‘Remarkable’ Chinese interest in West Midlands HS2 links

CHINA RAILWAY GROUP’s confirmation of interest in a scheme to reopen a disused line in the West Midlands – and in other projects that would provide new and important links to other transport infrastructure in the region – has been described as ‘a remarkable development’ by Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council.

News of the Chinese interest, which includes designing, building and financing the project, estimated to cost £280 million with full electrification, was disclosed exclusively in the January print edition of Railnews.

The project that has caught the attention of the China Railway Group is the proposal to restore the 11.7km Stonebridge Railway, together with a link to the planned HS2 Birmingham Interchange station and ‘people mover’ connections to Birmingham Airport, the existing Birmingham International Station and the National Exhibition Centre.

The idea was originally put forward last June by Railnews editorial director Alan Marshall and specialist quantity surveyor and construction economist Michael Byng. Their proposal is to restore a route, which has become known locally as the ‘Whitacre Link’, first opened in 1839 between Hampton-in-Arden, near Solihull, and Whitacre Junction, in North Warwickshire, but closed in the 1930s.

The idea initially attracted considerable interest from businesses and local authorities in surrounding areas, including Coventry, the Black Country, Leicestershire and Staffordshire.

Then, on 19 December, the China Railway Group dispatched a formal letter of interest to Birmingham Airport — which had supported the restoration of the ‘Whitacre Link’ to improve rail access to the airport after research had shown that 78 per cent of passengers travelling by train to the airport have to change trains or stations in central Birmingham, with extended journey times.

Signed by CRG’s president, the letter from Beijing stated: “Will you kindly accept this letter as our formal expression of interest in working with the public authorities, Birmingham Airport, and other stakeholders within the region to design, construct and finance this project.

“We write to express our formal interest in making long-term investments in the region, including investment the development and enhancement of Birmingham Airport, and in the development of the railways of the region to connect with the proposed HS2 High Speed line.”

And on 20 December the Chinese company, which is listed on the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges, sent a separate letter to Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council, who also holds the cabinet portfolio for transport in the Core Cities Group.

In this letter, CRG confirmed its interest “in making long-term investments in the region, including the development and enhancement of Birmingham Airport, in which we understand Birmingham City Council is a key shareholder, and the development of railways of the region to connect with the proposed HS2 High Speed line.”

The letter went on to invite Sir Albert “as leader of the largest unitary authority in the region” and the city’s Development Director Mark Barrow to visit Beijing “before the spring of 2014” to “identify and agree ways we can work together.”

Sir Albert Bore – who recently launched a new Birmingham Mobility Action Plan which he said was “not for tomorrow but for over the next 25 years” – described the approach from Beijing as “a remarkable development.”

A Birmingham City Council spokesman added: “We are always keen to hear of any proposals that could improve connectivity and transport infrastructure in the city and believe that HS2 and any related works are key to this.”

Under the plans, the Whitacre Link would have its own four-platform station alongside the planned HS2 Interchange. These side-by-side stations would also be connected to a new international terminal where passengers could check in for train services to Continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel or for flights to anywhere in the world served from Birmingham Airport.

After news of the Chinese interest became known, cross-party support was given by Timothy Huxtable, who was previously Birmingham City Council ‘s Conservative cabinet member for transportation and regeneration. He said the proposals would make Birmingham Airport, and the wider UK Central area, more accessible throughout the Midlands.

Councillor Huxtable said: “At the moment the East Midlands is relatively poorly served from Birmingham New Street. We have got the CrossCountry line going to Sheffield and Leeds via those areas, but that is it.

“The Whitacre Link, would essentially link the Midland mainline to Birmingham Airport and will dramatically improve access from these areas.

“It would also be a lot easier for people from these districts to connect with the NEC, Birmingham Business Park and Solihull’s UK Central.” (UK Central is a proposal by Solihull Borough Council for a major commercial development around the HS2 Interchange, the National Exhibition Centre and the airport.)

Cllr. Huxtable said the proposals would represent additional value from wider plans for HS2.

He also said he was happy if funding came from China, as it would create local jobs. “The Government has worked out the benefit of HS2 in itself, but the benefits would be multiplied with local lines like the Whitacre Link,” he said.

Geoff Inskip, Centro’s chief executive, added: “This is an interesting proposal and more work is needed to understand exactly how it could improve access to HS2 and Birmingham Airport and deliver improved, direct journeys to and from the West Midlands.

“Our research reveals HS2 will bring 51,000 jobs and £4.1 billion per year to the regional economy, so we’re particularly keen to understand if this scheme can add to the economic benefits high speed rail will bring to the West Midlands.”

The scheme also recently gained interest from a Transport Minister, when Christopher Pincher, MP for Tamworth, raised it in Parliament. He asked: “Currently, the 15-mile journey between Tamworth and [Birmingham] airport takes 45 minutes by rail. Does he therefore agree that infrastructure projects such as the Whitacre rail link, which would reduce the journey time to 18 minutes, could be beneficial to my constituents and the airport?”

Transport Minister Stephen Hammond replied: “I am happy to look at the Whitacre Link proposals.

“I encourage my honourable friend to continue to discuss the development of the business case with the local enterprise partnership and Centro so that it can be brought forward.”

• A full copy of the Whitacre Link proposal can be downloaded here.

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