Work is about to start laying the tracks in Castle Hill, Dudley, along with a £28 million new bus station. The whole shebang, running from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is set to be finished by next year. West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, hails it as a great triumph for the Black Country.
“It is incredibly exciting that, despite the pandemic, we are able to press ahead and begin the main construction process of the Black Country Metro extension," says Mr Street.
One man who will not be joining in the celebrations is Tim Weller. The veteran environmentalist from just up the road in Halesowen has been campaigning for years against the plans. And as the proposal, first mooted in April 1991, look set to become reality, Mr Weller is calling for the work to be halted.
"The Metro extension is a scandal," says Mr Weller. "It is the second most expensive mode to construct after HS2."
Likening the tram extension to the controversial HS2 rail link, the former Green Party general election candidate says heavy rail could be introduced along the line for a fraction of the cost.
Central to the controversy is the fact that the new tram extension will run along a short section of the mothballed Lichfield-Stourbridge railway line, which Mr Weller says should be reopened to heavy rail.
Mr Weller argues that reopening the line to 'proper' trains will not only be substantially cheaper than the tram scheme, it would also reconnect the Black Country to the national rail network.
"For just a fraction of the cost of you could finish the already-built railway," he says.
"HS2 is over £200 million a kilometre, Metro is over £80 million. The 50-kilometre Borders Railway that had to be rebuilt through the empty, depopulated Southern Uplands of Scotland was £7 million per kilometre when it opened in September 2015."
The retired social worker has been campaigning for the line to be reopened ever since it closed in 1993, passenger services having ended some 29 years earlier. For similar reasons he vehemently opposed the original Wolverhampton-Birmingham tram line – which was also built along the route of a mothballed rail route – which opened in 1999.
But Mr Weller's opposition to the Black Country extension goes beyond the simple tram v train debate. He says that running trams along the seven-mile stretch of railway will not only dash hopes of connecting Dudley to the rail network forever, it will also leave a strategic gap in the nation's railways.
He points out that the 35-mile Lichfield-Stourbridge section is the 'missing link' in the former 75-mile rail route from Derby to Worcester, and argues that if it were to reopen, it would reconnect the Black Country with the rest of the UK.
"It brought passengers from London and Oxford for 100 years," he says.
"Dudley will remain the largest town in the UK without its own railway station. It wanted a piddling little shuttle tramline and tram stop instead. It got tired of being on the national railway network."
He also questions how a tramline making it easier for people to get to the Merry Hill shopping centre will aid the recovery of Dudley's ailing town centre.
"That 75 miles is now being broken in half for use as an extended tramline in order to take Dudley and Sandwell shoppers to Merry Hill," he says.
"Yet, it is supposed to help regenerate Dudley's rundown shopping centre, not Merry Hill."
Mr Street questions Mr Weller's figures regarding the comparative costs, but he accepts the basic premise that reopening the line to heavy trains would be significantly cheaper than using it for the Metro extension.
The problem, he says, is that the number of people likely to use a conventional rail service would not make it viable. He argues that high-frequency tram services to Dudley town centre and the Merry Hill Centre will generate far more passengers than a half-hourly rail service.
A spokesman for Mr Street says: “The extension of the West Midlands Metro tram line, which is now under construction from Wednesbury to Dudley, Merry Hill and Brierley Hill, was identified as the most cost-effective way of providing this improved connectivity for both local residents and businesses.
“This is largely because the use of light rail enables a high frequency service to operate providing direct access to both the heart of Dudley town centre and the Merry Hill shopping centre.
“This would not be possible with a traditional train service, which would be unlikely to justify more than a half hourly frequency service and which would be confined to the former railway alignment rather than providing access to those areas to which people actually want to travel."
Mr Street adds that the Metro extension would also connect to the existing West Midlands Metro line at Wednesbury, providing direct links to Birmingham, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich, as well as the opportunity to change at Dudley Port Station for local train services.
“Trains stopped running on this route many decades ago and their reinstatement has not been a priority for the rail industry," says Mr Street's spokesman.
"However as a result of the investment in Metro we are seeing a number of bridges and structures along the route repaired or removed and rebuilt. This could potentially open up options longer term for the development of freight and passenger rail services, in parallel with Metro, along the wider Walsall to Stourbridge route in future.”
Mr Weller is unconvinced, saying that the existing bridges are too narrow to carry both trains and trams.