I've been covering big national stuff lately, even veering into the international arena in my own, ill-educated way. But now, let's come home, to Birmingham, Britain's second city, currently under the cosh of an ill-starr'd marriage between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats (run by that darling of LibDemWatch, millionaire councillor John Hemming).
Anyway, in June the Tories hit upon this bright, election-winning idea. They decided that what Birmingham needed to make it an even more go-getting international city was an underground system. Given that we've made a start on a mass transit system with the Midland Metro between Birmingham Snow Hill and Wolverhampton, some might suggest that to add another type of system into the mix wasn't a good idea, but it was a BIG idea and the Tories needed BIG ideas.
So, after the elections, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats jumped into bed with indecent haste - no courtship at all - and the Tories found that they had to implement their policies by scraping together £150,000 from the stretched City Council budget to fund a study. Now, I have no problems with big ideas or massive civil engineering projects, if they make financial, political and social sense, but this doesn't. I'm not going to charge you £150,000 for these comments, you get 'em for free.
Firstly, it will be hugely expensive. Light rail systems aren't cheap - they typically cost between £20 million and £30 million a mile. However, put the thing underground and the cost rises dramatically. Take the last major underground project in the UK, the Jubilee Line. Adding a chunk to an existing underground system cost a whopping £250 million a mile. So, that's ten times as much as extending an existing light rail system. The operating and maintenance costs will also prove prohibitive. I'd predict a startup cost of around £2 billion for this scheme.
Where's the flexibility? Continuing the rail lines through the City - as they do in Manchester and Nottingham, for example, allows easy running of through services and minimal changes for passengers. The proposed system could lead to a passenger trying to get from Wolverhampton to Birmingham Airport having to make two changes in the City Centre to complete the journey.
Trams can stop anywhere they choose - if you need to move a stop for safety reasons or if the needs of the city change, then you just move it. Underground stations are permanent constructions and limit the development of the city and plans to change the layout or the business mix. We're just getting rid of the concrete collar of ring roads that stifled development - we don't need a millstone to replace them.
Construction won't be easy. While there are problems with running surface rail through the City, other cities have proved that it can work. The underground could take twenty years to come to fruition and would have to cope with the difficulties of tunnelling through the sandstone under Birmingham and the assorted services already in place - aside from the rail and road tunnels, there's a nice big underground telephone exchange deep down there as well. You could extend the Metro within the next decade, if the government can be persuaded to loosen the purse strings and allow some controlled investment.
Light rail can work - maybe it can't turn a profit, but it does accomplish a wider social goal of reducing car journeys and that is worth investment in itself. The underground may achieve this, but the costs will be massively higher and not worth the benefits.
So will it happen? Not in a thousand years. Big underground projects are only built where labour is cheap - in Victorian London, the Soviet Union and now in the Far East. We don't have a hope of raising the billions required to build it, nor the extra millions required to run it. There is a receding hope of getting any more money to fund the Metro, let alone anything more impressive. The feasibility study will take £150,000 of our money and raise all the above objections and more.
What a waste.