TFWM will maintain the £4 daily price for adults and £2 for children and will simplify the ticket range.
      And presumably sprint will give those same customers a quicker and more reliable journey than the 126 currently offers.


      1. I personally cannot see any current local traffic users of the 126 using Sprint the 74 has never been really effected by the Metro the same will apply on the Hagley Rd Services.


    4. The 74 unlike the tram line runs along the Soho Road, its quite some way from by Grove Lane to the nearest tram stop.
      The Sprint service like the 126 will run along the Wolverhampton Road.

      Using double deckers would be far better than the articulated vehicles to.


  6. Not quite the same but Walsall has previously had a direct service to Birmingham Airport.

    When the Timesaver programme was set up, the 966 initially went from Wolverhampton, Walsall, Aldridge, Sutton, Erdington, Chelmsley Wood, Airport. It was gradually cut back – Wolverhampton leg first, and lost its distinctive livery.


  7. The Hydrogen-powered double deckers (Wright Hydroliners) started to enter service – on the 51 for now – a few days ago.

    It’s fair to say that there was alot of opposition to demolishing Perry Barr flyover, alot of opposition from bus users to the idea of tram-style buses, and alot of concern from Limited Stop X51 users about what will happen to that service – which as Roger says is still unclear. Will X51 passengers find their fast high-quality double decks replaced by slower Sprint artics in 2023? As Terence Uden says, most of the traffic is to and from Birmingham city centre, so I do not believe that many passengers will prefer artics over fully-seated buses.


  8. If the X51 is going to be a limited stop service, why not provide some really attractive buses – maybe Alexander’s E500 or the long E400s as used in Edinburgh, with comfortable leather coach seats, plenty of legroom, wifi, air-con etc. to make the journey a real luxury experience. A bendy bus with a few seats wil not encourage car users to take the bus.


  9. The X51 is already a Limited Stop Service running every 10 mins with exactly the same buses but diseal powered other than for the bus shelters the public will not any difference.


  10. Luton Airport has gone for an Automated rail link. It will link Lyon Parkway station with Luton Airport. It is due to open early next year and test trains are already operating. This link takes less than 3 minutes to get to he airport and will replace an existing shuttle bus service

    The most interesting thing about this link is its propulsion system which is a cable

    Link below shows a train on the line. The video is several months old


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