OPINION: Sprint – white elephant or viable proposition?

OPINION: Sprint – white elephant or viable proposition?

December 30, 2018 Off By Stu

Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) recently carried out a public consultation on proposals for the first three ‘Sprint’ bus rapid transit (BRT) routes that they hope to launch before the Commonwealth Games come to Birmingham in 2022.

Sprint is designed as a new, modern, high quality and reliable public transport service using tram-style buses on dedicated lanes with priority through junctions.  The low floor, high capacity vehicles feature multiple doors allowing people to quickly board and get off, further improving journey times.

Cllr Waseem Zaffar,  cabinet member for transport and environment at Birmingham City Council, said: “Sprint will play a hugely important role in helping to encourage more people out of cars and onto public transport, which in turn will reduce congestion on our roads as well as polluting vehicle emissions.

 “I have been in regular contact with TfWM to ensure that we have a scheme that is not only acceptable to local residents but also meets our objectives of substantially improving Birmingham’s public transport offer, so I am pleased that the Mayor and TfWM are listening to the feedback received during the consultation.”

TfWM is developing Sprint to meet the challenges of traffic congestion and air pollution by providing commuters with a fast, reliable and comfortable service. Consultation, which included a mix of online and paper questionnaires and interviews, took place between August 23 and October 4.

The three routes were originally intended to be introduced by 2026 as part of the HS2 connectivity programme, but have been brought forward to be ready for visitors coming to Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games in 2022.

https://www.tfwm.org.uk/news/residents-views-taken-on-board-as-sprint-rapid-bus-plans-develop/

One of the concerns I have raised – and I’m pleased that others who took part in this consultation also did – is whether the taxpayer (who is ultimately footing the bill for this) is going to get good value for money.

Is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) a good idea anyway? Let me just point out that this is in no way any kind of brand new concept, in fact if anyone wants to know more about how this works, just look to Bogota in Columbia, which has had a BRT system for over ten years now:

So just like HS2, which is already twenty five years out of date, are we joining the BRT ideology far too late?

There’s going to be a lot of public money being thrown at this Sprint BRT project in order to put in the necessary infrastructure to make it work, as well as buying specific vehicles in order to operate it; vehicles which will be unable to be used elsewhere. And not forgetting the years of disruption while the works are being carried out.

So ultimately, will it be worth it in the end? Another question I asked was ‘how much is this going to cost to use?’. Which is also a question I equally apply to HS2.

Millions of pounds are going to be invested in this project, so it will eventually have to pay for itself in the end. Will the price of fares/passes be comparable to other bus services, and how integrated will ticketing systems be?

If it is too expensive for the average commuter to use, these Sprint buses will just be mainly running empty along their dedicated bus lanes, while hard-up passengers continue to use existing bus services.

As a ‘hard-up’ passenger myself, I’m happy to pay £6 for a ‘slow’ 2 hour train journey to London along the Chiltern Line, there is little advantage to me if I can get to London in 45mins, not if its going to cost me over £100 to do so. The same would equally apply to Sprint bus fares.

I was compelled to write this opinion piece after seeing the CGI mockup from TfWM of how Sprint buses would look on the A45 Small Heath Highway (which illustrates this article). The A45 Birmingham to Birmingham Airport route is one of the three proposed initial Sprint routes to be developed, and is one I am most familiar with, having commuted along there for a couple of years when I lived in South Yardley.

The image shows the Sprint buses running along dedicated Sprint bus lanes along Small Heath Highway. Anyone like myself who has travelled regularly on the ‘express’ X1 and X2 bus services, will understand the frustration encountered when these services get stuck in the traffic congestion that occurs every day. Here’s another one, showing a Sprint bus crossing Heybarnes Circus island:

CGI of Sprint bus using new ‘hamburger’ lane to cross Heybarnes Circus to rejoin Coventry Road at Hay Mills.

And this is the thing, the three proposed Sprint routes are already served by express or limited stop bus services. We already have the X1 and X2 services that run along Small Heath Highway and Coventry Road and the X51 service that runs along the A34 Walsall Road. (There are also the Sutton Lines services X3, X4, X5 and X14 as well as Arriva’s 110 service, though these do not follow the same route as the proposed Sprint service to Sutton Coldfield)

Would there be not more benefit from introducing some of the Sprint proposals, for dedicated bus lanes and priority measures for example, but for enabling existing express bus services to operate more efficiently?

The number of times in the morning I found myself on an X1 or X2 crawling along Small Heath Highway towards Poets Corner Island, imagining having dedicated bus lanes for these buses to use and fly along, it would have made my commute far more happier.

Likewise in the evenings returning home, when the X1 and X2 buses were stuck in queuing traffic on Small Heath Highway approaching Heybarnes Circus, it would have been a more palatable journey if those buses could just sail through. The irony is that at peak-times the X1 and X2 buses move much faster once they are off Small Heath Highway.

I’ve only caught the X51 service a few times along the A34 Walsall Road, but that does seem to work quite nicely, getting from Birmingham city centre to the Scott Arms junction in Great Barr in less than twenty minutes.

So, is BRT just an ideological fantasy? It seems to work in Bogota, Columbia, but then again most of the infrastructure was already in place before they implemented it. Our own road infrastructure will need major changes in order to do so.

My personal opinion is that we should look at some aspects of the Sprint proposals, and use them to deliver improved ‘regular’ bus services, at potentially half the cost. While I originally believed that Sprint would be a good idea – having ‘local’ bus services ‘feeding’ BRT routes – I’ve changed my mind, and we would be far better off doing similar but with ‘local’ bus services ‘feeding’ into frequent high-quality bus services along main trunk roads like ‘Platinum’ and ‘Sapphire’ instead, provided that bus priority measures were put in place to facilitate the movement of these services and stopping them getting congested in the rest of the traffic.

Or is Sprint doomed to become another ‘white elephant’ project like HS2 that will never recoup the costs outlaid to implement and will only benefit those that can afford to use it?