Dennis Fancett is a happy man. But he is not totally satisfied, as there are further battles ahead. He has been campaigning to get what is now known as the Northumberland line reopened for the past 14 years. And if all goes well, at the end of next year – or probably more likely in 2024, his wish will come true with the launch of a half hourly service between Ashington and Newcastle.
This is a story of persistence and perseverance, of imagination and innovation, and above all of sheer staying power and bloody-mindness. When he moved to the North East in the early 2000s, having campaigned for various rail improvements where he previously lived in London, he joined SENRUG – the South East Northumberland Rail User Group – whose rather unclear name reflects the confusing network of closed railways in this tucked away area north of Newcastle. They are mostly remnants of a now long gone coal industry, laid out largely to bring the black gold from the mines to the waterways. But several parts can now be repurposed as passenger lines.
Fancett, now the chair of SENRUG, has been at the centre of the campaign and has been the one constant over this long crusade as various train operators, Network Rail personnel and even local government authorities have come and gone. However, he acknowledges the crucial contribution of several of his colleagues on the organisation’s committee and of the role of successive MPs and local politicians of all three major parties who have supported the idea of reopening the line for passengers.
When he joined the campaign soon after his move north, it was, as he explains, ‘a rail user group focussed on putting flower beds on station platforms and the like, but this seemed to me as not been sufficiently ambitious’. Gradually, the group decided to focus on bringing back passenger services to the area, particularly by making use of lines that had been saved from the Beeching axe because they were still used for freight.
The first aim for the group was to get noticed. And what better way to do that than run a train along the proposed route. SENRUG managed to fund the loan of a Northern Rail two coach train for a day to run a charter service to run along the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. It operated three return routes on a summer’s day in 2008 with the first two for local VIPs and worthies and the third for the general public who were charged a fiver for the privilege, the kind of fare they will have to pay in the future. The impact was immediate, with widespread coverage in both press and broadcast media and resulted in the reopening being included, for the first time, in the local Northumberland County Council’s Local Transport Plan. Showing that the line was already there and pretty much ready to use marked a turning point in the campaign.
But the battle was not won, as demonstrated by the fact it will have taken another decade and a half before services will run along the line. Gradually local politicians were won over and the momentum was maintained with, in 2014, a competition for local schools to make DVDs setting out the business case for reopening the line. This was timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the closure of passenger services. The winning entry was taken to Parliament with a group of school kids and again attracted much local and some national publicity.
Fancett has always been clear that the argument for the reopening needed to be strongly rooted in the business case rather than in some romantic notion of running trains just because the infrastructure was largely still in place. As the publicity material neatly puts it, ‘the line would connect areas of opportunity with areas of need’. It would be a commuter railway with half hourly services, relieving congestion on the very overcrowded A189/ A19 corridor.
All campaigns like this need a bit of luck and the surprise election of a Tory MP in 2019 to represent Blyth Valley meant that the line became part of the Red Wall narrative. When the ‘reversing Beeching’ became another part of the Tories’ electioneering agenda, the line was an obvious candidate for a quick win in order to demonstrate there was serious intent behind these slogans. From a vague long term idea, reopening the line suddenly attracted the attention of Boris Johnson and the man who is effectively transport secretary, his transport adviser Andrew Gilligan.
So quickly the line became top of the reopening list – along with Exeter- Okehampton – precisely because much of the infrastructure was in place. However, despite this, the reopening is not a cheap option. While originally a decade ago SENRUG was putting forward ideas for reopening a couple of short sections of line at a cost of £4m, now the plan which will include half a dozen new stations, a couple of overbridges and notably total resignalling of the area, is estimated at around £170m – though the final bill has not been settled. The resignalling rather rankles with Fancett who says the work would have been needed anyway and therefore the cost should not be put on the reopening scheme, which distorts what looks like an astronomical cost of bringing back a 13 mile freight railway into use.
Work has started as a preliminary contract, worth around £34m, has been let. The contractors have been appointed and along the line various sections of vegetation have been cleared and mounds of ballast emerged next to the tracks, but no serious work has yet been undertaken. Fancett is confident that the reopening will go ahead but is rather eagerly awaiting the arrival of the big bulldozers and the track laying equipment.
The trains will run out of Newcastle, paralleling the Metro till Northumberland Park (which incidentally is neither in Northumberland nor the site of a park) before turning off on the refurbished line. Initially this is single track until it reaches Newsham (which is the stop for Blyth that the train does not actually serve directly), Bebside, Bedlington and terminate at Ashington.
Of course Fancett and his fellow campaigners are pleased that the scheme is underway but my whistle stop tour with him on a bitterly cold day accompanied by snow flurries round the various station sites highlights some strange decisions and lost opportunities by the project’s managers. Fancett points out that at a couple of the sites, the stations are unnecessarily far from the main road and therefore connect badly with the bus services which is essential to get people out of their cars. And at Ashington, the existing platforms, which are still in place despite more than half a century of disuse, are not being used because of concerns of blocking the line for the very occasional freight services but instead a new bay is being built in the current car park which he reckons is an expensive mistake. Fancett also points out that doubling the track on the section running from Northumberland Park towards Newsham could easily be undertaken given the alignment is there, but has been deemed too expensive and even passive provision is not being made.
The most obvious failure, however, is not to run the trains another couple of miles or so through to Woodhorn the site of the National Mining Museum which is right next to the tracks. That would mean the trains served a major tourist attraction and therefore would bring off peak travellers to the line. These decisions are largely born of pennypinching from the fact that when Network Rail is asked to reduce costs, it always looks at scope reduction rather than examining ways of saving money through greater efficiency. The same process has hampered the growth of the highly successful Borders Railway south of Edinburgh.
Despite these quibbles, this story is one of campaigners scoring a major victory but there is still much to do. Fancett sees it as the beginning of creating improved rail services across the area. For example, he would like to see local trains north from Morpeth along the East Coast Line to Berwick with, possibly reopened stations at Belford and Beal for Holy Island. There are several other sections of freight line that could be reopened and SENRUG can already claim victories by, for example, having persuaded Lumo to stop at Morpeth to use up seats vacated at Newcastle on the northward trips. There will be more from SENRUG and Fancett says that as a rail campaigner ‘you are never short of things to do’. Indeed.
La Vie du Rail
I took advantage of a recent rail trip through France – where the signs are of a very good recovery for rail from the pandemic – to pick up a copy of La Vie du Rail, a monthly magazine now in its 3389th issue (it used to be weekly as otherwise it would have been running since the year 1740, which is improbable for a railway magazine). It is a fantastic mix of railway culture and stuff that satisfies the trainspotters. The issue I bought – not cheap at 6 50 euros – had five pages on the best stations from which to go trout fishing – a long established tradition apparently – a feature on the mutton curry dish made famous on Indian railways in the early days of the 20th century and another on the best railway videogames. For the rail enthusiasts, there was a long feature on the history of the Interrail pass which included coverage of a man who travelled on 473 trains in 16 countries using the pass.
Even if your French is GCSE level, you can still get a lot out of such a wonderful magazine as the photography is amazing and much is written in an accessible style.