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Tyne and Wear Metro: 40 years and counting

Tyne and Wear Metrocar 4041 calls at North Shields, one of the major station transformation projects delivered under the 11-year Metro: all change programme. Image courtesy of Nexus

Two Newcastle icons: the Metro and St James’ Park stadium. Image courtesy of N. Pulling

The Tyne & Wear Metro was the UK’s first modern light rail system, opening between Haymarket and Tynemouth on 11 August 1980. The network’s first phase expanded over the next four years, with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opening the route to Gateshead on 6 November 1981, the North Tyneside loop opening a year later in November 1982, and the South Shields line on 23 March 1984.

Work on the first rail-based mass transit system outside London began in 1974, although initial plans date back to the start of that decade with the publication of the newly-created Tyneside Passenger Transport Executive’s Transport Plan for the 1980s. This visionary document promoted a continental-style integrated transport system based around a modern light rail backbone, with new tunnels under Newcastle and Gateshead, to link heavy rail, bus and ferry services with, crucially, through-ticketing.

Tony Ridley, Director General of the Tyneside PTE, famously said “You’ll never get away with it,” when the idea was presented to him in 1971. Professor Ridley, also President of the Light Rail Transit Association between 1973 and 1992, ended up masterminding the project as one its key local champions.

A significant step came with the Local Government Act of 1972 that saw the creation of six metropolitan counties from 1 April 1974, with the Tyneside Passenger Transport Authority expanding to encompass Sunderland and become the Tyne and Wear PTE. This bolstered the case for lobbying of central Government and in December 1972 plans for the Metro were agreed with a central Government contribution of 75% towards the construction costs; the formal green light came with the Tyneside Metropolitan Railway Bill receiving Royal Assent in July 1973.

The first day. The 05.27 service at Tynemouth station on 11 August 1980. Image courtesy of Nexus

With Metro planning taken forward by the new PTE, Britain’s largest urban transport project was to put the North East light years ahead of other parts of the country, although its gestation was not without its difficulties. These were caused by differences between the Tyne and Wear PTE, British Rail, and the railway unions about who should own and operate the new system, and partly as a result of the financial crisis of 1976 which saw a Government freeze on major public sector capital projects.

HM Queen Elizabeth II formally opens the system – and the bridge that carries her name – on
6 November 1981. Image courtesy of Nexus

Nevertheless, the power of local support and a strong and persuasive business case prevailed. A key strength that helped get Metro across the line is its reach. Since the beginning it has connected areas of deprivation with areas of opportunity; today, 23 of the system’s 60 stations are located in places falling within the bottom 20% of nationally-defined areas of deprivation.

Metro’s contribution to social inclusion and accessibility to jobs, education, health and social facilities is hugely significant, as current Nexus Director General Tobyn Hughes explains: “As we are a local authority body, we have fares set by our political bodies and we’re highly accountable to the communities we serve. We have some of the lowest fares in Europe per kilometre travelled and the profile of Metro users shows a diverse range of people, and a variety of workers, many of whom are on lower wages and some who aren’t on a wage at all. They all need mobility, so we’re not in it to make money, we’re here to provide a public service.”

Standing on the shoulders of giants

The Queen Elizabeth II bridge carries the Metro over the River Tyne and is now one of the city of Newcastle’s landmark structures. Image courtesy of N. Pulling

England’s North East is the birthplace of the railway and this heritage is embedded within the Tyne and Wear Metro’s DNA. Part of the network’s genius lies in its repurposing of both Victorian infrastructure and that of the ‘Tyneside Electrics’ suburban rail system of trackbeds, embankments, bridges and tunnels that in some cases are over 180 years old. The route between Chillingham Road and North Shields has been in constant use since 1839, when it was opened as the world’s first dedicated commuter rail route, connecting Newcastle with its emerging coastal suburbs.

Joining these lines into a cohesive network that reached into the heart of key commercial and employment centres saw tunnels driven under the streets of Newcastle and Gateshead, running through thick coal seams that were mined as Metro construction continued. Going underground segregated light rail service from surface traffic. Additional stations were constructed and a landmark 360m bridge was constructed over the River Tyne as well as a curved 815m viaduct at Byker; these new sections of key infrastructure allowed for dramatically enhanced journey times and knitted together the patchwork of suburban lines. Another important rehabilitation project covered a stretch of the freight-only Ponteland railway between South Gosforth and Bank Foot, closed to passenger services in 1929.

