Nexus faces tough questions as its seeks to expand North East light rail

The photo was small but eye-catching. In the background, a modern park-and-ride. In the foreground, rusting tracks and plenty of lush, green weeds.

The location? Durham, that compact city of small streets, topped by a glorious cathedral and imposing castle. It needs its park-and-ride because of those streets. It could use those rusting rails to improve public transport. The tracks belong Network Rail’s Leamside Line. They’ve not seen trains since the early 1990s but there’s barely been a year since privatisation two decades ago without a reopening proposal from somebody somewhere.

The picture and latest proposals come from Nexus, owner of Tyne and Wear’s Metro light rail system. It faces some momentous decisions. It needs a new fleet of trains to replace those built by Met-Camm in the 1970s.

Today’s trains saw a half-life refurbishment in the 1990s and have recently been through a three-quarter life upgrade. I used to joke that the fleet would have seven-eights and then fifteen-sixteeths life overhauls. It seems I might not have been far wrong with Nexus reporting that engineering consultants Interfleet suggest that the fleet needs another £10m if they are to run until 2025. To keep the fleet of 90 going until 2040 would need at least £50m.

This points towards a new fleet being the better option. There are no off-the-shelf designs suitable for Metro because its trains are 3.15m high, which is smaller than seen on light rail fleets elsewhere. The new trains are likely to have full-width cabs which will disappoint those small boys of all ages who delight in riding up front. Me included!

In specifying a new fleet, Nexus needs to balance flexibility with cost. Flexibility could bring trains that cope with the Metro’s standard 1,500V DC power supply and Network Rail’s 25kV AC. This permits NR to convert its Pelaw-Sunderland tracks to standard AC power. Filling in the short gap between Gateshead and Pelaw then allows Virgin Trains East Coast to run electric trains between London and Sunderland rather than being constrained to HSTs today and bi-mode IEPs tomorrow.

Pelaw marks the northern end of the Leamside Line. Stringing wires southwards to Ferryhill, where the line joins the East Coast Main Line, allows the Metro to serve Durham’s park-and-ride. Ferryhill could provide a useful interchange station (it had a station until 1967) with long distance services to London, Birmingham, Manchester, Scotland and thence far and wide. It also has a direct line to Teesside. Leamside opens Washington to Metro services, correcting a glaring omission and with potential passengers from a new International Advanced Manufacturing Park and its 5,000 jobs.

Nexus notes that its region is criss-crossed with disused railway lines, left over from an industrial past built on coal and heavy engineering. They could link the Leamside eastwards towards Sunderland, where Metro already runs to South Hylton. They could provide an inner North Tyneside loop that would see some trains running on the old formation between Percy Main and Backworth (ironically once part of the Metro’s test track). This cut-off would serve the busy Cobalt

and Silverlink business areas which contain 20,000 jobs. Extending this line north from Backworth provides a springboard towards Blyth and Ashington, two towns hit hard with coal’s decline, using NR tracks. That neither town has rail links despite both having rail lines shows the low priority successive governments have given rail in North East England.

Metro’s use of NR tracks to Sunderland comes with capacity constraints, notably the ‘double blocking’ signalling arrangement that provides more protection for Metro services because they use light rail stock that doesn’t meet heavy rail crashworthiness standards. They were not designed to because Metro started as a segregated network. Any new fleet could allow these constraints to be dropped, providing space for more services.

None of this will be cheap. Nexus estimates the new fleet at around £550 million and that’s for one sized for today’s service not the expanded vision, the cost of which Nexus admits will be significant. It expects to have to spend another £500m renewing the infrastructure it has today, with a large part of this going towards new signalling.

Nexus expects a large cheque to come from government but there’s a possibility of funds raised locally through business and developer contributions or by borrowing against future fares revenue. Nexus could follow Nottingham’s workplace parking levy to raise money for public transport. One potential source of funds could have been the European Union but with Britain’s vote to leave, this source can only be regarded as very unlikely.

I hope Nexus succeeds with its ambitions. Aside from its extensions to Newcastle Airport and Sunderland, the Metro network has changed little. It’s not kept pace with the area’s development. It’s failed to serve areas that were important even when it first opened, such as Washington. It doesn’t serve several areas that have risen since it opened. Nexus now has a chance to correct those omissions and deliver a network that serves its region.

This article first appeared in RAIL 806, published August 3 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Published by

Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *