Many people think of Stephenson’s Rocket as the very first steam locomotive in the UK, but Richard Trevithick’s pioneering Coalbrookdale locomotive, from Shropshire in the West Midlands, rolled on to the rails almost three decades earlier in 1802.
Different regions may lay claim to being Britain’s most important historic railway centre, but the West Midlands is both the birthplace of steam locomotion and the heart of the modern rail network.
Three years before Brunel’s Great Western Railway connected London and Bristol, trains were arriving into Birmingham’s Curzon Street Station from both London and Manchester. These connections brought with them a huge amount of freight, people and investment as the region’s industry grew around this and other transport centres.
Like the canals and turnpikes before them, and the trunk roads and motorways that followed, the railways ensured the West Midlands was at the heart of Britain’s transport system – and remains so today.
Birmingham is the best-connected city outside London, with direct trains to the south coast, Wales, Oxford, Manchester and Scotland. Birmingham New Street is the busiest station outside London, with more than 53 million passengers using it in 2019-20. More commuters arrive into the city by train than by car.
However, this success also presents our biggest challenge as there is only so much space on the network for trains moving people and freight. The region has great ambitions to grow the railway for the benefit of our economy and our environment – however, the network currently has limited capacity for growth, especially on the routes to the south-west and east of the city centre.
On the passenger side, Birmingham New Street has been effectively full for more than a decade. We are already in the unfortunate situation of only being able to introduce new stations and services, such as those on the Camp Hill line as part of our reversal of the “Beeching cuts”, if we are prepared to accept a reduction in service levels elsewhere. Demand is growing and the move to rail is vital to decarbonise transport and deliver the promises of levelling up.
Rail freight is also seeing a resurgence, with new or expanded terminals across the region and on the edge of the city centre. The West Midlands’ location on the logistics “Golden Triangle”, with rail links to the ports of Felixstowe, Southampton, Liverpool and London Gateway, means the region is directly integrated into the global supply chain and is vital to the import and export of goods for UK Plc.[See also: How the cost of living crisis is threatening levelling-up]
This is why HS2 is so important to the West Midlands. Yes, it will halve journey times to London, Nottingham and Manchester, but more importantly it will provide desperately needed capacity for our railways. HS2’s direct interchange with the new Elizabeth Line will have a similarly transformational impact on onward travel to Canary Wharf, the City and Heathrow. The Victorian hub of Curzon Street will once again hum with passengers.
The mere prospect of HS2’s arrival has already had tangible impacts on the ground, with major regeneration programmes under way around our two West Midlands stations. HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and government departments all cite the new high-speed rail connectivity as a key factor in their decisions to move to Birmingham.
The construction of phase one of HS2 is directly supporting 26,500 jobs and 2,000 apprenticeships, many in the West Midlands, with a focus on training young people and the long-term unemployed.
With one of the youngest populations in Europe, training and skills are key to the West Midlands’ future prosperity. The recently relaunched National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure is already providing highly skilled technicians, project managers and apprentices to deliver tomorrow’s transport networks, while the new Rail Training Centre in Wolverhampton is focusing on infrastructure maintenance skills.
The real importance of the railways is the transformational impact they have on our economy, environment and shared prosperity – and HS2 embodies that. It is now mission-critical we get on and speed up the delivery of HS2, and in particular deliver faster services to Manchester and Scotland once the connection to Crewe has been completed.
But for levelling up to reach its full potential, we need additional network capacity to ensure people and investment can travel freely across the UK. We also need improved connectivity with local services in order to spread the economic and transport benefits of HS2 across the wider region.
Therefore, unlocking the Birmingham New Street rail bottleneck via the Midlands Rail Hub scheme, which provides new rail connections to the key south-west/East Midlands rail corridor from an expanded Birmingham Moor Street Station (adjacent to the new HS2 Curzon Street), remains our number one rail investment priority.
The government’s Integrated Rail Plan gave a welcome endorsement of the Midlands Rail Hub. The key challenge now for the West Midlands, if we are to meet our wider environmental and economic objectives and deliver a new golden age of rail travel, is to ensure the scheme is delivered in full at the earliest opportunity.
In the Victorian era the railway brought huge investment and social change to regions across the UK, including the West Midlands. With further government support and investment, the railways can again be the catalyst for transformation and, vitally, deliver levelling up.