Monday, 14 September 2015


Inbound CAF Urbos tram at Jewellery Quarter, with the railway station directly to the left

Birmingham, the centre of the West Midlands, was the last stop on this year's extensive visits to all the tram and metro systems in the U.K, in preparation for my forthcoming 'Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland' due to be published towards the end of October 2015. Many years ago, in 1988/89, I actually lived around here, working as a language assistant in Walsall, but at that time the tram, of course, did not exist, and even the suburban rail system, except for the Cross City Line, were considered rather pathetic, and Walsall was rarely served by trains from Birmingham.

In the meantime I had been back several times, but not since the entire fleet of original Ansaldobreda trams had been replaced by the new CAF Urbos trams. The only thing I liked about the Ansaldos was there colourful livery, but as trams they never convinced me, too small, felt too narrow, and well, apparently they had lots of wiring and other problems so that, like in Manchester, they withdrew them long before their actual normal life would have expired.

Now back to Birmingham, first on a day trip from Nottingham on Monday, 7 September, and again a few days later on my way back from the Isle of Man, the first impression when I got onto the new CAF trams was how wide (2.65 m) and spacious they feel. And with an increased length, they certainly offer double the capacity. Their interior purple and green design is nice, and would actually also fit the Nottingham trams (the two lines there are now shown in green and purple). 

Purple & green interior of CAF Urbos trams, though with rather hard seats

When I had seen the first pictures, I was wondering, like many other people did, whether pink was a good option for a modern tramway (not even purple and pink loving France uses that colour on the outside of trams....), but I have to say, they look good, it's a nice pink, not magenta, and it is not used exaggeratedly, in fact the dominating colour is white with some grey and pink. The seats are rather hard though, and the wheelsets not too well spring-suspended, so the ride is o.k. on good railway track, but a bit bumpy when running over points, and probably also on the future street running sections. I just realise, I didn't ride them on the long street-running section between Priestfield and The Royal, because I walked that stretch to take pictures (there should really be an intermediate stop on this section!).

Like Sheffield, the 'Midland Metro' as it is sometimes called, has not really seen any extensions since it first opened in 1999, despite modest plans to add some. With some delays and being built at crawling speed, as it seems, a short city centre extension is finally becoming a reality possibly before the end of the year (although seeing the state of construction right now in mid-September, I would even doubt that!). The original line has always suffered from its somewhat marginal existence. In Birmingham, the terminus has been hidden away inside Snow Hill Station, accessible via a very slow lift or a long flight of stairs (upwards there is an escalator, too). Apparently, the second track there has not been used for a long time, so the line is virtually single-track from Snow Hill to St. Pauls. The platforms are just about long enough to accommodate one of the new CAF trams, so when there are problems (and I saw one tram stuck there because of a door failure), a second tram can come into the station, but passengers need to step down to street level to get off). 

Improvised boarding at Snow Hill during problems with tram in the rear

Leaving Snow Hill, on the right you can see that track laying has just begun on what will become the new Snow Hill stop at the very end of the railway station, but the trackbed where old and new lines should be connected has hardly been prepared yet.

The line gets double-track just before reaching St. Pauls stop, from where the tram continues on an old railway route all the way to Priestfield. This is mostly a grade-separated route, but being an old railway it is badly integrated with the areas it serves. Most stops are in a cutting and rather deserted, so waiting there may not be too pleasant, especially after dark. Except for the major stations along the route, like West Bromwich Central or Bilston Central, which have major bus connections, the intermediate stops have few passengers. At Wednesbury, one of the major towns along the route, both stops are quite a long way outside of the town centre, with none of them being directly served by any buses either.

