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Midland Metro launches the UK’s wire-free tram era

Midland Metro 18 ‘pan down’ on its first day in passenger service following the retrofitting of OESS battery packs (seen in the extended cowl above the cab). Image credit: TfWM

Friday 20 April saw the first use of a modern battery-operated tram in passenger service in the UK; Midland Metro Urbos 3 18 now uses onboard power for part of each journey despite the current 21km (13-mile) Birmingham – Wolverhampton line being equipped with overhead lines. The CAF-built tram has been retrofitted with two roof-mounted lithium-ion cells, recharged from the wires.

Catenary-free sections are to include the city centre extensions in Birmingham (due for completion in 2019) and Wolverhampton (2020), with later wire-free running to come on the lines to Edgbaston (2021) and Birmingham Eastside (2023). The future Wednesbury – Brierley Hill route may also feature wire-free sections.

Retrofitting of tram 18 was undertaken by CAF in Spain in 2017, but the rest of the 21-strong fleet will have the work completed at Wednesbury depot with the first conversion being undertaken on car 31.

The latest figures for the network report a 9% decrease in passenger numbers for the month of January (597 326 in 2018 compared to 653 035 in January 2017). Over the full year, ridership across the network was down 1%. The drop in passengers is largely ascribed to the closure of Bilston Road for renewals between June and December 2017.

The WMCA report also revealed that punctuality had worsened in December and January due to ‘driver availability issues’; six new drivers have been undertaking training in response.