Metro also introduced a number of significant UK firsts: it was the first fully-accessible rail network; the first to be non-smoking; and the first to provide mobile phone coverage underground. Further stations were added at Pelaw, Kingston Park and Palmersville in the late 1980s to reflect the growth of suburbs near the existing line, and in 1991 a 3.5km (2.2-mile) extension from Bank Foot connected Metro to Newcastle International Airport across the fields behind Woolsington village, providing a 23-minute journey to the city centre.

Bus and taxi interchanges at locations such as Heworth, Sunderland Park Lane, Regent Centre, Gateshead and Four Lane Ends enable integrated journeys. Ten Metro stations feature park-and-ride sites and almost all have bicycle storage facilities. Interchange with national and local rail services is provided at Newcastle Central Station, Sunderland and Heworth. However, the most important element for passengers is simple and good value cross-ticketing, and single customer service and information points.

Original Metrocar 4001 approaches Pelaw station in early 2009. This section of the Metro features shared-running of light and heavy rail services, marking a UK first when it opened in 2002. Image courtesy of N. Pulling

The first major expansion came in 1994, with conversion of 14km (8.7 miles) of existing national rail route between Pelaw and Sunderland to shared operation and re-opening of a 4.5km (2.8-mile) disused alignment to South Hylton. The GBP149m (EUR167m) Sunderland line opened in 2002.

Conversion entailed electrification of the existing freight line – requiring track lowering and the reconstruction of four bridges – signalling work, and both modernised and new stations. The culmination of eight years development and planning, this project was innovative for the UK in pioneering the operation of light and heavy rail vehicles on the same infrastructure.

Much of the learning served as a precursor to the South Yorkshire tram-train pilot that would open some 15 years later. In 2014, then Director General Bernard Garner told TAUT: “Those promoting tram-train should take encouragement from the fact we have been running light rail on a very busy national rail route for 12 years. I invite anyone to stand on Sunderland station and watch a Metro train followed into the same platform by an Intercity 125 a few minutes later.”

A four-car train passes over the Byker viaduct in 2014, wearing the Metro’s new livery. Image courtesy of N. Pulling

Incremental growth came with new stations at Northumberland Park (2005) and Simonside (2008), underlining Nexus’ continuing desire to extend Metro’s reach, proving the case for light rail time and again. The Tyne and Wear Metro is arguably more important to the region it serves now than it has ever been.

Metro: all change

By the early 2000s, the network’s success – allied to a lack of ongoing investment in the modernised Victorian infrastructure – led Nexus to declare the system at risk of failing by 2018 without fresh financing to sustain core assets. So lobbying of Government began again, with the revitalisation works described as ‘the most important infrastructure project in the North East’.

Metro: all change has seen much of the original track relaid; here St James’ Park football ground can be seen in the far distance as work takes place in Wallsend in March 2011. This section of route has been in constant use since 1839. Image courtesy of Nexus

‘Metro: all change’ envisioned not only the renewal of life-expired infrastructure and vehicles, but a far more wide-reaching initiative to prepare the network for the future. A robust business case was therefore made, based upon economic benefits. As Mr Hughes explains: “When we were contemplating expanding our rail coverage, Metro or otherwise, we needed to understand the economic contribution to the area as it stood. A study by Mott MacDonald showed that every journey on the Metro generates GBP8.50 (EUR9.50) for the UK’s economy, most of that is generated locally. That is an outstanding level of return and that’s why I believe investment in the Metro and expansion of local rail provision is a no-brainer – I don’t think that anybody disagrees with that.”

The environmental benefits are similarly impressive. The Metro takes more than 11 million cars off local roads each year. Nexus Chief Operating Office Mr Kearney believes this makes the region the envy of others: “How many UK cities would love to have a system like the metro? Just imagine putting all those cars back on the roads! We’re part of the heartbeat of the North East.”

Despite such proven benefits – the benefit-cost ratio of the asset renewals was in the same ballpark as the wider economic payback to the region – securing finance for such a long-term programme proved challenging: rather than the oil crisis 30 years before, this time the application took place against the backdrop of the 2008 banking crunch, which led to severe pressures on UK Government spending once more.

However, with the installation of a Coalition Government in 2010 commitments came for a range of transport schemes – and Metro: all change became a reality. The funding deal provided a total of GBP350m (EUR395m), including a 10% local contribution, for an 11-year scheme to rebuild the Metro from the ground up.

The Monkwearmouth railway bridge dates from 1879 and has carried Metro services
across the River Wear on the Sunderland line since 2002. Metrocar 4001 is seen crossing the Victorian structure in March 2014. Image courtesy of N. Pulling

But before works could began, the authority needed to truly understand the task at hand. Documentation from the 1970s existed but was fragmented, so Nexus set about a series of comprehensive asset and ground surveys to unlock the secrets of the foundations on which Metro relies, many of which date back to railway pioneer Robert Stephenson. Mr Hughes described this task to TAUT: “Our asset knowledge was patchy to say the least, but we’ve now built up a really good asset knowledge and we’re very proud that we’ve delivered extremely good value for money for the government and passengers alike. What we’ve ended up with is a system that in many respects has been rebuilt bolt-by-bolt.”

