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Birmingham Overground: How Rail Franchising Could Change The West Midlands Property Market

The new West Midlands Railways branding

Could the West Midlands be about to take control of the last, massive, slice of transport infrastructure, opening the door to the kind of rail-related property investment which dominates London? The answer is: very possibly, according to Transport for the West Midlands Managing Director Laura Shoaf.

Speaking exclusively at the Bisnow Birmingham State of the Market event at Hines' Oozells Building, Brindleyplace, Shoaf said the plan to devolve rail franchising could be the start of a massive rethink, and rebranding, of Birmingham's regional transport.

In London, local control extends to rail and has allowed the redevelopment of former rail services into what is now branded as London Overground. The Overground has brought many areas back into the property market, and increased prices elsewhere.

Now the Rail Delivery Group of rail franchise holders has called for franchising of city services to mirror the arrangement in London, where the mayoral authority (Transport for London) takes control of rail issues.

The group said that the current one-size-fits-all franchise system would be replaced with different types of services designed to suit the needs of different groups of passengers.

"On some mass-commuter routes there would be democratically accountable, TfL-style single-branded concessions, where an integrated transport body is given more devolved control and rail companies are better integrated to deliver services for passengers," the Williams Report for the Rail Delivery Group said.

Shoaf welcomed the report and said it was "absolutely" an opportunity to create something like the London Overground network in the West Midlands, with improved connections to Coventry and Wolverhampton a key target for growth. Unified branding for the region's trains, trams and buses, and a single unified payment system, would help make that a reality.

West Midlands Metro, at the Birmingham New Street halt

"The whole point of the Williams Review is that it is clear franchising is just not working, it's very clear rail is not delivering for its passengers. What's exciting is this is devolution, bringing power back to the areas we’re trying to service."

It is absolutely impossible that somebody in a Whitehall department in London can tell a train operator what people in the West Midlands need, Shoaf added. "Most of them don’t come to Birmingham and if they have, they come once every 10 years then get back on a train and go straight back to London," she said.

"We have a small amount of real devolution in the existing West Midlands Railways franchise, and just that little bit meant we could help specify some important things, like more trains after 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday services which serve the 24-hour and weekend economies." She also cited new rolling stock which means capacity can grow from about 40 million journeys towards 60 million this year. "If you stick more capacity on trains people will take the train.

"That little bit of influence we’ve had has already yielded us a big difference, and if we could actually manage it ourselves we could deliver even better outcomes."