Metro losing almost £1m a week as transport chiefs say mothballing the service would be 'catastrophic for the regional economy'
The North East would be sent “back to the ice age” if transport bosses were forced into mothballing the Metro during the coronavirus crisis, a council leader has warned.
As the struggling rail network loses close to £1 million a week after passenger numbers dropped more than 90% and still without any promise of any government support, there are mounting fears over the system’s future.
Transport bosses say they need a £10 million bailout from ministers just to keep the Metro running until July, but the Department for Transport has yet to pledge any funding despite more than a month of negotiations – though there are reports that a deal may now be close.
There were warnings on Tuesday from metro mayor Andy Burnham that Manchester’s Metrolink tram system could be temporarily shut down because of a similar cash crisis, and Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon fears having to do the same to the Metro would have “catastrophic” consequences.
However, it is understood that latest negotiations between Metro operator Nexus and the government have been “productive” and that an unprecedented mothballing of the service is not being contemplated yet.
Metro trains are currently running to a reduced timetable to help NHS staff and other key workers get around the region.
Coun Gannon, who chairs the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “If the Metro is mothballed it would be a disaster for the Metro and catastrophic for the regional economy.
“You cannot travel across this region without the Metro being in operation.
“It is such an integral part of the region’s economic infrastructure that they might as well turn off the electricity and send us back to the ice age.”
The council leader added that the Metro’s struggles will not be over once the worst of the pandemic has passed, as bosses predict health fears will mean passengers are less likely to return to crowded public transport.
While the government has bailed out private rail and bus operators, no money has been offered to the Metro or similar local rail networks in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Yorkshire, and elsewhere.
It was also claimed last week that transport ministers had suggested that some Metro employees could be furloughed in order to shift some of the cost of bailing out the struggling network to the Treasury.
Coun Gannon said it “defies logic” that no support has been confirmed, adding: “Aside from the impact it [mothballing] would have immediately on transporting key workers around during this crisis, what bothers me is that the Metro is going to be absolutely essential past this crisis in getting the economy up and operating again.”
In a letter sent to Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell on Monday, transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “The government understands the importance of the Metro network for the Tyne and Wear region and its role in transporting critical workers.
“We are considering light rail across all of the systems that fall within England, outside London, and as a matter of urgency I have asked officials to work up further details of the impact of the revenue shortfall as a result of the coronavirus.”