Mark Lane gets the inside track on the major transport issues facing the North East, including the upgrading of the Tyne and Wear Metro and potential improvements to the East Coast Main Line, in conversation with Nexus managing director, Tobyn Hughes
From a transport perspective, we are blessed in the North East, although we might not always appreciate it. A good friend from Leeds regularly bemoans the local transport system which he is forced to endure – that’s probably the right word for it – for his morning commute to work. He is dependent on the bus, where heavy traffic and other road issues often mean even short journeys can be unpredictable and frustratingly time-consuming in nature. He also uses the local rail network, the consistency of which is patchy at best. All this, just for getting in and around the city.
Meanwhile, 90 miles or so north, we have the Tyne and Wear Metro. We might take the Metro for granted but we shouldn’t.
Try getting from a suburb of many UK cities outside our region to the relevant city centre and then compare your experiences to using the Metro. You’ll soon see the difference.
Yet as superb a service as it provides, the Tyne and Wear Metro is also old. It has actually been around since 1980, which does make one wonder why other cities haven’t developed the convenience and ease of such a system during that time; there are only four underground systems in the whole of the UK. A story for another day, perhaps.
For now, back to the Tyne and Wear Metro. The rolling stock it uses is, remarkably, the same now as it was back when it was introduced.
“The Metro turns 40 next year,” Tobyn Hughes, managing director of Metro operator, Nexus, tells me. He has a second role as managing director of Transport North East, which includes transport planning and strategy for the area, and as such, is very well placed to talk through some of the issues, trends and challenges facing our region from a transport perspective at the present time.
He is clearly passionate on the subject of the Metro and suggests that, compared to broadly similar systems worldwide, Tyne and Wear is classed as a “mature”.
“We are not the oldest but the investment put into our area in the 1970s to create the Metro is now needing topping up and it needs an injection of cash and engineering investment to make sure it is fit for future generations,” he says.
“Our area is incredibly fortunate to have it, there are very few areas outside London that have something that delivers the frequency, capacity and fast movement in and outside city centres to and from not just leafy estates but some of more challenging – economically and socially – parts of the region as well. This area is totally reliant on the system and it is starting to get a little long in the tooth.
“The necessary investment is not just about new trains. We are in middle of a programme to upgrade the rail infrastructure as well, including track, overhead lines, and the technology that drives the system. We have invested £300m into our system in the last decade but that is part of an ongoing period of investment. The new trains we are planning are an additional £362m.
“The current trains are 40 years old, yet they were only designed to be used for 35 years so they are past their shelf life. Unfortunately, as fantastic as the system is, it does means trains are breaking down quite frequently despite the heroic efforts of our maintenance staff. A train built in the late 70s is bound to be made of components which in some cases no longer exist or which are mechanical in nature.”
The upshot of this is that repair teams on the Metro often have to improvise to fix parts. This might be an okay short- term fix, but long-term, modernisation is the only way forward.
The benefits of new rolling stock are obvious. A more modern fleet means the mod-cons consumers have come to expect on transport, such as wi-fi, modern seating layouts and just generally a more modern vibe. New trains will also deliver much greater reliability and energy efficiency.
That new fleet is on the way. Nexus is in the midst of a tendering process, whereby potential suppliers are pitching the latest technology and design for the new trains. “It is very exciting to see what the bidders have been coming up with,” enthuses Tobyn.
A preferred bidder will be named in early 2020, and contracts signed soon after. New trains will be delivered in 2022-23. “We are confident replacing old trains won’t significantly disrupt movement but it is a very complicated business,” Tobyn says. This includes the building of a new depot on the site of the current – 100 year old – depot in South Gosforth.
When discussing transport in the region, it is hard to know quite where to begin, and it quickly becomes clear to me that Tobyn has a comprehensive grasp on all the issues involved at the present time.
One of these issues, which seems to come up time and again, is the upgrading of the East Coast Main Line. First things first, then: why is this such a big deal? This was the obvious question which sprung to mind for somebody who rarely travels along the line and therefore hasn’t seen the chaos which I’m told regularly ensues for commuters on the stretch between York and Tyne and Wear.
Tobyn reminds me that the line is “massively important” to the whole country, given that it connects London with Edinburgh, the Midlands, Yorkshire and the North East. “It is our main link to the rest of the UK,” he says. “The last major upgrade to the line was around 1990 when it was electrified. It is clear that there is insufficient capacity in place for the number of services which will need to use it moving forwards so something will have to give, which could mean the North East’s rail services being reduced.”
