At the end of the Harborne Walkway there is an old railway bridge under Northbrook Street which linked up to a rail bridge over the canal to take the trains to New Street Station. This railway bridge has been bricked up and buried for many years, but recently AMEY have uncovered the buried end to undertake strengthening works on the brickwork. Coincidentally, the Birmingham Cycle Revolution local connections scheme is widening a pathway next to this location to improve the connection between Summerfield Park and the canal access steps at Northbrook Street. Tim Weller contacted Push Bikes to tell us about this bridge, arguing that it would provide a good link for this path to connect to the access ramp to the canal, and I went to meet him there to have a look.
Although I've lived near here for a few years and have used the canal access many times, I didn't realise that there was an old rail bridge under this road. The stepped access at this location is awkward to use because of the tight angles between the wheeling ramps on the steps. In addition the smooth metal surface of the ramp doesn't provide a good grip if your cycle is heavy, and I've heard reports of wheels locking up and sliding when people are wheeling cycles down the ramps. If you were in a wheelchair, mobility scooter or a non-standard cycle, access at this point would be impossible because of the steps, and the nearest access is 10 minutes away at Rotten Park Street (although that will be a building site soon once the Icknield Port Loop development starts). As a standard principle, we should be aiming for cycle routes that do not require anybody to dismount at any point, and I also believe that cycle infrastructure should be accessible to mobility scooters and wheelchair users. This location does not provide that.
As part of Birmingham Cycle Revolution, improvements to this access point are being considered. Due to its proximity to the existing cycle route, removing a road crossing, and the space it would provide for a gentle slope, I think that using the Northbrook Street rail bridge makes good sense. There is a significant height difference between the road surface and the platform where the old bridge was, but the rail bridge provides access at the level of the old bridge, from which a ramp goes down to the towpath. From a heritage perspective, it also will uncover another piece of Birmingham's industrial heritage and serve as a reminder of the route that the Harborne railway took.
There are potential issues - I have been told that the tunnel has an open culvert carrying water to the canal inside - so it may be that the cost of preparing the rail tunnel for use as a cycle route is greater than the other options at this location. It is important, however, that we have some clear estimates of costs and a discussion about the options. I think it would be a shame to keep this bridge buried, and I suspect that there may not be much difference in cost between any options that are able to provide the steeples access that we should be aiming for as standard.