Back on track: Reviving the Leamside Line
July 4, 2023
From pioneering patriarchs Stephenson and Hudson to the radical regression of Beeching, the Leamside Line is bookended by no little revolution.
Throughout its near 200-year history, the 21-mile route’s capricious narrative – from passenger travel boom and freight surge to 1960s branch line stripping – has offered a telling précis into the wider, fluctuating British rail story.
And it may yet do so again, with a campaign to revive the mothballed route – led by organisations including Transport North East, cross-party politicians and business and local authority bosses – gathering increasing momentum.
Supporters say a renaissance of the line, which cuts through green boltholes and old mining settlements between Pelaw, in Gateshead, and Ferryhill, in County Durham, will deliver critical new passenger and trade connections, as well as multifarious economic, employment and environmental benefits.
Those points, and more, were highlighted at an event, held in partnership with North East Times Magazine, at transatlantic law firm Womble Bond Dickinson’s Newcastle offices, with Tobyn Hughes, Transport North East managing director; Sarah Mulholland, Northern Powerhouse Partnership deputy chief executive; and Rachel Anderson, North East England Chamber of Commerce assistant director of policy, providing key insight.
THE LEAMSIDE LINE WAS MOTHBALLED IN THE EARLY 1990s AFTER FREIGHT SERVICES LEFT ITS TRACKS. WHY IS THERE NOW A CAMPAIGN TO REVIVE THE CONNECTION?
Strictly speaking, the restoration bid is more than six decades old.
Ever since passenger services were shunted into sidings following Dr Richard Beeching’s Reshaping of British Railways report, campaigners have clamoured for the 21-mile line’s reinstatement.
Indeed, archive papers show North East England Chamber of Commerce members documented their determination to resume travel operations on the line – which acted as the original route from York to the North East – in the immediate aftermath of their 1960s cull.
And while years have passed and faces have changed, emotions have remained resolute.
And so too has the physical element, said Tobyn Hughes, managing director at Transport North East – which is working alongside business organisations, cross-party MPs and local authority chiefs to lobby Government – with the line’s sweeping course still intact, but for encroaching greenery.
He said: “The track bed remains from Pelaw to Ferryhill, and because the route is mothballed rather than closed, it could be reactivated.”
WHY DOES THE REGION NEED THE LEAMSIDE LINE WHEN IT ALREADY HAS THE FLAGSHIP EAST COAST MAIN LINE?
Highlighting the ever-ascending volume of freight and passenger services on the Edinburgh-to-London route, Tobyn said the Leamside Line would alleviate such capacity woes.
He said: “The East Coast Main Line is constrained and its unreliability impacts on any journey, whether it be to London, Edinburgh, Manchester or Birmingham.
“The Leamside Line could carry goods and passengers, and would act as an alternative.”
Sarah Mulholland, deputy chief executive at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership business-led think tank, agreed.
She said the route is crucial to leveraging the full benefits of the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme, which aims to significantly bolster east to west connections across the upper half of the country.
She said: “Decades of underinvestment in our largely Victorian-era network have left our railways on the brink.
“The Leamside Line is a critical piece of infrastructure; without it, Northern Powerhouse Rail – and its potential to deliver transformational economic scenarios – isn’t possible.”
HOW WOULD PASSENGERS BENEFIT FROM THE ROUTE’S REINTRODUCTION?
Tobyn pointed to the “enormous potential” of a central pillar in the campaign – the Washington Metro Loop – which he said would rewrite journeys, not least for the 70,000 people of the Wearside community whose name it carries.
Presently the UK’s fourth largest town without access to a rail service, Tobyn said the blueprint – which promises new connections at Washington and Follingsby, via existing lines on the Nexus-run Tyne and Wear light railway system between Pelaw and South Hylton – would plug a major void.
He added: “It’s quite hard to get between Newcastle and Sunderland using public transport.
“But the Metro Loop would provide improved access for between 13,000 and 38,000 workers, and between 38,000 and 105,000 residents, not least Washington’s 70,000.”
He also hailed the prospect of a new Ferryhill station, which he said would give passengers welcome change from bus services following years of having to watch “trains zip past”.
WHAT WOULD THE LEAMSIDE LINE’S REVIVAL MEAN FOR THE ECONOMY?
Continuing on the Washington Metro Loop – for which a strategic outline business case has been handed to the Department for Transport – Tobyn added: “The Leamside Line is the most important piece of infrastructure for the economic future of the North East.
“It would create nearly eight million additional passenger journeys a year on the Metro and generate more than £90 million a year in gross value added.”
Sarah concurred, framing the Loop’s projected £745 million cost against lavish Government schemes such as London’s Crossrail.
She also emphasised its economic value when set against the Government’s latest developmental blueprint – the £96 billion Integrated Rail Plan – which ignores the Leamside Line, despite promising to “deliver the greatest transport benefits for more people, more quickly”.