The problem is that there are only two tracks for large parts of the journey between Newcastle and Northallerton, which leads to bottlenecks rather like traffic jams on a trunk road, with high speed trains being stuck behind slower trains including freight. “This often means trains are often bunched up,” Tobyn explains.
Tobyn points out another absurd situation. Trans-Pennine Express is introducing new high-tech Hitachi trains onto the line soon, and yet it is uncertain whether the power supply north of Newcastle is sufficient to move them. Consequently, they may well be be running on good-old fashioned diesel (which, if memory serves me correct, the government is attempting to eliminate from the country’s road networks).
It’s all a bit of a mess and it’s also hugely political. Adding to this picture is, of course, HS2. Large swathes of the public seem to have it in for HS2 and yet, Tobyn believes it is vital for the region in terms of connectivity. “We back the need to have HS2 to have trains flowing to the region using the HS2 line and the East Coast Main Line. Ultimately, however, unless we get that investment in the East Coast, the North East will remain a very remote part of the UK rail network.
“The North East England Chamber is leading a campaign to get this on the government agenda but the region needs to pull together on this one. We need government to sit up and listen and we need investment in this line now. If we don’t see upgrades then when HS2 lines start around 2030 the trains will come to a juddering halt around Northallerton.
“Our message to government is that for a relatively small investment to upgrade our line you will get the benefits of HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and lots of capacity released for the UK network as a whole and bring the North East much closer to the rest of the UK.”
As mentioned, transport is a strangely political animal – one where lobbying and having the right contacts in Whitehall can be equally important to actually having a strong business case. On that front, Tobyn believes this region is blessed to have the North East England Chamber.
He says: “The Chamber is very influential in Whitehall and is brilliant at making the case for the region. Chief executive James Ramsbotham is very well known nationally and uses every opportunity to talk up the region.”
But what about transport lobbying in particular? How has the Chamber served a purpose here?
Tobyn outlines two clear examples, the first being making the case for upgrading of the Metro. He says: “As
a public body we rely on government investment to keep trains moving. A new fleet of trains is a once on a lifetime purchase which relies on a lot of public capital investment. It is also a decision a government can or cannot make – it depends on what they see as priorities for investment.
“We as Nexus did our bit, providing all the numbers and the rational argument. But in terms of helping government understand just how important it was to the region we relied on our stakeholders to help us advocate and demonstrate
to ministers and civil servants how important it was. The North East England Chamber played a really important role in that.”
He adds: “When the government looked at the North East they could see advocacy, not just by local authorities but advocacy by local business bodies and the Chamber leading the charge on that. I firmly believe that was one
of reasons government signed off the investment in the timely fashion it did.
“The second area the Chamber has helped is in advocating the upgrading of the East Coast Main Line. As I have said, this is a hugely important transport asset for our region, we rely on it for connections to the rest of the UK. It is only when we work hand in glove with the Chamber that we connect up with businesses, large and small, all speaking the same language and making the same points and that is what eventually leads to outside groups, particularly the government, understanding that the region really needs this investment.”
Tobyn (pictured below) is hugely passionate about transport and the need for better transport links between the North East and the rest of the UK. His message is quite clear – there are significant economic benefits to being better connected and, conversely, poor connections mean the region risks being left behind.
“Good transport links are critical for us as we are one of the more geographically remote parts of UK so it is important for businesses to demonstrate to the rest of UK they are part of an easy to reach network, whether by motorway or rail,” he says. “We have benefited for a long time from flowing rail links from London to Edinburgh, but that time is now passing, the rails are starting to get very congested and investment hasn’t come as it should have. That needs to change – we want to be at the heart of a high-quality transport network.”
Internal transport links are also crucial, he suggests. He points out that the region has a greater proportion of people travelling by public transport than anywhere outside London. “To keep transport moving, to keep buses moving, to keep the Metro moving is vital for employers to connect to the workforce, and lots of people would say we need more not less transport,” he says.
In this context, we often hear the subject of devolution being mentioned. Do more of these decisions on transport need to
be made locally? Tobyn is in no doubt. He says: “Nobody knows better than people in this area what we need. Bringing decision- making closer means we will get a system which is better designed for our needs.
“For instance, bringing decisions on the local rail network into the region, we would be able to transform things. As an example, there are routes which could be massively improved and, likewise, there are routes which could have transport services introduced for the first time in decades, such as between Ashington in Northumberland to Newcastle.”
Action in this area might not be too far away. The Northern Rail franchise is in place to 2025 but a major review of the rail system is currently underway, and Nexus is among many stakeholders feeding into that, advocating for the regions to have more influence.
If the North East is ever to get close to fulfilling its potential, such change cannot come soon enough.