Friday, 28 October 2011

Birmingham Interchange is not an interchange

In my ongoing evaluation of HS2, its time to write about Birmingham Interchange.

Birmingham Interchange, is the HS2 station located on the edge of Birmingham. The site is next to the M42 1 mile east of Birmingham International station on the existing main line (the airport station). The intention is to add a cheap "people mover" to transfer passengers to the NEC, airport or existing station. There is also vague talk of a tram line (which doesn't materially affect the following conclusions).

The executive summary is that the plan for Birmingham Interchange is dire. Read on for the detail.

The key issue is that the station is completely disconnected from any form of public transport, meaning that the vast majority of passengers will be expected to arrive by car, for which 7000 parking spaces are planned. But the M42 in that location is one of the busiest stretches of Motorway in the entire country and well beyond its design capacity. This combination is a recipe for disaster. HS2 Ltd comment as follows (pdf, chapter 8):

Our estimate is that in 2033, the interchange station would attract a net addition of 1500-2000 cars trips to the area during the morning peak hour.

The chapter is worth reading to understand the analysis done. It makes no reference whatsoever to access by public transport. Only access by car is considered.

The station is intended to be used by passengers living in various parts of the West Midlands conurbation and in Coventry (nobody lives close enough to walk to the station). Its only fair to look at what these passengers do today, and what they will do in the future.

Many in the West Midlands conurbation currently use local rail services to access London trains at Wolverhampton, Birmingham New Street, Birmingham International or Coventry. With HS2 there will be no direct access to the new line by local rail at any of these locations.

Residents in the west of the conurbation around Wolverhampton can currently travel to Wolverhampton station for their long distance service. HS2 does not serve Wolverhampton, so those passengers will either use the existing service (assuming it continues) or drive to Birmingham Interchange. (The official document assumes Wolverhampton will use the city centre station, but they can't as New Street and Fazely Street aren't integrated)

Residents in the centre of the conurbation can currently use local rail and buses to access New Street for their long distance service. Since the HS2 station in Birmingham is disconnected from the local rail network, there will be far fewer uses of the local network to access the long distance services. Thus again, passengers using HS2 are most likely to use a car to access Interchange. (The official document assumes these travellers will use the city centre station)

Residents of Coventry currently have an excellent three trains per hour service to London. This will be scaled back after HS2. Passengers in Coventry will be encouraged to travel to the Birmingham Interchange station instead. Which again means a car. Certainly no sane person would take a local train to Birmingham International, then a "people mover", then an HS2 train. (The official document assumes these travellers will use cars to access Interchange station)

Taken together, HS2's Birmingham stations are a recipe for a massive increase in car journeys.

However, there is a catch. 1 in 3 households in the West Midlands don't own a car. So, by forcing car access, HS2 manages to reduce the overall mobility of the population!

Moreover, what has long been understood by those in the rail industry is that once people start their journey by car they are more likely to just keep on going by car. If you're driving from Wolverhampton to eastern Birmingham, why not just keep on going and drive all the way to London, or if you're in Coventry why not carry on driving to Manchester or Leeds?

It turns out that the rail network is absolutely dependent on good interchanges and junctions, where local journeys can be fed into national ones. HS2 ignores over 100 years of experience of what makes railways work by not buliding proper interchanges.

Interestingly, the London stations on HS2 are planned to be integrated with the local networks, at Euston and Old Oak Common (although the Old Oak plan is far from certain at this point). It is clear to me that Birmingham has drawn the short straw here. The effect of HS2 is to boost car journeys within the West Midlands area and reduce demand on the local rail network.

Given the lack of integration, especially relative to London, it is patent nonsense that Centro, the publicly funded body for public transport in the West Midlands, is supporting the current HS2 scheme.


Overall I think HS2 is a bad project and there is a better and more cost-effective approach - HC-Midland. However, my position is far more nuanced than that of the "anti" brigade. For starters, while the route through the Chilterns isn't my preferred choice and is far from ideal, I don't think that aspect of the scheme would be disasterous if it were to go ahead.

However, I am utterly clear that both HS2 Birmingham stations are unfit for purpose on basic transport grounds.

It is simply unacceptable and irresponsible in today's world to build a station whose only sensible access is by car and then have the cheek to call it "interchange". That mistake is compounded by the lack of integration in the City Centre.

In summary, there has been a lot of arguing about rail capacity, the business case and the importance of the environment. In my opinion, not enough focus has been placed on whether the line's stations meet basic transport criteria. Sadly, HS2's Birmingham stations fail spectacularly on those basic transport criteria.

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