Stricken Metro system to get Government bailout - but fears remain it will not be enough

A Government bailout to save the Tyne and Wear Metro from a cash crisis caused by the coronavirus lockdown appears to finally be on the way – but there are still major doubts over whether enough money will be promised.

Friday, 24th April 2020, 2:09 pm
Updated Friday, 24th April 2020, 4:03 pm

And, after more than a month of negotiations, the Department for Transport (DfT) has finally confirmed that it will be stepping in to help – but could not say how much cash it will be offering.

Nexus, which runs the light rail system, has called for details of exactly how much money will arrive and when to be revealed urgently.

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Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon was left raging at the lack of detail and accused the government of treating the region with “complete and utter contempt”, days after he warned that being forced to mothball the network because of the huge cash shortfall would send the North East “back to the ice age”.

Coun Gannon, chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “We told them weeks ago exactly what we needed, we have shared all the details of the Metro system.

“It is beyond comprehension, impossible, to mothball the Metro – the implications would be disastrous for the North East economy.”

In a follow-up statement, he added: “Tyne and Wear is being treated with utter contempt by the Government when it comes to transport. The Government has been quite happy to throw taxpayer money at the bus and rail industries to keep them afloat during this crisis, including urging local authorities to be part of the bus bailout.

“Our Metro system has been taking NHS staff and other key workers to their essential jobs ever since the lockdown began, yet the Government has still not given any details about how it is going to help pay for it.

“Instead we have had endless nonsensical discussions about sending productive staff home through the furloughing scheme and about closing the system entirely and replacing it with buses. Anything, it would seem, rather than actually asking us how much it costs to provide this essential service and giving us the money to do so.

“It is only right that we are asked to do so but we can only plan properly for this if we know that we have money to pay staff wages and maintain the system properly.

“Today’s announcement by the Government is simply paying lip service to essential transport services in the regions. We need detail and clarity over financial support now.”

Passenger numbers on the Metro have dropped by more than 90% and the network has been losing close to £1million every week.

Trains are still running to help NHS staff and other key workers get around, but to a reduced timetable of one every 24 minutes on each line.

Tyne and Wear’s council leaders and MPs have complained for weeks that the government had bailed out private rail and bus companies, while not offering any help for the Metro.

A Nexus spokesman said: “We are pleased that government has confirmed there will be funding, but we had already been told this.

“We now need to know with some urgency what the details of the financial package are. Our Metro system has been taking NHS staff and other key workers to their essential jobs ever since the lockdown began, and it is costing us almost £1million a week to do so.

“The Metro system needs to be ready to support the economy when the Government starts to lift the lockdown. We can only plan for this if we know that we have enough money to pay staff wages and carry out maintenance.”

In a press release announcing millions of pounds in support for freight services, the DfT said it would support the Metro and four other light rail networks in England, and is “working with local authorities to identify what support is needed to allow essential services to continue”.

A DfT spokesman added that the amount of funding received by the Metro was still subject to further discussions with local authorities and that the sum would be confirmed in the coming days.

Commenting on the bailout news, CBI Regional Director Sarah Glendinning said: “The government’s decision to support our cities buses and tram sectors will prove vital for maintaining the key routes that are critical to keeping the country running. These services are the lifeblood of our communities and key workers are relying on them to do their jobs throughout this crisis.

“This move to support operators shows that government recognises their vital contribution to Britain’s path to recovery from COVID-19.”

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