Birmingham-bound CAF Urbos tram on street-running section between The Royal and Priestfield

The street-running section from Priestfield to the Wolverhampton terminus does not seem to cause many problems, maybe during rush hours, but as said before, there should be an additional stop. It was curious to learn that they have actually reduced the Wolverhampton terminus from two to just one track. As a passenger, I always find it extremely annoying when you have to wait outside the station because the terminus is still occupied by the departing tram. There can be many reasons for that tram to stay there longer than normal, so if the terminus has to be single-track, then there should at least be a secondary platform for people to get off the incoming tram. Anyway, I couldn't see a reason really why they removed the second track:

On the right, removed second track at Wolverhampton terminus

Probably saves them a few pounds in maintenance at the cost of risking their reputation due to more delays. I'm sure it is not because the line may be diverted to the railway station anyway. Who knows whenever or if ever that will happen, as there have been many projects for Wolverhampton and nothing has happened. The current terminus is actually quite well located for the central shopping area, and if the line is extended to the railway station, this situation will in fact get worse, so I'd suggest to keep the current terminus, too, and have every other tram terminate here, and the other go to the railway station instead.

The Birmingham city centre extension, when open, will certainly give the tram a completely new presence in the city, many people who never use the tram will actually see it regularly. The route will, however, be very slow as the trams will run down the busy Corporation Street where pedestrians will cross the tracks at any point. So, in about 20 years, like in Manchester, talks will start about a second city crossing. 

State of construction at Bull Street stop in mid-September 2015

Some preliminary construction has also started on the follow-on extension from New Street Station via Victoria Square (City Hall) to Centenary Square, but I guess this extension will take a few years to be built as it involves a completely new road layout between the latter two, where the once motorway-like inner ring road will be rebuilt to become a more urban space once again. A further extension down Broad Street to Five Ways, which has always been a priority, will be a bit trickier as despite its name, Broad Street is not really a wide street and either shared street running will have to be chosen, or current road traffic will have to be almost completely diverted onto other roads instead.

For many years still, Birmingham will have just a single tram line, although plans have already been published for a branch to the future high-speed rail station and Digbeth. But Birmingham still lacks the big vision, a real 'big bang' Manchester was able to make a reality, and despite being the larger city, in this respect Birmingham is running years behind Manchester. The West Midlands have a dense and rather good bus network with good maps and quite good information, almost at level with Greater London, but the buses are slow and get quite full as I could experience yesterday when I travelled a long way across the county to get from Stourbridge to the Black Country Living Museum and then on to the tram at Wednesbury Parkway.

S-Bahn-style Cross City Line at Selly Oak

The West Midlands are served by various regional railways, most operated by London Midland (among them the funny shuttle train at Stourbridge), with the north-south Cross City Line offering a train every 10 minutes for most of the day within the City of Birmingham. Unfortunately, like all the other routes, the efficiency of this S-Bahn-style service is significantly reduced by the bottleneck at New Street. It seems that trains always have to queue up to enter the station, and then there is quite a long buffer anyway, so for passengers travelling across the city centre, it is a slow service. Starting with this line, they should really separate different services properly, for example by building a dedicated flyover east of New Street and operate this line separately using the southernmost tracks at New Street exclusively or shared by only similar services. This way trains could run without any hassle through New Street station, the way German S-Bahn system do in cities like Frankfurt or Stuttgart (although in those places sometimes too many S-Bahn lines are bundled and they have to queue again...). For whatever reason, the similar, though not as frequent east-west service between Wolverhampton and Coventry seems to be split at New Street, so that many passengers travelling, for example, from Wolverhampton or intermediate stations to the airport will have to change trains, although they can also use long-distance Arriva Wales or Virgin trains. Also, stopping patterns between New Street and the airport station (called Birmingham International) are a bit strange if you want to travel just between two of the intermediate stations, e.g. from Marston Green to Stechford. So, like in all other places in the U.K., I miss a clear distinction between what are local and all-stopping services and regional or long-distance services, although on the other hand I like the fact that tickets are valid on all sorts of trains. Line numbers would be great again, although I have almost given up convincing the British that line numbers are a nice and useful thing. But unfortunately even the well-established term 'Cross City Line' is no longer used officially, they just announce it as 'a London Midland service to Redditch', for example.