This once-in-a-generation strategic opportunity has also given Nexus the chance to make long-term infrastructure enhancements. Some embankments were of ash construction – crude by modern standards, with heavy foliage now integral to them. A number of long-disused bridges beneath the tracks have been filled in, while innovative methods have been used to ensure ballast is better retained on the embankments themselves. Overbridges across the core network were also subject to interventions including underpinning, strengthening and waterproofing, and major improvements were carried out to the tunnels.

The Nexus Rail engineering division was, before 2010, structured primarily to fulfil a maintenance function, so a dedicated renewals team was thus formed, creating hundreds of jobs and opportunities for a new wave of young graduate engineers to cut their teeth in project management with major contractors.

As a ‘newcomer’ to Nexus himself, Nexus Chief Operating Officer Martin Kearney has spent the last 30 years in the industry working on transport delivery across a number of UK train operators as well as train services in Auckland, New Zealand, and ferry services in Sydney, Australia. With experience of such a diverse range of roles and corporate cultures, he clearly understands the value of people: “It is vitally important that we’re not only bringing new people in, but also investing in the people we have. Earlier this year I appointed Stuart Clarke as our Metro Infrastructure Director; he started as an apprentice and has worked his way all the way up through the organisation – and he’s not the only one. We’ve got some incredible talent here and we’re putting investment into all the right areas. Stuart’s dad still works here too, so we’re a generational railway.”

Over a three-year period between 2007 and 2010, Haymarket station in central Newcastle was completely rebuilt while remaining substantially open to passengers. The new five-storey structure was carefully constructed over the top of the existing ‘drum’ building which was then removed from within. Image courtesy of Nexus

Over a three-year period between 2007 and 2010, Haymarket station in central Newcastle was completely rebuilt while remaining substantially open to passengers. The new five-storey structure was carefully constructed over the top of the existing ‘drum’ building which was then removed from within. Image courtesy of Nexus

Mr Hughes also cites how this development has permeated the whole organisation and how it is one of his highlights: “As a business, Metro: all change transformed us. Nexus went from a local authority light rail provider into a synchronised major engineering, construction and procurement body. The benefits of having an 11-year funded programme have been absolutely fantastic; it gave absolute clarity on how we could set out a long-term programme of renewals, and making sure assets were replaced when they needed to be replaced rather than when the money was there to do so or because you’ve left it too late and they’re broken.”

Although a vast amount has been achieved over the last 11 years and the core asset renewal programme is near completion, the importance of maintaining the network to the highest standards is now paramount in the eyes of Nexus management. Mr Hughes continues: “We’ve been talking to the Government for some time now about continuing that approach of long funding windows. As with everything, sign-off has been delayed by COVID but we do have the support of the Department for Transport for getting about as much longevity of funding as the Treasury is willing to provide.”

“So far we’ve been given GBP20m (EUR22.5m) for the next financial year, which is enough to start our planning and enable additional infrastructure renewal works, although we will need more and are talking about another multi-year settlement.”

This is further emphasised by Mr Kearney: “A lot has been achieved, but this work needs to be ongoing and we’ve still got a lot to do. We can’t fall back to the days of ‘everything’s fine now, let’s just not do anything for a long time’. But it has to be one step at a time, as while I’m excited about the next few years I’m also cautious we don’t take on too much.”

Improving the passenger experience

A key component of the early phase of Metro: all change was a full ticketing overhaul. Beginning in 2009, all 225 ticket machines were upgraded to accept credit and debit cards, smartphone payments, physical currency, as well as the Pop smartcard (available in Pay as You Go, Season and Corporate versions) launched in 2011. Approximately two-thirds of transactions registered in 2019 used contactless payment.

As well as improvement works to stations across the network, key interchanges have been rebuilt and enlarged to provide modern standards of accessibility, staff facilities and enhanced retail space.  It was always stated that that all stations and major route sections had to remain open as far as possible during such a massive network overhaul; long-term closures were not acceptable and detailed sales and travel data have been used to avoid such events wherever possible to minimise the impact on passengers.

Martin Kearney explains this rationale and the importance of clear communication: “People love the Metro. Yes, they recognise we’ve got some major challenges – 40-year-old
rolling stock, the amount of renewals work, the line closures – but we don’t have a choice. We have to renew the assets, it has to happen. I think people understand that.”

