Newcastle both gave us the railway and has become utterly dependent on it. The site of Robert Stephenson’s works where the Rocket was built can be seen from Platform 7 of the station and there is a whole section of the town now called the Stephenson quarter in honour of Robert and his father George.
The frequent service to London, just three hours away on a fast train, is, according Tobyn Hughes, the head of the transport section of the new Combined Authority, Newcastle’s economic lifeline. When I met Hughes on a sunny day in late July, David Higgins the boss of HS2 had just passed through having addressed a meeting organised by local businesses to press for an early decision on ensuring that services to Scotland use the eastern leg of HS2. ‘Preston may object’ said Hughes, ‘but we think the case is strong’.
This though is the long distant future. Hughes has more immediate fish to fry. Top of his agenda is the need for new trains for the Metro system. The cost is estimated at a precise £537m and Hughes hopes that these can be in place by 2021 at the latest, greatly improving the reliability of the Metro as the present stock has a high failure fare.
Hughes has a great sense of history and the tale of the Metro is a fascinating one, as it highlights the failings of the politics underlying the British transport system at the local level.
Hughes has a presentation which shows the origins of the lines which make up the metro system. Part of it was, actually, Britain’s second commuting route, a line between Newcastle and North Shields completed in 1839, just a year after the London & Greenwich. Another section, on the other side of the Tyne to South Shields, was actually electrified by the LNER in 1937, only for it to be transformed back to diesel in 1963 by British Rail because of poor patronage.
It is, though, the more recent history that is relevant to the present state of the Metro. Until its creation more than 30 years ago, Newcastle’s local suburban services operated from bay platforms on the north of Central station, which was an unsatisfactory arrangement since the station is a long walk away from the main office and shopping districts. Local politicians spent many years lobbying strongly for a Metro to improve transport in an area with low car ownership. While there had been a brief BR initiative to encourage use of these suburban services under the name ‘Tynerider’, for the most part they were being run down and used hand me down rolling stock featuring maps of train services in Lancashire or Cornwall.
The Metro would change all that. It was conceived as part of an integrated transport system serving the region, an innovative concept at the time It was, in effect, Britain’s first light rail system which, it was hoped, would be an example for other cities. It was, though, the concept of integration that was most forward looking. Hughes showed me photos of the stations on the system where buses in yellow and white livery would deposit passengers at ground level who would then walk down beneath to the station to catch Metro trains, featuring the same livery, to central Newcastle.
It was a triumph for the local politicians who had been supported by a group of radical and enthusiastic transport planners and had written a key blueprint for the idea, Plan for the People, in 1973. It did not come cheap. The system required tunnelling under the city centre, a new bridge over the Tyne and an elegant S shaped viaduct at Byker and it eventually cost £288m, rather than the original estimate of £65m. There is, though, little doubt that it was worth it, providing an effective transport system and providing much better access to Newcastle’s commercial districts.
The Metro system opened fully in 1984 and in the first year of operation carried 60 million passengers. That figure has never been exceeded because almost as soon as the integrated system was created, it had to be dismantled. The Transport Act 1985 deregulated bus operations outside London which meant that anyone could start up a service in competition with existing providers. The Tyne & Wear network had been designed to provide buses to feed into the Metro system which would then take people into Central Newcastle, reducing the pressure on roads and bridges. That, clearly, was too radical and, indeed, rational for the Thatcher government of the 1980s and the result has been fewer Metro passengers – a recent upsurge has seen numbers climb to 40 million, still well below the peak at its inauguration – and declining bus patronage as fares have risen above inflation.
Yet, the bus companies have defended this system as if it with the desperation of Davy Crocket at Fort Alamo. After years of frustration, the local authorities, Nexus, which was then the local Passenger Transport Executive, sought to change the system to create a Quality Contract allowing it to set routes, times and prices. The attempt to impose this ‘Quality Contract’ as it was known, however had to overcome numerous hurdles as set by the Labour government which had clearly been lobbied hard when the legislation was passed.
The local councils were perceived by Stagecoach and Go-Ahead, the principal local bus companies, as wanting to ‘steal their bus routes’ and wreck their businesses. Rather amusingly, Les Warnford from Stagecoach said ‘Nexus and the transport authority were operating in the same camp as Marx, Lenin and Trotsky’. When the matter came to the arbitration court, Nexus could not match the panoply of lawyers put up by the bus companies which were defending profit margins of up to 24 per cent and lost on the grounds that it could not show sufficient public interest – even thought it would have resulted in a far more rational local transport situation. Hughes says that it was impossible to revive the case since ‘we had already spent a lot of money and could not risk more’. Clearly the strength of feeling from the bus companies – most of whom also run rail franchises – was such that they actually saw the case as actually threatening their very existence. Yet, on the Continent, the sort of arrangement proposed by Nexus is commonplace. The story of the Tyne & Wear Metro is probably the greatest indictment in the UK of our ridiculous insistence on competition rather than coordination. The reduced passenger numbers of both bus and Metro users is a direct result of the inability of the authorities to create an integrated system because of legislation that focuses on competition.
Hughes, in fact, is now transport boss of the new North East Combined Authority of which Nexus is just a part as it encompasses Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle upon Tyne, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland. This is part of the devolution agenda promoted by the now departed Chancellor, George Osborne, and the precise functions and powers of the new organization have not been determined.
However, it may be that this will be a new opportunity to recreate an integrated transport system in the North East. The Combined Authority will eventually have a mayor and powers to establish a transport network that could be franchised out. Moreover, Hughes hopes that this would also help bring about long mooted plans for extensions of the Metro and local rail network. The centrepiece of the numerous projects set out in a brochure produced by the Combined Authority is the reinstatement of the Leamside line which would not only allow for a metro style service between Sunderland and the growing area of Washington, but would also be a diversionary freight loop relieving pressure on the East Coast Main Line. In the longer term, it could even become part of a high speed route from the North East to Yorkshire.
And here’s a nice irony. When the Metro system and the integrated transport concept was first signed off in the mid 1970s, it was in the aftermath of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and the country was in the midst of a financial crisis. Yet somehow, the money was made available. Hughes is an optimist.
Train planning in chaos
If you wonder why temporary timetables introduced to cope with engineering works or special occasions so often go wrong, a recent conversation I had with a former train planner explained much. Train timetabling is one of those functions that has been entirely centralised in Network Rail towers in Milton Keynes. When that happened a few years ago, many experienced planners were unwilling to move there and consequently much expertise was lost.
However, recently things have got worse because the job was largely deskilled. Instead of experienced railway staff being taken on to do the job, people are being taken ‘off the street’, given a minimum of training and told to get on with it, at a much lower salary, of course, than was previously paid. My source tells me that it is now frequent for trains to end up being
retimed without adequate checks. Therefore, two trains can be scheduled to arrive at the same platform simultaneously, which then requires signallers to sort the mess out when, inevitably, one of them gets held outside the station. Delays, often quite considerable, are inevitable.
It is easy to knock Network Rail – and, gosh, so many of my contacts do – but it is not all its fault. Part of the problem, actually, is the result of the culture of the industry which requires the Office of Road & Rail to set ever more demanding efficiency targets without any clear understanding of what they might entail. Just saying that Network Rail needs to make, say, 5 per cent efficiency savings does not, in fact, make Network Rail 5 per cent more efficient. Sometimes it is quite the opposite which you may reflect on next time you are standing on a platform where the train information clearly shows a scenario that is not actually feasible.