Funny diesel-powered people mover on Stourbridge Town Branch Line

If you ask me, the entire project with the new high-speed rail station planned at Curzon Street east of the city centre is completely wrong. I understand that they want to build a new line from London to Birmingham and north, simply to increase capacity, but the potential reduction of travel times will be so insignificant that it is not really worth creating a separate system with a separate terminus. Though not too far from New Street, it is too far to consider it part of the station complex, and what passengers will gain in journey time to London they will lose on their way to the new station. Especially those taking a train into Birmingham to catch a fancy new high-speed train to London will not be on the winning side, instead they have to add at least half an hour to get from one station to the other, no matter how they will do that, walking, or waiting for a tram, which will eventually crawl between the two stations, whereas now they just need to change platforms within a recently upgraded and pleasant station. But given the capacity constraints of New Street Station as described above, why didn't they design a real Birmingham Central Station, instead of just a high-speed terminus and relocate all long-distance services there, plus a full-scale station for all suburban services? At the same time the entire East End of the city could be properly developed. As the eastern approach lines to New Street actually pass close by the future high-speed terminus, I can only hope that in the end a new station will be added adjacent to it, so that all suburban trains can actually serve Curzon Street directly. Another option would have been to build additional platforms in tunnel below the current New Street station, similar to what has been done in Zurich.

Ticketwise, the West Midlands have quite good fare integration, but looking at the booklet about fares and tickets, I would say there are too many different types of tickets, so what we call the 'fare jungle' in Germany, also applies to many British cities. To explore the entire system within the West Midlands boundaries, a Daytripper for 6.40 GBP is the best option, it's valid on all buses, the tram and all trains, but make sure the rail station you're travelling to is still within the area, as those zonal maps are not posted anywhere, so you'd better check beforehand by getting this booklet, for example. On the tram, like in Sheffield, tickets are sold by a conductor, there are no ticket vending-machines on platforms. To explore just the tram line, there is also a cheaper Metro Daytripper ticket (5.60 GBP). On weekdays, Daytripper tickets are valid only after 09:30!


Midland Metro (Official website)

Birmingham at UrbanRail.Net

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


Incentro (left) and Citadis (right) at new Nottingham Station stop

As I'm in the final stage of preparing my "Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland" I wanted to see the new Nottingham extensions as soon as they would open. Though vaguely announced via Twitter and all modern forms of communication for many weeks, a concrete start of regular operation was only announced ONE day prior to the actual start, which was the 25 August 2015. Unable to pack my things and go that spontaneously, I finally got to Nottingham on 4 September, a day that may be recorded as a Black Friday in NET's history books...

After strolling through the city centre to get myself accustomed to the flair of the city (I was only here once on a day trip from Birmingham back in 2005), I started to explore the new lines at the railway station, where a viaduct had been slid in over all the railway tracks, with the tram stop right on top (although this does not mean that the tram stop is directly connected to the train platforms, like for example in Freiburg; instead passengers have to walk around through the main hall and ticket gates to get their connecting trains; or exit via a secondary exit at the north end of the southbound platform, which leads to a footbridge that connects all platforms, in most cases the quicker option as many trains tend to stop at the far east end of the platforms). Anyway, the first tram that arrived was a Toton Lane tram, I got on and took a short ride past the junction where the Clifton Line diverges and reached the next stop Meadows Way West. And that was it, everybody had to get off, no power supply available further down the line, there was a lot of confusion. The tram then continued empty to turn around at the nearby crossover and go back into town. After a while I gave up and walked back to the junction to check out the Clifton Line first, hoping that these problems would be solved. The Clifton Line worked o.k. with some delays, but there seemed to be no communication between trams and next-tram indicators which would announce a tram to be due, but it did not arrive, then the tram disappeared from the screen, but after some five minutes appeared on the track.

Being quite cloudy, I didn't bother to get off at too many places for photos, and after a quick late lunch in the centre, hopped on another Toton Lane tram at the central Old Market Square, and this time I made it as far as ... the railway station, where everything had collapsed, two inbound trams were stuck on the ramp just south of the station. Little by little, the control centre managed to make all trams from the north turn back at the railway station, so at least on the old lines the service was more or less o.k. I grabbed a seat on what would naturally become a completely packed tram to Phoenix Park, from there back to Highbury Vale, where a tram to Hucknell soon arrived although the screen said otherwise. As at Hucknall I didn't jump on the same tram to go back, I waited for quite a while along with many Friday night out-goers for the next tram to arrive. Needless to say that I didn't try to get to Toton Lane that evening.