She said: “The Leamside Line offers a lot.
“The Loop itself would cost just one per cent of the Integrated Rail Plan budget, and would pay for itself in less than two Parliamentary terms.”
WHAT ABOUT THE LEAMSIDE LINE’S COMMERCIAL IMPACT?
From the thousands employed at Nissan’s Sunderland car plant to the nearby International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP), the sprawling Amazon warehouses of Follingsby Park and Bowburn, and the planned arena, conference and exhibition centre on Gateshead’s quayside, the Leamside Line carves through commercially fertile ground.
Which is why, said speakers, its reintroduction carries great significance, particularly from a freight perspective.
Having borne the weight of countless heavy loads prior to its mothballing, principally truck fulls of ‘black gold’ from the region’s coalfields, the Leamside Line, said Tobyn, is readily placed to create valuable trade links.
He said: “Rail freight services are surging, and a really key part of the restored Leamside Line would be its use as a freight artery.
“It would enhance connections with significant employers.”
Sarah sited the Leamside Line as a vital cog in a wider developmental wheel encompassing projects such as the Teesworks green energy scheme, in Redcar.
She said: “A thriving economy needs reliable transport networks that allow freight and people to move quickly and easily.
“The Leamside Line will generate thousands of well-paid, highly-skilled jobs, unlock productivity gains, attract further inward investment and make Government infrastructure projects more valuable because connectivity between them has been boosted.”
Rachel Anderson, assistant director of policy at the North East England Chamber of Commerce, focused on the region’s seaborne trade hubs.
She added: “Our regional ports are about to take a huge leap forward, from the Teesside freeport to ambitions around creating a green ‘super port’ on the River Tyne.
“And they are crucial for Scottish freight too.
“Things, though, are constrained because of the pinch points we have on the system.
“The Leamside Line would change that dynamic.”
HOW WOULD THE LEAMSIDE LINE IMPROVE THE REGION’S ACCESS TO SKILLS?
For too long, warned panellists, the clogging of road arteries, aligned to declining public transport performance, has meant considerable growth restraint, not least on individuals’ career aspirations.
Channelling the sentiment of Chamber business discussions and its work on Government Local Skills Improvement Plans across the North of Tyne and Tees Valley areas, Rachel said the Leamside Line would deliver “immeasurable” employment sector benefits.
She said: “Our transport system puts constraints on getting the right skilled people in the right places at the right time.
“We were told by someone who works for a recruitment consultancy that it can’t get candidates to sites like Nissan and IAMP because of transport limitations.
“And, what’s more, she told us her son, an electrical engineering college student, is in the same situation.
“The family lives in Jarrow, so getting to IAMP would require a one-and-a-half hour journey across three bus connections and, because of that, her son is having to look elsewhere.
“We need to better connect those who have been left behind, and who are bursting to get out and succeed.”
Sarah concurred, recalling teenage experiences of parental lifts from Washington to meet Newcastle-bound Metro services at Heworth.
She added: “We know a young person in Northumberland can’t get a job in Newcastle, because it will take them two-and-a-half hours to travel between work.
“The Leamside Line would make a vital difference, improving work travel and allowing companies to tap into wider talent pools.”
HOW WOULD THE LEAMSIDE LINE DELIVER ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS?
Highlighting projections the Washington Metro Loop would replace nearly 1.7 million journeys each year, Tobyn said: “It is reasonably easy to get around the North East by car.
“But all that does is bring vehicles into town and city centres.”
Rachel added: “Getting our firms making more, and getting our ports moving more, is very important.
“But so too is moving those goods without putting more HGVs on our roads.
“And the Leamside Line is a more sustainable way of doing so.
“For example, steel for Nissan presently comes into the Port of Middlesbrough and then goes on lorries up the A19 or A66.
“But the Leamside Line could deliver such loads in a much more environmentally-friendlier way.”
FUNDING FOR THE LEAMSIDE LINE’S REVIVAL WOULD REST, IN NO SMALL PART, UPON GOVERNMENT SUPPORT. AND WITH THE PROJECT LIKELY TO BE ASSESSED AGAINST SIMILAR UK-WIDE SCHEMES, HOW MUST THE AREA MARKET THE LINE’S ADVANTAGES TO MINISTERS TO HELP BRING IT TO FRUITION?
Rachel said the campaign must come without parochiality and, at the same time, no little cohesivity of messaging.
She said: “We need to work together to demonstrate the value of this scheme nationally, not just locally.
“Speaking with a single voice will help, and we must also encourage mayors in the North of Tyne, Tees Valley and North Yorkshire to hunt in a pack and provide an inter-geographical view on the Leamside Line.”
Sarah added the region must paint a vivid picture for the country’s elected members if the campaign is to truly resonate in Westminster’s corridors of power.
She added: “Many MPs are London-centric, and aren’t aware of the realities of travel in this region.
“We’ve got to make it real for them.”