Council high-speed train plan fails to impress Birmingham businesses
Supporters of the fledgeling campaign to build an ÃÂ£11 billion high-speed rail link between Birmingham and London would do well to remember the Brumderground fiasco.
At the heart of the Conservative manifesto for the 2004 city council elections was a headline-grabbing promise to investigate the possibility of replacing the Midland Metro tram extension with an underground railway network for Birmingham.
The party, spurred on by group leader Mike Whitby, even produced a London underground-style map depicting Brum's own version of the Circle, District and Metropolitan lines, while also making the highly unlikely claim that the whole thing could be built for ÃÂ£200 million.
Private sector consortiums were said to be waiting in the wings ready to build the Brumderground, if only the Government would back legislation to make the project happen and throw a little money Birmingham's way.
When Whitby took control of the council in June 2004, consultants were paid ÃÂ£100,000 to look at the feasibility of delivering the underground pledge.
Unsurprisingly, as most sensible people knew all along, the study concluded that the cost would be way beyond the council. The project was quietly shelved, leaving Whitby to search for new "Big Ideas".
In launching his short-lived tube proposal, Whitby said: "For a city that yearns international recognition we should have a first class underground railway system."
Four years later, the council leader continues to talk about that elusive search for recognition on the world stage - something that always seems to amount to expensive Big Projects..
His latest wheeze is to position Birmingham in the race to secure Britain's second 180mph train line, from Moor Street to St Pancras in London, linking directly to the Channel Tunnel and major European cities.
Birmingham to Paris and Brussels in three hours has a certain popular appeal to it, for sure, but last Friday's low-profile launch of the high-speed rail link campaign left local business leaders distinctly unimpressed.
The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry took the unusual step of issuing a press release questioning the point of embarking on what might turn out to be an expensive and ultimately fruitless exercise. The Chamber pointed out that the rail link falls outside of the nine transport priorities agreed last year by West Midlands councils, the business community and Centro, the transport authority.
To press the point home, Chamber chief executive Jerry Blackett said: "We need to see thorough evidence-based research that explores the extensive costs and benefits of the project. We need to have an objective understanding of the impact any development will have on the region's economy."
Both the Chamber and the West Midlands Business Council fear a campaign for a high-speed rail service could damage the case for other major transportation schemes, including the Midland Metro, local rail services and showcase bus routes. If a large amount of Government money comes our way for the Moor Street-St Pancras track, what are the chances for securing the funding required for the region's agreed transport priorities?
The council has said it regards the high-speed rail link as the next major regeneration project, following the refurbishment of New Street Station and the extension of the Birmingham International Airport.
But the local authority must be aware that the lengthy battle to deliver New Street only succeeded when all West Midlands councils, business groups, MPs and stakeholder organisations came together in a spirited and determined campaign backed by an unassailable argument about the need for an improved station.
There are few signs at the moment of any such enthusiasm for high-speed trains from Birmingham to Berlin.