There’s plenty of ambition and potential for Tyne and Wear Metro

There’s a gulf between deciding to do something and working out how to pay for it. Tyne and Wear’s Metrocars first appeared from Met-Camm’s Birmingham works in the late-1970s. They are still running today but are past their prime.

When the Department for Transport’s investment committee met in June, it accepted the need to replace the current fleet of 90 cars. However, it sent the Metro’s case away for more work on how the new fleet would be paid for. That will have Metro boss Tobyn Hughes’ team in Newcastle working hard to refine their analysis for the investment committee’s next meeting in late July.

Hughes is keen that the new fleet not only replaces today’s but sets the scene for further expansion of his network over heavy rail lines. When Metro first opened in 1981, it had taken over Tyneside’s decaying suburban lines from British Rail and converted them for light rail use. In practice this meant new signalling, a 1,500V DC overhead electrification system, and new stations and tunnels for central Newcastle. Little was done with BR’s tracks because Metrocars were much lighter than BR’s diesels.

Some residual BR freight traffic lingered to the chocolate factory at Fawdon but once that disappeared Metro became a self-contained network. So it remained until 2002 when services extended over the main line to Sunderland, owned by Network Rail, and then a new line to South Hylton.

This added some complications with signalling arrangements changed to give more space around a Metro service to compensate for their poor crashworthiness. With power coming courtesy of 1,500V overheads, Virgin Trains East Coast had to use diesel HSTs when it recently extended London-Newcastle trains to serve Sunderland.

The new fleet will need to meet national network standards for crashworthiness which means that signalling restrictions can be eased, generating more capacity on the line to Sunderland. Advances in power electronics make dual-voltage trains simpler and bringing this capability to a new Metro fleet would allow NR to convert Newcastle-Sunderland to its standard 25kV AC overheads, making VTEC’s operation simpler with no adverse effect on Metro’s service.

Such a capability could allow Metro to spread its network further. Washington has been on Metro’s wishlist for many years. The town lies just a couple of miles west from South Hylton and there’s a disused rail formation that joins the old Leamside Line close to Victoria Viaduct. From Washington, the Leamside formation heads north to meet rusting rails at Wardley and then thick vegetation before emerging at Pelaw to join the Newcastle-Sunderland line. This gives the prospect of a loop service.

While it’s easy to draw lines on maps, Metro’s parent body, Nexus, notes that after diverging at Pelaw the routes to South Shields and Sunderland close to within two miles of each other at Tyne Dock and Brockley Whins and here there’s an NR freight route linking the two locations. This holds the prospect of Metro services linking Washington with South Shields.

Nexus must hope that electrification does not fall completely from favour because there’s considerable potential to rejuvenate rail in North East England with short links connecting existing corridors. Gateshead’s Metrocentre shopping complex lies alongside the congested A1 dual carriageway and the rail line from Newcastle to Carlisle. It has a frequent rail service but lies 1.5 miles beyond wires from the south and 2.5 miles from them from the north. Bensham Tunnel might provide a challenge but wiring to the Metrocentre, combined with other links, opens a wider network of destinations.

That southern link, for example, provides the prospect of trains running through the Team Valley without interfering with the East Coast Main Line. Alternatively, trains from the Metrocentre could head east towards South Shields or Sunderland, either running through Newcastle Central station or taking the direct route past the site of Gateshead MPD (now flats).

Heading north could open South East Northumberland to passenger trains. The area already has railways but towns such as Blyth and Ashington lost their stations in 1964. Trains continued hauling coal from the area’s pits but they’ve gone now leaving a railway that’s lightly used with only a few trains each day.

Current efforts to return passengers to the line are concentrating on heavy rail diesel services rather than Metro. Even without the overhead wires Metro would need, current estimates from Network Rail sit at £191 million. Questions remain about the spending NR would incur whether or not passenger trains return and how much of this NR has lumped into reopening studies, doubtless hoping someone else will pay.

Just as it’s easy to draw on maps, it’s easy to say ‘why don’t we just add…’ to projects. There’s a line between between ambition and reality, between ideas and delivery and there’s many a project that’s been blighted by chasing perfection. Nevertheless, the suggestions from Nexus and the North East Combined Authority are worthy of proper examination. They are a series of projects which need not be implemented in one go. They could be done as discrete packages.

Alongside the ambition that sits behind this rail network expansion, there should be ambition in the way they are operated. There’s considerable crossover with the trains that Northern run today. With the rise of the combined authority covering a larger area than just Tyne and Wear, there’s scope to break rail services from Northern’s franchise when it’s next let in six years time. Merseyrail’s concession could provide a good model, let to a winning bidder, or trains could run directly by Nexus under the combined authority.

This would be devolution in action with the local operator having a strong voice with Network Rail and services largely segregated from the long-distance operators on the East Coast Main Line.

Just as with Metro’s planned new fleet, money will be the tricky area to solve. Nexus feels bruised from its private sector experience which government forced upon it in return for the money to renew all those ageing sections of track not replaced when Metro opened. This saw DB running Metro services as well as maintaining the trains in South Gosforth depot. Neither side was happy with the arrangement and both were happy to terminate the arrangement as allowed for in their contract.

Nexus got its trains back and its depot and could set about restoring punctuality and dealing the increasingly unreliable fleet. Given the choice, I can’t see local politicians wishing to repeat the private-sector exercise but there’s considerable pressure to improve local transport, not least with new Metrocars, and this will need government support.

This article first appeared in RAIL 832 on August 2 2017.

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Philip Haigh

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

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