Let's hope that these are just teething problems and can be sorted out soon. There was another disruption on Sunday morning for some 30 minutes on the Toton Lane branch, but trams just seemed to be back running when I jumped on a bus back into town, which leads us to the fare and ticket issue. A day pass just for the tram is 4.00 GBP, but for an extra 50p you can also use all the buses and trains within Greater Nottingham. So to avoid hassle in the case of disruptions on the tram system, I would recommend to get the 4.50 GBP ticket straight away, and you're on the safe side. A single ticket for the tram is 2.20 GBP, quite a sum if you're just going from your city centre hotel to the railway station.

Viaduct through Queen's Medical Centre area

Things went fine on Saturday morning when I was joined by a friend from Newcastle and together we explored the Toton Lane branch, which besides the viaduct over the railway station features the most important structure of the entire system, an approx. 600 m elevated route through the Queens Medical Centre and over the ring road, and with both of us usually being more fascinated by metros than by trams, this stretch was naturally of special interest. The viaduct is probably higher than needed, but this way it does not feel so much like a visual barrier, leaving enough space and transparency below. The elevated "station" is just another standard tram stop with no metro feel to it. There is a lift, but the stairs down to ground level appear rather simple, more like an emergency exit. Walking along the south side of the tracks, one can reach another lift and staircase leading to the western side of the ring road. While the elevated section certainly speeds up the journey, its eastern approach slows it down as if to compensate. Coming from Gregory Street, to avoid some metallic sheds, the trams have to negotiate a tight S-curve. I guess it should have been possible to purchase and relocate that terrain to achieve a much straighter alignment in that area. 

Eastern ramp to viaduct with Bombardier tram carrying Alstom advert

Once back to ground level heading southwest, the trams get their proper right-of-way after the University stop, but for this they have to switch to the south side of the road. In an ideal world, they would remain on the north side as they actually don't stop anywhere along this section, instead, just after University Blvd stop they need to cross the same main road again to enter the Beeston on-street section. Like all other on-street sections, of which there are a few, mixed traffic doesn't seem to be much of a problem as far as I have observed. But regular users may have other impressions. At Beeston Centre, a good interchange has been built, with buses dropping their passengers directly at the staggered tram platforms. A bit further down the line, the trams finally leave the roadway and, walled in by wooden sound barriers, run on a green strip through a housing estate all the way to the terminus at Toton Lane, in fact, the area before the last stop is pretty empty. I think that the name of the last stop was not a good choice. Once up in the very north near Hucknall I was asked by a confused passenger whether the tram was going into the city centre as it just showed "Toton Lane", which apparently no-one knows where it is (they will eventually learn...), but probably in line with the other three termini, "Chilwell West" or so would have been a better choice. And talking of destinations, in a very mono-centric city like Nottingham, I think it would be better to announce "This tram is for City Centre and Toton Lane", etc. Once in the city centre, it could switch to what it is now "This tram is for Toton Lane".
Back to the terminus at Toton Lane, there is a huge car park, just like at the other termini and even at some intermediate stops, which gives the system a very French feel. And the P+R is well-utilised and free.

Cator Lane: typical tram stop

All in all, the Toton Lane branch, or Beeston branch, will have its share of passengers, as it is rather urban in its alignment. It does, however, feel a bit indirect on its way into town through the detour via NG2, a business park, although on the map it is actually not much further. A bridge was built for this purpose over the railway line to London, but surprisingly, this is a tram-only bridge, no path for pedestrians or bicycles, which would rather be the norm nowadays, and what they did on a bridge on the Clifton line.

Now let's have a look at the Clifton line, which runs quite straight through the areas it is supposed to serve, i.e. Wilford and Clifton. The first section along Queen's Walk, a tree-lined avenue, is very pleasant, followed by an old stone bridge at Meadows Embankment. Wilford is actually served a bit marginally, as the trams use an old railway corridor, though not the old railway formation, which is still visible right next to the tram tracks on the western side and which acts like a sort of sound barrier. But the trackbed uses ballast and railway-type rails and the trams speed up properly on this section. The passage under the ring road, however, just south of the Ruddington Lane stop, is rather done at crawling speed. Trams then run through an open field, where I guess a stop could be added if the area is developed. Back on urban roads, the trams take an S-curve to get onto Clifton's main road Southchurch Drive, from where the run mostly on-street to the terminus at Clifton South, another P+R facility at the edge of the built-up area, although a lot of new housing can also be seen in this area.

