Could the Whitacre rail link happen soon??

The Whitacre rail link is a proposal to reinstate the old Stonebridge railway which, conveniently, would connect the Birmingham Interchange HS2 station with the existing rail network in a pretty comprehensive manner.  You can read about it here: http://www.railnews.co.uk/news/2013/06/05-plan-to-restore-crucial-midlands.html

The old alignment runs from the West Coast Main Line to the east of Birmingham Airport/International station northwards via Interchange HS2 to the Cross Country line at Whitacre junction where the line from Birmingham splits with the eastward line to Leicester via Nuneaton and a northward line towards Derby via Tamworth.

There has been a phoney war for the last couple of years on this scheme.  Proponents see a big strategic vision which is extremely attractive, sceptics question whether it would actually provide a panacea and whether it could ever be funded.

A press release from Railnews today suggests that the China Railway Group have expressed an interest in getting involved with funding and construction.  Why?  Well this ties in with 2 existing fronts:

– HS2: we know of Chinese interest in getting involved with UK high speed rail, connecting up the major interchange on the future national high speed rail network is a great way to break in;

– Birmingham Airport: the runway extension is under construction and once completed, direct flights to China and other long haul destinations including the West Coast of America will be possible.  Chinese investment in the West Midlands is happening and there is a very attractive long term story of Birmingham Airport playing an active role in supporting the regional economy and vice versa the region’s businesses creating the growth of our regional airport.

What this teaches us in the West Midlands is surely that we will shape our own future more actively and effectively than the Westminster and London-centric bubble consisting of the mainstream media, the politicians and hangers-on, the airports commission and so on…!!!

What could the Whitacre link achieve?

Firstly, the next Crosscity line (I will address this in a following post…) providing metro rail services in the West Mids must be the Wolverhampton to Birmingham Airport route – this could be extended to Interchange, providing the Black Country with a frequent direct link to the Airport and HS2 (north and south).

Secondly, likewise Coventry and  local towns and cities including Tamworth, Burton, Nuneaton, Leamington Spa and Kenilworth could have a direct rail service into Interchange.

More broadly though, the strategic case is much bigger than HS2 and more about much greater capacity and connectivity on the rail network.  And not just for passengers – this could provide a major improvement for rail freight capacity across the region.

This link could connect into New Street and Moor Street stations in Birmingham as well as supporting new local stations such as Fort Parkway and Castle Vale in east Birmingham and additional commuter services into Birmingham.

Then there is the regional and longer-distance connectivity as it can bring together lines from all directions to serve HS2 and the Airport without having to go into central Birmingham and back out again.  This would hopefully make the Airport and Interchange stations a much better choice for a lot more people across the Midlands.

Is it realistic?  Well, why not.  If we have a big picture strategic vision for high speed rail and its role in regional economic development, then schemes like this must surely play a part in that?  Can the bigger economic development and connectivity benefits trump the gritty rail-focussed assessment of the scheme – do they even need to?

The particularly exciting part is how this ties in very neatly with the long term vision for a new major transport node around Birmingham Airport and Interchange.  A new focal point as an interchange for buses, Midland Metro, Bus Rapid Transit (Birmingham SPRINT), local and regional rail, intercity/high speed rail and of course the airport which can be a catalyst for major inward investment and, of course, the UK Central plan for the M42 corridor.

There are of course knock-on questions such as capacity on the other lines (especially the ever-constrained West Coast Main Line Wolverhampton-Birmingham-Coventry corridor), rolling stock availability, ongoing electrification need to be factored in but are, on the whole, surmountable.  There is also consideration required (predominantly caused by HS2 of course) of the motorway network and M42 J6 along with M6 J4 being the 2 closest motorway exits to the site.

But the need now is for the relevant local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to pull together with Centro and Network Rail and Birmingham Airport to make the proposition viable – of course, that might just be happening already!

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