It seems more likely that pigs would fly than new and expensive Tram lines be brought to Sutton Coldfield. After all Sutton already has an excellent well-used passenger railway the Cross-Town Line, linking to Birmingham City Centre. But there is another railway, the Sutton Park Line which occupies a significant swathe of land from Walsall in the NW to Water Orton in the SE, which with imagination and the application of new technologies could become the West Midland’s own Crossrail. This would be a vastly more economic project than London’s exorbitant and delayed programme, one that would strategically and flexibly link across the fast developing WM transport network. A new “Parkline” if you like.
And whilst there are already aspirations to bring the line into use, including (as illustrated) a 2040 Plan for Metro and Rail in the West Midlands prepared by the Elected WM Andy Street’s Office in February 2020 showing a comprehensive rail transport network including a revitalised Sutton Park Line, what is clear is that this remains an un-programmed long-term objective. Meanwhile the principle of a large new township at Langley comprising up to 6K dwellings has been incorporated in the Birmingham Development Plan (BDP). The absence of a programmed passenger rail-link makes sustainable transport planning for Langley problematic, and increases the strong likelihood, despite the fine words in the BDP, of a fundamentally vehicle-driven township.
The benefit of Parkline can be summed up in one word: capacity. The Sutton Park Line linearly occupies a large area of valuable real estate, and moreover acts in a negative way as a physical barrier between the Town Centre and Township expansions along the A38, risking a new Township dislocated from its environs and traditional Centre. Whilst this important infrastructure link does provide a route for occasional freight traffic, there are much greater and more significant passenger capacity benefits to be utilised.
And let’s not forget the additional traffic arising out of Langley. Langley is an aspirational suburban township linking directly onto the extensive West Midlands Road Network. Incoming house-owners will most-likely enthusiastically commit to the national trend for bigger and heavier vehicles or SUVs. This will not be fertile ground for changing behaviours away from cars to public transport. Be realistic: it simply will not happen. And new bus routes with – in the short to medium term – diesel powered vehicles, will occupy the same squeezed, polluted and congested highway as all other vehicles. Within easy reach of Langley are Tamworth, Litchfield, Birmingham Airport and (likely) the new Solihull HS2 Station. And whilst the local and under-utilised A38 may have capacity, the onward connections fundamentally do not. Expect severe overloads especially at peak times on Kingsbury Road and links to the M6 and beyond, resulting in intensified vehicle-borne pollution and impaired health and diminished economic efficiency for the WM. This scenario is not a Planning solution. Frankly, it represents an absence of Planning, and significantly does nothing to address the Global Climate Emergency impacting on the WM . . . and meanwhile the Sutton Park Line drifts on as a transport backwater . . .
And so, what can be done to shift the moribund Sutton Park Line to a sustainably vital Parkline? The answer quite simply is in thoughtfully applying innovative but tried-and-tested Light Railway battery technology. In China the Nanjing Tram System employs a wireless system, powered by lightweight Li-ion batteries. Batteries are charged via a pantograph at stations and terminals, and dynamically during acceleration. Charging time is reported to be 46 seconds at stations, and 10 minutes at terminals with 90% of the line catenary-free. These figures look impressive, and on this basis, there is great potential to assess the application of Li-ion technology for a catenary-free Sutton Park Line.
A further innovation would be to apply (if proven) “Riding Sunbeams” track-side PV technology to boost the localised power grids at stations and charging points. This would be especially applicable to PARKLINE where much of the route is non-urban with open skies to collect solar.
There is another advantage: flexibility. Because the Sutton Park Line is freight-only there are no traditional stations requiring expensive adaptation. As with Metro expansion elsewhere in the region, Station infrastructure would be modest and economic, with a short run of pantographs to quick-charge Tram Cars at stations and stops. Significantly Trams could actually leave the existing rail line at key locations to connect directly to local Centres, say: at Walsall or Sutton Town Centres, or Langley Centre or further south at Chelmsley Wood; where, subject to detailed assessments, there is potential to integrate with the eastward Metro expansion through to Birmingham Airport. This is important, because the aim here is not to add to an already congested New Street Station infrastructure, but rather as with Crossrail in London, create and connect to new strategic hubs, in this case the Airport and HS2 Hub in the SE.
And as elsewhere with Metro expansion a revitalised Parkline offers significant economic and regen gains, but ones which compared to the relatively cumbersome and expensive expansion of City Centre light rail infrastructure, would utilise existing track, meaning a potentially higher VFM leverage of benefit to investment.
To conclude, through the pro-active utilisation of new technology, connected by Park & Ride to WM Communities, this proposed extension of the light railway network would help to significantly reduce congestion and vehicle emissions in the West Midlands, whilst at a stroke providing the sustainable rationale for an economically advantageous eastwards expansion at Langley and Peddimore; and one firmly rooted in an expanding, sustainable and integrated movement system.