A new vision of how the North East’s rail system can be upgraded over the next decade is set to be signed off next week.
The first North East Rail and Metro Strategy includes a raft of ambitious proposals – including the reopening of the Leamside Line, bringing trains to places such as Washington for the first time in decades, and multiple extensions to the Metro system.
Ahead of a meeting of the North East Joint Transport Committee to formally adopt the plan on Tuesday, June 14.
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Chairman Martin Gannon, who is also leader of Gateshead council, said: “Our sights are firmly set on reopening the Leamside Line and extending the Metro and we are already taking steps to make these ambitions a reality.
"We also want to drive investment in the East Coast Main Line in the North East and we’ll continue to make our region’s case for funding from central Government to boost capacity.
“These developments will allow us to achieve our health and economic goals and help local people to access better opportunities – whether that’s for employment, leisure or education.
"We want to connect new communities to our rail network, driving more green journeys, tackling air pollution head-on while reducing the reliance on the private car and the associated congestion across our road network.”
Alongside plans such as the arrival of a new fleet of Metro trains and improvements to railway stations including Sunderland and Newcastle, the strategy highlights eight potential extensions that would transform rail services across the region:
Restoring the Leamside Line
Putting trains back on the abandoned Leamside Line is one of North East leaders’ top priorities.
The track, which runs between Pelaw in Gateshead and Tursdale in County Durham, has had no passenger services since the 1960s and was totally mothballed by British Rail in 1992.
Its restoration could see a railway station open in Washington for the first time in decades, as well as serving areas like Follingsby, Fencehouses, Rainton, Belmont and Shincliffe.
But the proposal, touted as part of a future devolution deal for the North East, is also seen as vital to increasing capacity on the congested East Coast Main Line route as it would provide an alternative path for slow-moving freight trains.
A new Wearside/South Tyneside loop on the Metro
Reopening the Leamside line is also linked to plans for a long-awaited expansion of the Tyne and Wear Metro, creating a new circular Metro service covering South Tyneside, Washington and Sunderland.
The loop would use a section of the Leamside line to bring Metro trains through Follingsby to Washington and then over the Wear and past Penshaw to join the system’s current end-point at South Hylton.
The Washington station could then be directly connected to the Metro’s existing South Shields line, if a new bridge was built over the existing tracks at Pelaw.
Cobalt and Silverlink Metro stations
Another possible extension of the Tyne and Wear Metro would create a new ‘inner loop’ in North Tyneside to serve new stations at the Silverlink and Cobalt business park. The North East Rail and Metro Strategy states that, despite being “major growth engines of the local economy” and home to around 20,000 jobs, the sites are not close enough to any existing Metro stops.
This could be reversed by reusing old tracks previously utilised to transport coal to the River Tyne, thereby creating a shorter North Tyneside loop service that would not travel to the coast.
West Newcastle and West Gateshead
Taking the Metro or another form of rail service into the West End of Newcastle has long been a hot topic in a part of the city underserved by public transport. Draft plans back in 2014 suggested the creation of a street tram operation that would run down the West Road and then across the Tyne to the Metrocentre and Team Valley, though this never progressed to a concrete proposal.
While construction around St James’ Park has made it highly unlikely that the existing Metro could ever be extended westwards from there, there is the prospect of running trains on the old Carlisle line out of Newcastle Central station that goes parallel to Scotswood Road.
The strategy due to come before the Joint Transport Committee this week appears to take the latter option alongside a reopening of the Bensham Curve, another section of railway line lost to the 1960s Beeching cuts, to create a new link running from Newcastle and Gateshead through Team Valley to Chester-le-Street.
There have also been hopes of a new East Gateshead rail station being opened to serve the new arena complex being built on the Quayside.
East Coast Main Line to Newcastle Airport
While the Metro offers a link to the airport, transport chiefs are hopeful of creating a main line rail service too, in order to cater for an expected growth in passenger numbers and offer a new connection for people travelling from outside Tyne and Wear.
It was reported as far back as 2004 that plans had been drawn up that could see trains come off the East Coast line just north of Newcastle, travelling west along the path of an old colliery line past Wideopen, Hazlerigg, and the Great Park to a new station at the airport.
Northumberland and North Tyneside
While the reopening of the Northumberland line connecting Ashington and Blyth to Newcastle is already in the works and due to be complete by 2024, the new plan also makes mention of other improvements in Northumberland.
This includes improving the “wholly inadequate” existing service to residents of Pegswood, Widdrington, Acklington and Chathill and building a new station to serve the village of Belford.
The proposal also highlights a lack of a direct from North Tyneside to the East Coast Main Line and says: “Possible future access will be explored as part of further study work required on ECML North of Newcastle.”
North West Durham MP Richard Holden has championed a new rail link that would connect Consett to Newcastle, an outline business case for which was submitted to the government last December.
This could be along the former Derwent Valley Line or a new line laid via Annfield Plain and Stanley which would link to Newcastle via the East Coast Main Line.
Ferryhill and Stillington
Durham County Council and Sedgefield MP Paul Howell have been pushing for the reintroduction of passenger trains on the freight-only Stillington line in order to boost links between County Durham and Teesside.
This would mean new stations opening and Ferryhill and possibly Sedgefield too and could also connect up with the Leamside line.