Connecting the West Midlands
Nine companies with diverse skillsets and international experience have been working together since summer 2016 under the banner of Midland Metro Alliance with the mission to transform the West Midlands by building the best integrated transport system for the future
For some 80 years between 1872 and 1953, trams represented a vital means of transport for the people of Birmingham. While their popularity waned after World War II with buses becoming the preferred mode of travel across the city, in May 1999 trams made a return with the restoration of the Wolverhampton-Birmingham route. A few more years had to pass before the system was extended further, but since 2016, a major scheme has been in place to extend West Midlands’ tram network by approximately 34 kilometres by 2026, with a view of creating a tram network that is futuristic in sustainability and reflective of the region’s past, so that it can ensure a better present for the people of West Midlands.
Tasked with the implementation of the programme was the Midland Metro Alliance – a union of nine companies that was formed in July 2016 to deliver a total of five tram extensions across the West Midlands. The alliance includes the West Midlands Combined Authority, which is the owner of West Midlands Metro and is both alliance partner and the client of the scheme, as well as construction specialist Colas Rail (supported by its sub-alliance partners Colas Ltd, Barhale, Bouygues UK, and Auctus Management Group), and the design consortium of Egis, Tony Gee, and Pell Frischmann.
“One of the first projects we completed, was the track replacement of a section running along Bilston Road on the original West Midlands Metro track on the busy A41 between Priestfield and The Royal in Wolverhampton,” Alejandro Moreno, Director of the Midland Metro Alliance begins his account of the projects the organisation has been involved in so far.
The ahead-of-schedule realisation of the project allowed Midland Metro Alliance to establish its credentials early on, before it moved on to take care of the Birmingham Westside and Wolverhampton City Centre Metro extensions. “The two projects have been underway since June 2017. The first phase of the Birmingham Westside development is scheduled to complete by the end of 2019 and will run from Grand Central, past Birmingham’s Town Hall, to Centenary Square with two new tram stops being added at Victoria Square and Centenary Square. Upon the conclusion of this phase, the 840-metre route will operate on battery power, becoming the first tramway in the UK to do so. It will remove the need to fix electric wires to the listed buildings along the route, thus reducing the aesthetic and environmental footprint of the project.
“The second stage will see the tramway’s further extension to Edgbaston in 2021, in time for the 2022 Commonwealth Games that will be held in Birmingham. As to the Wolverhampton City Centre Metro extension, which is anticipated to open in 2020 after the construction of the new railway station is completed, we have recently, in September last year, completed its second phase along Pipers Row and the entrance to Railway Drive in a busy public transport heavy thoroughfare,” Alejandro explains.
Without a doubt, building a tramway is a complex undertaking, which can, at times, be looked upon with anxiety from the general public due to lack of detailed information on the vast amount of work that is going on behind the scenes. Alejandro states: “Keeping the city moving is a challenging task, because we have to take into account a huge number of factors. For example, there are lots of other construction projects taking place in Birmingham at the moment, so we have to co-ordinate our actions with these, in order not to cause unnecessary disruption to the local community. In the meantime, we work closely with Transport for the West Midlands, the local councils and businesses to ensure the public has up-to-date information that will allow them to make informed choices about how best to access key areas in the city. We are also trying to get them excited about what is coming up when our work is done, to help them realise that the temporary disruptions are for a really good end result.”
When set up, Midland Metro Alliance expressed a clear commitment to build a truly local supply chain made up predominantly of Midlands-based SMEs and it is now with uninhibited pride that the organisation can share its success in this realm. “We have placed a lot of orders with local businesses and that is already having a palpable impact on the region with suppliers increasing their own workforces due to the increase in goods required for metro construction works,” Alejandro points out.
He provides a compelling example to substantiate the astuteness of this decision: “When we were working on the track renewal project in Wolverhampton, we encountered a problem with some of the drainage boxes, discovering that the existing design was not perfect. We then decided to activate our supply chain partners and invite some of them into the organisation to see if they can help us find a solution. In collaboration with one of these companies, our engineering team designed a new, very sustainable, plastic drainage box, which, eventually, turned out to be compatible with the needs of other projects using the same gauge weld as we do. This, I believe, is the real strength of alliancing – by working together, we were able to overcome a problem we had and in doing so, we even developed a brand-new product that is available for the rest of the industry to use,” Alejandro enthuses.
“It also needs to be mentioned that we have also been using local labour for the delivery of our projects. Moreover, we were the recipient of a couple of awards that recognise our efforts in upskilling and empowering local people who have not been in education or employment, in whom we have developed the skills they need to get on the ladder in the construction industry. As you are aware, it is a sector that is characterised by an older workforce, so we are trying to attract younger people and explain to them what construction is all about, because it is certainly not just digging holes. It has to be clear for the younger generations that they might pursue a career in communications and marketing or HR, for example, working in construction,” he notes.
Alongside the aforementioned works that are scheduled to be completed in 2019, this year Midland Metro Alliance is also expecting to finalise the strengthening of the Broad Street Canal Tunnel. The Alliance is employing an innovative method consisting of fitting additional steelwork in the existing brickwork of the bridge which will result in both cost and time savings for the project. The system is being installed from the underside of the structure, which means less noise during the works and little impact on the highway above.
“Another eagerly anticipated project by us and the residents of West Midlands alike, is the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension that will serve the Dudley area. We did a few trial holes in the autumn of last year just to get ready for the utility diversions that are scheduled to begin this summer. Further on, we will be working on the Birmingham Eastside Metro extension and the final extension we are building – the largest of all, is the 17.5-kilometre route between East Birmingham and Solihull,” Alejandro concludes by outlining the work Midland Metro Alliance is delivering until the end of the programme period.