The idea for a light rail system goes back about 20 years when the Passenger Transport Authority started looking at alternative strategies to the conventional bus/heavy rail system then in operation. A certain amount of integration had taken place but this had failed to stem the overall decline in public transport use.
The first scheme, a joint operation of the PTE and the then West Midlands County Council, suffered from a number of things. The Thatcher Government was eradicating the County Councils leaving little political support, but the line required considerable property take. Whilst this had been quite easy to get in the case of the New Coventry Road times were achanging and local protest groups sprang up along the route.
The end of the County Council in 1986 caused a rethink of rapid transit but it was not long before the Black Country Councils asked the new Passenger Transport Authority to look at a number of corridors in their areas. A certain amount of competition with Birmingham then commenced but in Febrary 1988 it was announced that the first route would be between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. The concept of "Midland Metro" had been launched in the previous September and a Bill was deposited in Parlaiment in November 1988.
This had a speedy passage through the Two Houses and became an Act of Parliament a year later But the quest for funding proved somewhat more difficult. It was not until 1995 that this problem was solved and a contract to design, build and operate the system was awarded to Altram, a consortium consisting of Ansaldo Trasporti and John Laing. Travel West Midlands, trading as Travel Midland Metro, came on board later as the operator.
Construction started in November 1995 and continued to 1998. AT present we are awaiting a date for the opening of the first route.
As mentioned above, this links Birmingham with Wolverhampton and serves Handsworth, West Bromwich, Wednesbury and Bilston en route. For most of the journey trams run along the former Great Western Railway alignment but at Priestfield, some 2 kilometers from Wolverhampton, they join the A41 and run on-street. The last kilometre is on central reservation (with a bit of side reservation at the terminus) and includes a quite spectacular bridge at Middlecross where the line crosses the Wolverhampton ring road.
Once the bill for the first route was deposited in to Parliament Centro (the corporate name for the West Midlands Pasenger Transport Authority) looked at further routes. Powers were obtained for a line from Birmingham Five Ways (to the west of the city), under the city centre and then out via Aston, the Bromford Estate and Chelmsley Wood to the National Exhibition Centre and Birmingham International Airport (BHX); a short branch woukld have served Castle Vale and a shorter one Chelmsley Wood shopping centre.
Line 3 would have run from Wolverhampton, where a loop would have linked it with line 1, to Walsall using much of the former Walsall & Wolverhampton Railway and then south mainly using abandoned and disused alignments of the South Staffordshire Railway to Dudley. Here a new alignment would have taken the trams to the town centre, thereby serving it much better than conventional rail ever did, and back down to the old Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway alignment; this would have taken the line to Brierley Hill.
In 1997 Centro accepted that, whilst they had the legal powers to build these lines, they were unable to get funding from Government sources. They therefore identified what became known as "bite-sized chunks", ie extensions to line 1 that could be financed by a Public/Private sector finance initiative. Out of a number of ideas, including sections of both lines 2 and 3, three projects were selected. They were;
-an extension on street at the Birmingham end of the line which would take trams into the city centre and out along Broad Street to Five Ways, Edgebaston. This would serve the western part of the city centre around the International Conference Centre, Symphony Hall and the many leisure attractions that have sprung up in this area. Five Ways has a suburban shopping centre and many offices. One advantage of this line would be to give LRT much better access to the city centre and at the same time freeing a platform at Snow Hill for conventional rail services. The city centre alignment was chosen from two alternatives and, despite what it says in an LRTA "Fact Sheet", will not serve the Bull Ring.
-a branch from Wednesbury to Merry Hill. This would use for much of its route former British Rail alignments. These are currently mothballed but Ed Burkhardt has his eye on these and so the possibility of track sharing has been explored.
-the Wolverhampton town loop.
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