Two flagship examples of the station works are North Shields and Haymarket. North Shields was one of the early projects, completed in 2012 and, standing on the site of several older buildings of different sizes, its modernisation presented unique engineering issues. For example, excavations near the 1848 tunnel east of the station, partly below the new concourse, uncovered a potentially live electricity cable unknown to both Nexus and the utility companies. Believed to date back to the previous era of suburban electric train operation on Tyneside, ended in the 1950s, this had to be safely disconnected before works could begin.

A crucial element of the success of all: change has come from its partnership working. For example, the extensive rebuilding of North Shields station required additional funding and support from North Tyneside Council, English Heritage, and the owner Station Developments Ltd.

In central Newcastle, Haymarket interchange was rebuilt in another GBP20m (EUR22m) project, creating a spacious new travel and retail hub that also incorporates a new permanent artwork, Canon, featuring dynamic flashes of colour that run through the bright new curved platform spaces and up into the concourse above. At street level a kaleidoscopic mosaic is designed to reflect the vibrant city and the six million passengers who pass through the station each year. Another major artwork is Platform 5, commissioned by Nexus in 2009 for the shared space at Sunderland station and featuring ghostly images of passengers moving across a light wall.

With hundreds of active projects on the go at any one time, managing open heart surgery on an active network that carries around 36m passengers per year involves careful planning. On occasions where major closures are unavoidable, the benefits of an integrated transport system mean that Nexus is well-placed to minimise the pain through greater co-ordination of replacement bus services.

Mr Kearney continues: “We are planning a two-week central blockade next year, which is basically the city centre stations, and that’s going to be really hard. But at some point we’re going to have to do it to renew our overhead lines so it has to happen otherwise it would be another six weekends on top of the weekend blockades we’ve got planned already.”

The avoidance of major closures has avoided undue impacts on fare revenues, which Nexus retains to cover the majority of Metro operations; a fact the authority is rightly proud of. “As a PTE we have responsibility for transport in the round in the region, so we get a levy payment from the local authorities each year; we also receive a Government subsidy in the form of a revenue operating grant,” Mr Hughes tells TAUT. “But the pandemic has hit us hard. Metro costs GBP104m [EUR117m] a year to run. We receive GBP48m a year in fare revenue [pre-COVID], with the rest made up by an operating grant from Government of GBP53.6m and a local levy contribution of GBP2.8m. During the pandemic revenues all but disappeared. Where we would normally expect to carry around 100 000 people on an average working day, we were carrying just 5000 per day at the height of the lockdown. So along with missing passengers went all of their farebox income. At one point we were losing just shy of GBP900 000 (EUR1m) per week.

“I’m pleased to say that after some persuasion, and working with colleagues at other English light rail systems, the Government has provided some emergency funding. That funding has been renewed twice now [GBP24m/EUR27m in total], running up until the end of October at which point there’s a Spending Review scheduled where we will find out what happens thereafter. As you can imagine we are busy making the case again that we will continue to need emergency COVID funding, frankly until the end of social distancing no longer affects the amount of people on the Metro.”

The Metrocars

Metro-Cammell built Metrocar prototype 4001 on test at the specially-constructed facility in North Tyneside. Image courtesy of Nexus

The system’s original 90 Metrocars were built by Metro-Cammell in the West Midlands, to a design influenced by West Germany’s high-floor Stadtbahnwagen B developed in the early 1970s. Using Düwag bogies allied to many domestically-supplied components and a new body design, the first trains arrived from 1975 and were tested on a purpose-built 2.4km (1.5-mile) track – complete with tunnel section, control room and training facilities – from the following year. Interestingly, in early 1978 two Metro-Cammell-built trains for the new Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway undertook proving trials on Tyneside before shipment. With all commissioning complete, this facility closed in summer 1980 with the route being taken over for heritage rail use.

Due to the need for more intensive services than intended and forthcoming accessibility standards, by the mid-2000s the Metrocars were showing their age. Despite an extensive ‘three-quarter life’ refurbishment by Wabtec in Doncaster as part of Metro: all change, maintaining the 45-year-old rolling stock has become increasingly uneconomic. The Wabtec rebuilds included addressing corrosion damage, remedying increasingly failure-prone door mechanisms and some rewiring work, but in the main it was important to upgrade the passenger saloon and driver areas. New seating and lighting was installed, and improved on-train passenger information displays introduced.

“It just didn’t offer value for money to replace the traction motors, the braking system, the power supply,” Mr Hughes explains, “but even now some passengers say, ‘why are you replacing the trains? They’re relatively new!’

