The first phase of the Sprint Bus Rapid Transit corridor in the West Midlands is almost complete, and it promises to change travel behaviour

24 trambus-style hydrogen-powered vehicles will be introduced with the second phase of Sprint

By Andrew Garnett

The second BRTuk Lunchtime Masterclass heard from Tom Skidmore, senior development manager Sprint Bus Rapid Transit project at Transport for the
West Midlands.

He described Sprint, which will create a bus-based mass transit corridor between Solihull and Walsall via Birmingham city centre, as not so much a levelling-up project, but as a bus priority scheme that aims to “level-up bus”.

It’s about enabling residents to access more places within 45 minutes, improve satisfaction and to get that shift from car to public transport

“It probably chimes with a lot of other people’s objectives when it comes to projects,” he said. “It’s about enabling residents to access more places within 45 minutes, improve satisfaction and to get that shift from car to public transport.”

Skidmore said Sprint was also about assisting with economic regeneration goals – creating improved bus reliability and shorter journey times meant easier access to jobs and services, said Skidmore.

“If you have better access to jobs and services then you can be better linked to more jobs that are better suited to you and that means we can increase productivity and that leads to growth in the region and inclusive growth… When we say we’re improving bus priority, actually what we’re trying to achieve is more growth and a healthier, happier society.”

He added Sprint was essentially a project built around three key elements – infrastructure, services and operation. “While there is a Sprint service that will run all the way from Walsall to Solihull, actually this corridor affects a lot more than that one route or bus,” Skidmore said. “There are around 200 buses that use [parts of] this corridor every day… You can’t just break it down as a Walsall to Solihull service. It means looking at the other routes too and making it all tie together.”

Integration is key

Because Sprint is such a long route, some sections are more heavily used by existing conventional bus services than others. Speaking generally, Skidmore said this meant there were around eight other buses per hour using sections of Sprint corridor infrastructure.

“Will they be able to use these stops? Yes, they will,” he confirmed. “We are integrating the Sprint offer with the rest of the network. It didn’t really make sense that if you’re waiting for a Sprint bus and another bus arrives then you have to run to a different stop. Where there are shared sections of the route it makes sense to share stops.

At the start we perhaps overemphasised the Sprint service and the articulated vehicle being seen as Sprint

“At the start we perhaps overemphasised the Sprint service and the articulated vehicle being seen as Sprint. In reality, there are 24 Sprint buses and 200 other buses on this corridor and all of those other buses are going to get a lot of benefits [from Sprint]. That translates across to the public a lot better – we’re not just doing it for one service, but we’re doing it for a lot of other services that are not just coming from Walsall.”

It’s a no to 24-metres

On the vehicles themselves, Skidmore was joined by Angela Hosford, TfWM’s head of Sprint. She said that while the original ambition for Sprint had been to use 24-metre-long bi-articulated tram buses – in what would have been a UK first – discussions with central government over a derogation for their use had raised some significant concerns.

“They were really concerned about the precedent it would set,” she revealed. “The minute you start putting 24-metre vehicles on the network how do you then prohibit them from motorways or being allowed on other elements of the UK network? There were real reservations around that.”

Hosford said TfWM had looked at what could be achieved with a 24-metre bi-articulated vehicle when compared to articulated vehicles of 18-metre length and concluded the articulated vehicles were the way to go. She continued: “Whether that is revisited in the future, well I think it’s bigger than us. I think it’s more for the DfT and the people there to decide whether that’s something they want to allow on the British road network.”

We want to regulate journey times and I think the vehicles are a really important part of that

Hosford added it was interesting how some authorities had placed greater emphasis on the vehicle than on the infrastructure. In others, the reverse was the case. “We’re trying to blend that and get the best of both looking at our own objectives of reliable journey times,” she said. “The vehicle is a really important part of that, so we want multi-door boarding so we can neutralise the boarding time. We want to regulate journey times and I think the vehicles are a really important part of that.”

Skidmore added that all 24 Sprint vehicles, which will be powered by hydrogen, will be funded from the region’s ZEBRA zero emission bus funding allocation. While there are still some legal implications to be resolved, he said he was confident more details would be forthcoming soon.

Policy movement

The different emphasis placed by the region’s local authorities with regard to vehicle versus infrastructure only highlights some of the challenges of a major project like Sprint. “It’s not easy, there’s a lot of delivery challenges,” admitted Skidmore. “We’re working across four local authority areas and they all have different types of politics.”

However, he highlighted how the policy direction in the West Midlands was changing towards more sustainable travel options. The West Midlands Combined Authority is currently consulting on an update to its Local Transport Plan and Skidmore described the draft as very different to its predecessor. There is an emphasis on the climate emergency, active travel and a fairer society.

Part of that is about driving down car dependency. Ultimately that means creating carrots and sticks that restrain car use by either physical or regulatory measures. Skidmore said this is leading to road space reallocation and he highlighted some of the things Birmingham City Council are doing to restrict car use in the city centre. These include modal filters, bus gates and changing traffic movements.

The city centre is for walking, it’s for cycling, it’s for public transport

“The city centre is for walking, it’s for cycling, it’s for public transport,” he added. “Car trips are very much being pushed to the outskirts, so the priority is for active travel and public transport.

“How does that affect the bus? Well, it means a lot of the things we want to deliver are actually easier to deliver… The purpose of road space reallocation and the projects around bus priority are to change behaviour. We need to be confident that we’re going to reduce car dependency and put a network in place that adopts those principles.”

Bus priority key to success of Sprint

Extensive levels of bus priority are one of the key features of the Sprint Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, according to Tom Skidmore, Transport for West Midlands’s senior development manager for the project.

Speaking during BRTuk’s recent Lunchtime Masterclass on the project, he said TfWM was trying to achieve bus lanes along the length of the route. The first phase aimed to create some significant infrastructure interventions on the route between Walsall and Solihull via Birmingham city centre ahead of this summer’s Commonwealth Games, which will be hosted in the city. The £56m second phase has just been approved and it aims to deliver additional priority measures as well as zero-emission trambus-style vehicles.

Skidmore said construction on the first phase was now largely wrapping up, but he highlighted two areas with significant infrastructure interventions. In the first a currently circuitous route near Walsall has been removed thanks to a contraflow bus lane that offers a far more direct routing.

In the second example he highlighted a roundabout on Small Heath Highway where Sprint vehicles will need to turn right when leaving Birmingham city centre. The solution was a 1km-long offside bus lane that then leads to a bus-only “throughabout” through the centre of the roundabout.

Skidmore showed Lunchtime Masterclass attendees a video of a recent test using an articulated bus borrowed from Stansted Airport passing through this “thoughabout”. “As you can see, it gives us unprecidented levels of bus priority on a main road in the city centre,” he said.


May 19: Peter Shelley of Portsmouth City Council on Bus Service Improvement Plans. ‘Be careful what you wish for!’
May 26: Angela Hosford of Transport for West Midlands on Sprint.
June 9: Tony Brown of Atkins on ‘Intelligent Bus Priority’.
June 16: Liz Helen Rosenkilda Christensen on ‘Busveien’, 50kms of busway in Stavanger region of Norway.
June 23: Thomas Ableman, director of innovation at Transport for London, asks ‘Why Innovation?’
June 30: Shane Hymers of Kent County Council on Fastrack.
July 7: Robert Montgomery of discusses ‘UK Bus: Delivering the promised land – sharing the spend and the spoils.’


BRTuk has members from across the industry, including operators, promoters, manufacturers and consultants. It serves as an information hub and engages with all levels of government. Visit:

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!