Birmingham’s underground 1970s road and rail ‘rapid transport system’ that never was

“Birmingham’s plan for £50million ‘underground’,” reads a headline in the Birmingham Daily Post, 1971. If what followed had come to fruition, it would have been one of the most extraordinary changes ever to occur in our downtown.

It was a time when the car was king and the whole city was remodeled to fit it. Vehicles dominated the ground with their ring roads and flyovers, and pedestrians were forced to pass underground in short subway tunnels.

But the work was not yet complete and city planners worried about future congestion. They also lacked space to do anything on the surface.

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Rather than disrupt the post-war regeneration that was taking place on the surface, they looked underground for more space for more cars and more public transport. A pair of reports recommended a metro-like underground rail section – and a real underground road network to boot.

Reports commissioned by the municipality and produced by engineers show what this underground network could have looked like. The area inside the Middle Ring Road was the target, but the changes would have affected travel through Birmingham.

An illustration in the Birmingham Post, showing what a proposed underground tunnel network might have looked like.

Eric Mole, then Chairman of the General Affairs Committee, said: “It will be something that will be looked at very seriously due to future traffic congestion in Birmingham. In my view it is something that should be considered by the government like well, I should think about it.”

The proposed rail portion would use the route from Longbridge south to Four Oaks in Sutton Coldfield, as trains currently do. But three new subway-style stations would have been added downtown.

One would be the “Civic Center” station, somewhere around Paradise Circus. Another would be near Lancaster Circus.

The third would be in between, probably near Snow Hill or St. Philip’s Cathedral. This would have turned a 20 minute walk from Paradise to Lancaster into ideally a few minutes at most on the tube.

But the most interesting part is the underground road network, which could have extended beyond the Middle Ring Road. Bored in tunnels separate from the proposed rail network, road travel in the city center could have been very different today.

A circular tunnel could have roughly followed the inner ring road, with five branches branching off from it. These would be southwest of Paradise Circus, south of Holloway, southeast of St. Martin’s Church and the Bull Ring, and two branches north to the Aston Highway and Newtown.

Three underground car parks, garages and surface accesses would have allowed pedestrians to enter this immense underground network of tunnels. The Snow Hill-Moor Street rail tunnel could have been converted into a car park access road.

A 1970 article says more about some of the proposals. The underground road could have been double-decker, with three lanes in each direction, but this was rejected for safety reasons.

“I would consider these tunnels with a toll,” said then-city council leader Frank Griffin. This is probably due to the enormous cost of digging them – up to £15.5m per mile back then, over £250m today.

As we can see, there are no underground toll roads today, and the public transport part of the plan is covered by the Skytrain – when it’s running, anyway. But your ride back from downtown could have been very different in an alternate universe.

If you had an unlimited budget, how would you change downtown travel? Comment below or talk to us in our nostalgia group on Facebook.

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