“Sadly there isn’t any real residual value in the existing fleet, but there is of course a heritage value. We’d love for the NRM [National Railway Museum] to take one, and there are a number of heritage railways and museums in the area that have expressed an interest.”

The first Metrocar is carefully placed on a low loader at Hylton Street yard in August 2011. It was to undertake a 185km (115-mile) journey to Wabtec’s works in Doncaster as the fleet overhaul process began. The red, green or blue livery dated back to the 1990s and was replaced by the current grey, black and yellow colour scheme. Image courtesy of Nexus

The first of the original fleet to be scrapped was 4022, which was damaged in 2017 and considered uneconomic to repair.

Operations and maintenance

For its first three decades, Metro was run by the PTE (rebranded as Nexus from 1996) and saw a peak in ridership of 59.1m annual journeys in 1985-86. But within the package agreed for capital funding to underpin Metro: all change came a requirement to demonstrate value for the money being put into the system by the Government. To do that, Nexus carried out a market-sounding exercise to put train operations out to competitive tender. This would also allow the teams at Nexus to focus on strategy and future planning.

On 1 April 2010 successful bidder DB Regio Tyne and Wear (a subsidiary of Germany’s state-owned railway Deutsche Bahn) took over ‘day to day’ running of the trains and customer service functions under a seven-year concession, with an option for a further two years. Nexus retained responsibility for the fare structure and service specifications, as well as maintaining the infrastructure and retaining the revenue risk.

Things began promisingly, with a new structure that included the introduction of a Service Quality Regime (SQR) by which Nexus could monitor its new operator and penalise it on performance failures. The SQR measures included cleanliness, customer information, graffiti, management of slips, trips and hazards, help point response times and the headline commitment of a ‘100 Day Clean Up’ programme. This initiative saw ‘deep cleans’ of the fleet and stations, repairs at all stations, improving station lighting and directional signage, tackling graffiti, nominating dedicated Customer Services Managers for individual stations and the introduction of digital asset management and fault reporting systems.

Metrocar 4001 following the application of a 40th anniversary special livery that incorporates the original 1980s blocks of white and yellow, the 1990s red and blue colours and the current metallic grey, black and yellow. Image courtesy of Nexus

Tobyn Hughes reflects on the concession with mixed sentiments: “DB Regio delivered a good service, but its incentives were more focused on pleasing us through the contract as the client rather than pleasing the passenger and that can obviously give some perverse outcomes. Nexus has always been highly efficient in the value for money it gives and I think there might have been an assumption by some private sector bidders that they would be able to drive more efficient practices and therefore get a higher rate of return. In practice that was not the case.”

However, disputes relating to punctuality and customer satisfaction increased and saw a number of significant financial penalties imposed, resulting in a decision in 2016 not to exercise the two-year extension with DB Regio. Instead, Nexus opted to run out the final year of its contract and take operations back in-house from 1 April 2017.

As Tobyn Hughes told TAUT: “We learned a lot from that period. On the positive side, we learnt about the management of rail contracts and we gained a much greater affinity with the UK rail sector. Before that we were quite remote, but, coupled a few years before with the opening of the extension to Sunderland using Network Rail’s lines, those two things combined to make us more of a ‘rail operator’ than a light rail operator.

“We also learned that our system should be vertically integrated. That doesn’t mean it can’t be operated by a contractor or a concessionaire, but the mistake we made was to only outsource the train operations and not the infrastructure. Our system is too small for this really and we ended up with disadvantages such as commercial barriers between two groups of staff, two management teams, two different cultures – and often financial battles over who was responsible for particular liabilities – without the corresponding benefits.

“So that was quite an unhappy experience for both sides, and there were times when people were trying to shovel money over the fence because of a delay to a particular Metro train. People could occupy hours arguing about issues rather than working together to find a solution and focus on the passenger. That’s nobody’s fault necessarily, it’s just a structural weakness in the system as it was designed.”

The North-East’s light rail ‘bargain’

051 passes South Gosforth depot; this site is soon to undergo expansion in preparation for the arrival of the new Stadler fleet. Image courtesy of N. Pulling

The original cost of the Tyne and Wear Metro came in at GBP280m, a lot of money in 1980 when the country faced financial hardship at both local and national levels; many complained, both within the region as well as the capital, about the cost.

Yes, the project came in over budget and yes, there were delays. But Tyne and Wear PTE’s boss at the time, Desmond Fletcher, sums it up well when describing the Metro as a ‘Rolls Royce system for the price of a Mini’. But with potentially over a billion pounds of investment over the two decades between 2010 and 2030 and returns of GBP8.50 for every journey, even such figures make it look like the bargain of the century…

Article appeared originally in TAUT 994 (October 2020)