July 20, 2016 @ 11:29 by Alison Cowie
The North East Combined Authority (NECA) has agreed a strategy for investment in Metro and local rail to improve passenger journey and kick start an expansion of high quality local rail for the region.
The Metro and Local Rail Strategy identifies a network of disused or under-used rail routes across North East England which could benefit from new or better services, putting whole towns and communities back on the national railway map.
The strategy, approved by the Leadership Board, also sets out the case for more than £1bn of new investment in the existing Metro system over the next 20 years.
The Leadership Board heard that advances in train technology mean a new train fleet could also have potential to operate on lines beyond the current Metro system, opening the way for the expansion of local rail services and better integration.
Cllr Nick Forbes, lead member for Transport on the North East Combined Authority and leader of Newcastle City Council, said: “We have approved an ambitious strategy for expansion of local rail across our region, tied in with continued investment, development and expansion of the iconic and world-famous Metro system.
“We are building a business case for major investment in Metro and local rail to improve journeys for passengers and provide cleaner, greener and attractive travel choices.
“Local rail brings huge economic and social benefits to the communities it reaches today but we need to extend those benefits into new areas. To do that it is essential we secure funding for a new fleet of Metro trains, acting as a catalyst for the expansion of local rail and better integration across North East England.
“The well-publicised problems with train reliability on Metro underline how essential it is to bring in a new train fleet. But we want to look far beyond that immediate goal, to make the most of the greater possibilities to grow all local rail services together as part of the Combined Authority’s Our Journey manifesto for transport in the North East.”
The strategy identifies the potential to bring disused or little-used rail routes that thread across Northumberland, Durham and Tyne and Wear back to life for local passenger services, providing a starting point for detailed evaluation to see which might deliver the highest benefits from investment, and what the construction challenges would be.
It raises the possibility of putting towns including Ashington, Peterlee and Washington back on the railway map as well as creating new links into business parks such as the Team Valley, Metrocentre, Cobalt and the new International Advanced Manufacturing Plant north of Sunderland.
This includes routes where passenger services could be increased, routes currently used for freight traffic only and some where the track has been pulled up but the alignment still exists.
The strategy links expansion of local rail in the North East with investment in a new Metro fleet because modern technology means new Metro trains could operate more widely than over just its traditional electrified system, alongside regional passenger services.
It details the case for new Metro trains to replace the original fleet in service since 1980, at an estimated cost of £550m including power supply upgrades and new depot facilities, with a target date for a new fleet to be introduced in the early 2020s.
Nexus, which owns and manages Metro, has begun talks with the Government about funding routes and will submit a detailed business case before the end of this year.
Tobyn Hughes, managing director for Transport at the Combined Authority, said: “We believe some existing and disused local rail corridors can be combined with Metro to create a single network at a lower cost than new-build railways. By fusing local rail and Metro together we can create something new and better than the sum of those two parts.
“There are also areas where the existing Metro system can be upgraded, and the system is badly in need of a new fleet. This opens the possibility of a new Metro fleet working seamlessly alongside regional trains depending on the route and stations being served.
“Nexus, which owns and manages Metro, will have invested £350m by 2021 renewing track and other vital infrastructure – it needs to continue that investment over the next two decades but we must also now focus on the trains as well.”
Sunderland became the first place in the UK to see local Metro services share track with regional and national trains, when Nexus and Network Rail opened the Metro route through the city in 2002.
The project saw new stations open on existing tracks between Pelaw and Sunderland city centre, and part of the disused railway line between Sunderland and Durham re-opened for Metro trains.
This year saw the formation of a new North East Rail Management Unit through which the Combined Authority now plays a vital role in the devolution of local rail services from Whitehall to the region.
The Combined Authority would like to see this develop so that local rail and Metro work alongside each other with a common set of passenger standards and ticketing. It could potentially see some routes transferred between Metro and local rail in either direction.