Improving connectivity is the aim of every local authority. Two projects in the West Midlands are bringing that ambition to fruition.
A new dawn in public transport is on the horizon with the rapid development of a concept that will help to provide many more, much needed, local rail connections. With the help of the government and two local councils, Very Light Rail (VLR) is set to move out of the sidings and, at the same time, help with moves to decarbonise transport.
Although tram networks in several cities continue to expand, progress is often painfully slow, partly because of high costs and disruption. The same can be said for plans to re-open many railway branch lines, closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s. But things could be about to change with the development of a new transport solution.
VLR is set to transform the rail industry and help support better connections to and from the national rail network and through towns and cities across the country. It utilises leading-edge technologies from the rail and automotive sectors and, according to those behind the concept, delivers significant benefits.
Development in Dudley
A forerunner to the latest VLR development, the ‘Class 139’ railcar, has been carrying passengers on a branch line in Stourbridge since 2009. But now a new organisation has been set up to take VLR to a new level. The Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation (BCIMO) has just started work on the construction of a state-of-the-art national innovation centre in Dudley. Costing around £25 million to build, the centre will help to develop the next generation of Very Light Rail vehicles and infrastructure.
BCIMO’s formation has been made possible through a collaboration between Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council and Coventry City Council, together with input from Cenex, the low emission transport consultancy. Dr Nick Mallinson, chief executive of BCIMO, said: “This initiative is about developing a new form of low-cost rail-based transport, which will be manufactured and installed by UK companies and in particular supported by manufacturing companies in Dudley and the wider Black Country.”
The centre, which is funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership (BCLEP), will include a triple-height engineering hall, research laboratories, conference and seminar rooms and offices for 45 people. There will also be a dedicated test track running along part of an old disused railway line.
BCIMO’s mission statement talks about positively transforming the rail industry by providing supplementary VLR solutions and helping the Black Country to both regenerate and innovate. But Mallinson maintains that it’s more than that. “We plan to look at the bigger picture and how VLR systems can fit into the overall concept of hub-to-home public transport.”
And that’s where VLR could really help. Around the country, there are scores of branch lines that are ripe for reopening and where there is need for new local connections, perhaps to mainline inter-city services. Recently, the government announced start-up funding for 25 schemes across the UK under its ‘Restoring Your Railway’ programme. BCIMO thinks that many of the successful schemes announced so far would be ideal for a VLR solution. Richard Jones, BCIMO’s Business and Partnerships Manager, said: “We’re not in competition with the railways. Very Light Rail both supports and sustains the current railway network, providing more railway and more connections.”
The main benefits of VLR come with its low capital and operating costs and shorter lead times, with fewer disruptions than conventional rail systems. And VLR could be especially useful on short routes where operating traditional heavy rail or tram solutions is uneconomic. Experts point out that it can also help with government moves to decarbonise transport. Nick Mallinson added: “Not only can its vehicles provide low or zero emissions solutions, but VLR can go where some other forms of public transport can’t, meaning new journey opportunities that could help to bring down car dependency.”
Connectivity in Coventry
One such scheme is being planned in Coventry. There, the city council, together with lead partner WMG, is developing a VLR solution that will see battery-powered vehicles running on a route that will connect major employment sites with the city centre and the railway station. Vehicles will run on a lightweight innovative new track, specifically designed for the Coventry system.
Construction of the first vehicle is already underway and is due to undergo rigorous testing at the new centre in Dudley in early 2021. The project has been made possible thanks to funding from the government’s Local Growth Fund through the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP) and the West Midlands Combined Authority Devolution Deal.
With the current modernisation of the city’s railway station and the on-going regeneration of the city centre, the VLR scheme will provide a vital missing new link in the city’s transport network. Councillor Jim O’Boyle, cabinet member for jobs and regeneration at Coventry City Council, commented: “We want our public transport to be efficient, affordable and most importantly environmentally friendly. Coventry led the industrial revolution and now we are leading the green industrial revolution. I firmly believe that VLR is the future of public transport in small and medium sized towns.”
But the Coventry vehicle isn’t the only Very Light Rail project underway. A separate scheme called ‘Revolution VLR’, led by Warwickshire based Transport Design International, is also well advanced. In line with the Dudley innovation centre, a key aim is to facilitate low-cost connectivity of regional and rural lines. Its first prototype vehicle, which has also been built in conjunction with WMG, is nearing completion, before also undergoing testing.
Meanwhile, the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation talks a lot about being progressive and collaborative. And its work is clearly more than just dedicated to pioneering VLR concept. It’s also about developing and nurturing a new supply chain in the Black Country. Nick Mallinson explained: “We have set up an ‘Innovation Forum’ to encourage and support the local SME community. Many companies might only be active in certain sectors and might not realise that the products they make, for instance automotive components, could be adapted for new markets, including for use in the Very Light Rail industry.”
Counsellor Patrick Harley, leader of Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, added: “The Very Light Rail Test Track and National Innovation Centre is a key project for our borough. It will offer an innovative and exciting opportunity to provide lower cost local rail connectivity, encouraging shift from private vehicles towards public transport.”
Very Light Rail has been a concept that’s been talked about for a while, but now seems to be coming of age. It’s bringing with it the promise of lower-cost, greener and better-connected public transport. In the Black Country, it’s also hoped the development of VLR will help to create new jobs and secure others, which might be under threat as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Construction of the new VLR innovation centre is expected to complete in 2022.