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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Birmingham Now Aims For Car Free Centre

The latest UK city to move against private car usage in its central district is Birmingham. The city council announced plans to restrict private cars from travel through the centre of the city favouring park and ride from sites on the periphery of the business district and commercial centre. Priority will be given to enhanced public transport modes that of course include the expanding light rail line currently linking Wolverhampton with Birmingham. This single tram service is being extended at both ends currently with further lines now being reviewed. Birmingham, like Liverpool and Leeds, enjoyed extensive reserved track tramways built to serve outer suburbs and which remain as tree lined testimony to failed policies of former politicians and equally failed planners. All three cities similarly have 'frozen in time' former tram reservations along major roads.

Birmingham's rebranded light rail fleet now in dramatic blue and silver colours exemplified at the New Street Station terminus of the initial line to Wolverhampton. This is being extended into the city's civic central district and a further commercial avenue beyond - for opening soon. In Wolverhampton the line has a new branch running directly to that city's main railway station where the West Coast Mainline service for the north and Scotland (and London) can be accessed. Blackpool's now drab Council liveried light rail fleet requires a not dissimilar update - possibly with green and cream rebranding, or Palladium theme.

The Author last summer sampling a long version of Alstom's trams operating in Dublin along two extensive lines. Silver and bright yellow colours with no fancy flairs or styling keeps the operation clean and visually attractive. Lack of external advertising helps the tram's image.

Whilst Birmingham didn't develop its trams beyond the Edwardian era double deck design, its reserved track lines were a notable feature of the system, until given up in the immediate postwar era. Trolleybuses were briefly introduced as tram replacement services during the late 1930s but these too fell foul of roadbuilding and automotive interests.

A Dublin (LUAS) tram built by Alstom in France at Connolly Railway Station from where one can catch the express train to Belfast. The track layout for the tram terminus here is not dissimilar to that planned for Blackpool North on the site of the Wilko store.

Today the need to lessen carbon emissions and emphasis on electric powered transport make both trams and trolleybus options highly desirable. France has been investing in new tram networks in many of its large towns and cities over the past two decades - to the point that almost no self respecting urban agglomeration in the country is without a modern electric tramway. The major French industrial conglomerate Alstom has benefitted from this national policy to the extent that its factories are busy turning out trams for the growing domestic market as well as exporting much further afield to north Africa, Israel, Ireland (Dublin), and the UK (Nottingham) - among other client destinations. This in turn has sustained skilled employment and technology development on a large scale in France.

Whether the UK's professionals and more importantly its policians, grasp the nettle of reinventing the 'tram' beyond token toe in the water projects such as Birmingham and Sheffield - is still a potent question. Although here too the pressure from environmental (and healthcare) lobbies are adding sustained weight to pro-tram arguments in Councils at all levels. Blackpool has the enviable role of having kept the faith with electric trams since 1885 - and modestly making efforts to interest neighboroughing authorities in joined up proposals for seamless connectivity of a Fylde tramway system that goes well beyond the Fleetwood to Starr Gate coastal service. At one time one could travel from Lytham's easternmost boundary north to Fleetwood centre by tram - using interrunning by two tramway operators following integration of a third privately owned line. This ended in the mid 1930s.

Whether or not we might see trams serving Victoria Hospital and Stanley Park, or the business parks along Squires Gate Lane (and Airport), or indeed connecting with the important technology hub at Warton - remain objectives well worth fighting for. Change of mindsets and new generations engaged in the direction of local politics are needed. Although a light rail conference in Blackpool early next month might spur on active planning, aided by private sector involvement from the likes of BAE Systems and the new Enterprise Zones. We shall see.

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