Passenger train service would be introduced between Newcastle and Woodhorn, linking Newcastle to South East Northumberland, with intermediate stations at Northumberland Park (giving a connection with the Tyne & Wear Metro System), Seaton Delaval, Newsham for Blyth, Bebside, Bedlington and Ashington.
SENRUG also wants a station at Seghill (between Northumberland Park and Seaton Delaval). This has been dropped from the proposal the local authority is taken forward to GRIP 3 stage. However, SENRUG’s research indicates it would be impractical for residents of Seghill to use Seaton Delaval station – a single station cannot serve both communities. SENRUG’s priority is therefore to ensure passive provision is made to add a station at Seghill at a later date.
The Case For Re-Opening
The former mining area of South East Northumberland has declined rapidly since the closure of the mines. Many of the communities the freight line passes through are in the most 10% of economically deprived areas nationally. The case for re-opening the line is based on economic regeneration, in particular providing access to employment and further education from the economically deprived areas of South East Northumberland the to the areas of opportunity in Newcastle and at Cobalt Business Park and Silverlink (served by Northumberland Park station).
The station at Woodhorn would serve as a Park & Ride for the communities of Ellington, Linton, Lynemouth and (initially) Newbiggin as well as locations further north, but this station would also create a market in its own right as it is the location of Northumberland’s Museum of Mining and Country Life, a major visitor attraction.
Studies commissioned as part of preparing the business case have predicted in excess of 80,000 annual passenger journeys by 2034 and an annual increase to incomes and GVA (Gross Value Added) of £70m - see Northumberland County Council Report para 19.
Attitude of Stakeholders
When SENRUG first started its campaign back in 2004, the local authority was not supportive and declined to include the scheme in its Local Transport Plan. SENRUG had to look for support from other regional authorities and it was the now defunct North East Assembly that commissioned the first feasibility study into the scheme. The local MP was also very supportive and secured Early Day Motions and later an Adjournment Debate at Westminster.
Attitudes started to change in 2008 when SENRUG chartered a train to make 3 trips round the line as far as Ashington. The first trip was reserved exclusively for stakeholders including Councillors, council officials, local businesses, trade union representatives and the press. The 2nd and 3rd trips were open to members of the public but were fully sold out within a day or so of being released for sale.
The scheme then became Northumberland County Council’s top public transport priority in its next re-issue of its Local Transport Plan. Today, the Council are fully supportive and are leading the scheme through the Network Rail GRIP process, and are making regular public statements that they will indeed deliver it.
SENRUG has also worked hard to get regional stakeholders on board, and has arranged road tours of the line with the Director of Rail North and separately with the Director of Rail at the North East Combined Authority.
The public have generally been fully supportive of the scheme, and SENRUG quickly attracted the requisite 1,000 signatures to its on-line petition to 10 Downing Street back in 2007 which triggered the Adjournment Debate.
Other initiatives such as SENRUG’s Schools Competition in 2014 (inviting local schools to make a short DVD setting out the business case for re-opening the line) have helped galvanise support, bringing the campaign to the awareness of a number of people who might not otherwise think of rail, and gaining sustained press coverage during the period the competition was running and at the awards ceremony.
The public perception of the scheme is sometimes de-railed by national figures and others from outside the region saying there is a plan to extend the Tyne & Wear Metro to Ashington. This is not in fact the case, although it is true heavy rail services and Metro will be much better integrated in future. Nevertheless, these widely reported public comments do cause confusion in people’s mind and some members of the public think that is what is happening. SENRUG has had a constant battle to ensure all publicity is “on message” – this is getting easier as the scheme proceeds through the Network Rail process.
Occasionally, concerns from residents living near the line re noise or disturbance from passing trains reaches SENRUG’s ears. Such people seem unaware the line they are living next to is already a working freight line (and freight use is growing too). A heavy passing freight train causes significantly more disturbance than a short passenger train. SENRUG also receives calls from local estate agents, eager to be updated on progress so they know when they can start to inflate house prices as the benefits of re-opening the line become obvious.
Progress of the Campaign
The GRIP 2 study from Network Rail has now been completed and Northumberland County Council have announced they are proceeding forward to the GRIP 3 stage. The authority has suggested an ambitious timescale comprising commissioning the GRIP 3 by December 2016 construction starting by February 2019 with trains running by early 2021! SENRUG applauds this positive schedule but notes the GRIP 1 and 2 reports both took longer to commission and longer to complete than scheduled, and trusts further delays will be eliminated as the project gains momentum.
However, there are still problems to be addressed. SENRUG originally estimated the scheme might cost around £50m. Network Rail’s figure at GRIP 2 stage was the significantly higher £191m! In moving forward to GRIP 3, Northumberland County Council notes Network Rail’s estimate includes a 40% contingency as well as things like signalling upgrades which must be done whether passenger services are re-introduced or not (because it is a working freight line). Excluding these, SENRUG estimates the true cost for re-introducing passenger trains is nearer to the £50m it has consistently estimated. Nevertheless, we can expect some significant negotiations to be taking place between Northumberland County Council and Network Rail as to who should pay for what. It is important the re-opening scheme is kept within a cost level that the local authority and other stakeholders can justify and for required cost benefit ratios to be achieved.
Clearly the next step is for the GRIP 3 Study to be completed and for Northumberland County Council to then proceed on to GRIP 4. After this, the capital finance must be found and construction work will begin.
SENRUG’s role is to ensure this work proceeds as scheduled, that there is no hiccup over costs and that the current plan is not compromised in order to save money. SENRUG wants to be involved in launching and marketing the route when it opens.
After the core route from Newcastle to Ashington and Woodhorn is re-opened there is still further work to do. This includes:
- re-opening the station at Seghill (if not included in the original phase)
- extending the Newcastle to Morpeth trains on via the freight link to Bedlington to connect with the Ashington Blyth and Tyne route and creating a new station at Choppington
- extending on from Woodhorn to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, requiring relaying of just under 1 mile of new track
- bringing into service the privately owned freight line from Ashington to Butterwell, building a new north to east facing junction where this line re-joins the East Coast Main Line at Stobswood, so passenger trains can run from Newcastle to Alnmouth via the Ashington Blyth & Tyne Line, freeing up capacity on the East Coast Main Line.
'GRIP' is an internal Network Rail acronym standing for 'Governance in Rail Investment Projects'. It is an 8 stage process, as shown below. Stages 1 to 4 cover deciding exactly what to do and how much it will cost, and stages 5 to 8 are Network Rail delivering the scheme.
GRIP 1: Output definition Completed March 2014 GRIP 2: Feasibility Completed August 2016 GRIP 3: Option Selection Scheduled Start December 2016 GRIP 4: Single Option Development
The sponsoring local authority gives the final go-ahead at this point.
GRIP 5: Detailed Design Possible Start October 2018 GRIP 6: Construction Test and Commission Possible Start February 2019 GRIP 7: Scheme Hand Back (Trains Running) Possible Start Early 2021 GRIP 8: Project Close Out
Start dates are as proposed in the Northumberland County Council Report para 29.
Ashington Blyth and Tyne campaign
Competition-winning video promoting reopening, by Hirst Park Middle School
SENRUG Gets a GRIP article