Citadis has arrived at Clifton South P+R

So, all in all, the impression of the new extensions is rather positive, and I'm still wondering why these projects are possible in Nottingham and Manchester, but nothing is really happening anywhere else in the country?

Incentro on its way inbound has left Wilkinson Street and changes to right side

A few words about the older routes still, which I had already seen back in 2005. Generally, from the Railway Station up to The Forest, despite running mostly on-street, the trams travel at reasonable speeds. 

Street-running between High School and Nottingham Trent University

The split alignment through Hyson Green, however, is a bit slower and especially coming from the north, very slow. The track layout around the depot access at Wilkinson Street is probably the least convincing part of the entire system, for some 200 m trams actually operate on the right hand! Once past Wilkinson Street, the trams cross the Robin Hood rail line and take a turn right, a curve that feels tighter than it actually is, before getting aligned along the western side of the railway all the way up to Hucknall. Both types of trams run really well at high speed. The line splits at Highbury Vale, where the two respective stops are at some distance from each other, although an electronic sign indicates boarding passengers, which tram will arrive first for the city centre. Each branch is then mostly single-track, the Phoenix branch being rather short does not have a passing loop at the intermediate Cinderhill stop, which is thus the only stop on the system with only one platform face. The Hucknall-bound trams, however, have to switch to the passing loop at all intermediate stops, and here I sometimes had the impression that the points could be more like real trailing junctions, so passengers would not really notice that they are switching from one track to another, which would result in a much more comfortable ride. Unlike Birmingham, fortunately all termini have two tracks, although in the case of Hucknall, this is actually necessary due to the long single-track section to the next stop.
Priority at traffic lights seems to work pretty fine, although there are a few points where I observed trams to stop longer than I would desire. One such point is northbound just after the Old Market Square stop, where they stop just to give way to buses coming down that street and turning right. But I think that this traffic light is linked to the one up the hill just before the Royal Centre stop, so that the trams can always roll across that intersection without stopping on the steep street. Another such point is south of the railway station in the northbound direction. But generally, the impression is that the city government is giving priority to public transport over individual road traffic.

Nottingham now has two generations of trams. Although generally I prefer Bombardier's Flexity (and the Incentro is somehow the mother of the newer Flexity) to Alstom's Citadis, here I would actually choose the Citadis as my favourite. The Incentro, though refurbished, looks a bit dated inside, with dirty corners on the floor, but especially the seats are horrible. They don't have a flat area to sit on, but a somewhat curved, pseudo-ergonomic one, whereas the Citadis, which I had often criticised for their seats in other cities, have acceptable seats, if not perfect (but given that everybody has a different body structure there is no perfect seat really). In some intent to modernise the Incentro trams, they received a new old livery, i.e. in fact only the distribution of the colours was changed, but in my opinion, not really successfully. They lack the elegance of the new Citadis, although generally I have to say that I don't like the colour scheme, with silver/white combined with this dark teal-like green:

Original Incentro livery (at Hucknall in 2005) as opposed to ...

... new livery (on railway-style section between Wilford Village and Wilford Lane)

But many of the Incentro trams now actually carry colourful adverts. As I suggested in my Edinburgh blog entry, in a country where many days in the year are grey and rainy, and the traditional architecture is dominated by dark sandstone or dark red-brick buildings, modern trams should add a colour contrast to brighten up the urban life. But apparently, this dark-green is something traditional in Nottingham, as it can be seen all over the city and even the taxis have this colour. And my usual comment about the Citadis not being able to negotiate curves properly, this statement would not be true here. Either Alstom has improved their vehicles so much in recent years, or Nottingham's routes are indeed very well built. Even the extremely tight curve at Lace Market is passed perfectly without any disturbing sounds while keeping a reasonable speed.

Energy giant e-on adding a little colour touch (at Holy Trinity)


Nottingham at UrbanRail.Net