Why the Government’s rail plans are failing the North East

One year ago, my column focused on the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP). It’s the Government’s national rail investment plan for the next thirty years. In a mockery of tragic irony, the IRP was delayed. And delayed. And delayed. While we’ve seen £billions on HS2, £billions on road junctions, and cuts to air passenger duty. When it was finally published last week, the IRP was the metaphorical bus replacement service.

The Prime Minister came out with some lame spin about delivering faster and reducing journey times. But if you read the IRP, page 84 says journey time improvements from Newcastle are “subject to stopping patterns.” In other words, the trains will run faster as long as they don’t stop to let passengers get on. Already this year we’ve had to fight off attempts to cancel the Edinburgh to Liverpool train, which will reduce services to Berwick, Morpeth, Newcastle, Durham and Darlington.

The North East invented the railways. In 1829, Stephenson’s Rocket was built at the Forth Street Works in Newcastle. It heralded the biggest public transport expansion the world has ever seen.

Twenty years later, the Queen Victoria opened the High Level Bridge. A masterpiece of Geordie ingenuity, also designed by Robert Stephenson. By the mid-1850s, there were more than 7,000 miles of track across the country, including two tracks across the Belmont Viaduct, opened in 1856, and two tracks across the Durham Viaduct, opened in 1857.

In the 1960s, the Belmont Viaduct and Leamside Line were mothballed as part of the Beeching cuts. It was reopened and served as the alternative route when the East Coast Mainline (ECML) was being electrified. It was mothballed again in 1991.

So now, only two tracks connect the North East. Coming from the south, the ECML has four tracks until you reach Northallerton. Then it’s just two – one in each direction. All the trains from Edinburgh to London, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, heading north or south, must share these two tracks with slow moving freight and local commuter services. Only six trains an hour can safely use the track. We’re using 164 year old infrastructure.

The Leamside line still exists. It diverges from the ECML at Ferryhill. It travels through the Durham Coalfield, via Washington, and joins the network near Heworth.

Reopening it would give us four tracks. In effect doubling our capacity. We can run 9 intercity trains per hour plus local services. And faster, because slower trains can run down one line, and faster trains down the other. We can integrate Washington and Sunderland into a new Wearside Metro loop. And connect them to the rail network without going into Newcastle Central.

HS2 costs £307 million per mile. £106 billion in total. London’s Crossrail is £18 billion. Re-opening and electrifying the Leamside Line will cost £600 million. It’s a tiny fraction of the investment London gets.

A year ago, the Leamside Line wasn’t in any accepted rail plans. After some diplomacy with other Northern Labour mayors, members of Transport for the North committee backed the Leamside Line as part of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR). That was step one.

But Government has failed the North, and NPR won’t be built. The Red Wall Conservative MPs must feel betrayed by their leader, and worried for their jobs, knowing that constituents no longer believe Tory promises to “level up the North”.

But I’m not giving up the fight. Since publication on Thursday, I’ve already spoken to the rail minister to find a way to get the Leamside Line funded.

I’ve been bending the ear of all the transport ministers and Secretary of State about the Leamside Line. Our region’s MPs raised it in the Commons.

The IRP left a door open. Page 114 says, “Government considers that the case for re-opening the Leamside route would be best considered as part of any future city region settlement.”

For the past two years I’ve been calling for our region to unite and working to make it happen. It’s the only way to get transport devolved. And until we’re masters of our own destiny, we’ll always be forgotten by a Government that doesn’t know its Ashington from its Easington.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22 Nov 2021