Transport's still hellish

Transport's still hellish

John Duckers, the business commentator who West Midlands leaders love to hate, is scathing about the region’s efforts at transport improvements.

What a mess West Midlands transport is in, and how dependent it is on high speed rail.
HS2 is going ahead under a cloud, condemned as a waste of money in virtually every independent study. It won’t happen for another ten years, is currently costed at £50bn-to-£55bn, but may end up at £80bn. And is it needed?

The Adam Smith Institute slammed claims that the West Coast Main Line is at capacity, maintaining seat occupancy is below 60%. The House of Lords concluded that the expected cost per mile of HS2 was up to nine times higher than that of constructing high-speed lines in France and, far from it being the saviour of the regions, London would most likely be the biggest beneficiary.

All a bit worrying, especially when the hopes of Birmingham Airport are pinned on the line and the speed of onward connections to London, putting itself forward as part of the solution to the capital’s congestion in the skies.

Yet, although he’s been more encouraging in recent months, Howard Davies’s airports review argued there was not a strong case for building a second runway in Birmingham. His commission predicted Birmingham would not even be operating at capacity until the mid-2040s. While passenger numbers are rising and Emirates is a big success, the airport has had two recent blows. American Airlines recently announced it was pulling out for the second time, and Beijing Capital Airlines owner Caissa Touristic withdrew a planned service to China.

At least the airport has responded to its nomenclature critics. Two decades after it was first suggested, it’s now tentatively using the Shakespeare name in its marketing. And, at last, it’s promised to address customer service deficiencies by pledging a £100m investment to speed up baggage handling, add extra capacity for check in, and improve car parking – including a new drop-off facility free for the first 30 minutes.

But it never merited a mention in the Government’s announcement on the third runway for Heathrow. It has a case, but it’s far from compelling, and it’s a long way from convincing Londoners that there’s substance to its rhetoric and that it can be anything more than a peripheral player.

What then of much-trumpeted Metro lines?  The new one through the city centre runs less than a mile at just over walking pace – arguably we would have been better off spending the money on reviving old stations like Moseley and Kings Heath. A Metro line will go to the airport – eventually. But these are hardly transformational projects.

Meanwhile, on the roads Birmingham is close to gridlock. There have been some successes such as the active traffic management system on our motorways, yet they remain badly congested, a complete travel lottery.

You would be hard-pressed to invent anything as dysfunctional as the M6/M6 Toll combination, further exacerbated by the regular mayhem at the M5/M6 junction. Meanwhile Birmingham City Council plays the politically-correct card. It stings any motorist foolish enough to want to park in the city centre. And it panders to that tiny minority – the bike brigade, people who are a law unto themselves – jumping red lights, under-cutting cars, dangerously weaving in and out of traffic, and threatening the lives of pedestrians by riding on the footpath.

Our transport network surely doesn’t have to be this flaky. Or maybe it does. Perhaps it’s simply where those poor souls condemned to hell go … not a fiery furnace, but a never-ending M6 traffic jam!