Transport North East boss Tobyn Hughes and transport minister Baroness Vere hail success story for the region

 
Metro has carried 1.5 billion passengers over four decades of operations

 
The Tyne and Wear Metro is celebrating its 40th anniversary today.

Events marking the occasion include a virtual Metro depot tour, the launch of a new online Metro game and the first original Metrocar 4001 has been painted in a special 40th anniversary colour scheme.

To mark the anniversary, Passenger Transport is publishing Andrew Garnett’s May 2018 report – ‘En-route to a Metro revolution’ – online (see below).

Metro has carried 1.5 billion passengers over four decades of operations. Nexus, the public body which owns and manages Metro, said the network was a regional icon which has become one of North East England’s most successful transport projects.

“We’re enormously proud that the Tyne and Wear Metro is celebrating its 40th year,” said managing director Transport North East, Tobyn Hughes. “What a fantastic success story for our region it has become.

“I’m sure that August 11, 1980, is a day that will live long in the memory for those who were there, and since then Metro has become a part of everyday life for thousands of people, who rely on it to get to places of work, school, college, and for leisure activities.

“The Metro is undoubtedly one of our region’s greatest post-war achievements. It’s a source of immense pride, affection, and is the envy of other UK cities.”

He added: “Nexus remains the proud custodians of this iconic light rail system which means so much to our region.

“The Covid-19 crisis has brought new challenges to us but I’m determined that we can now get back to business as lockdown lifts.

“My thanks go to our customers who travel with us every day, and our workforce, who do such an amazing job, day in, day out, to keep the trains running. Here’s to the next 40 years.

Metro has a bright future. We are looking forward to getting our new trains in 2023 and beyond that we remain committed to extending the network

“Metro has a bright future. We are looking forward to getting our new trains in 2023 and beyond that we remain committed to extending the network.”

Leader of Gateshead Council and chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, Cllr Martin Gannon, said: “I want to wish a very happy 40th anniversary to the Tyne and Wear Metro.

“This is a rail network that was built against all the odds, at a time of huge austerity, and it has transformed the way that people travel around our region.

“Every year Metro helps to take millions of cars off our roads. It helps to drive our local economy and it’s a much-loved mode of travel which has become iconic. It has undoubtedly helped to put our region on the map.”

Light rail minister Baroness Vere said: “It is fantastic to celebrate this anniversary and the incredible local contribution the Metro has made over the past 40 years, connecting people to work, jobs and leisure.

The Metro is part of the fabric of Tyne and Wear, setting new standards for urban transport which have been copied around the world

“The Metro is part of the fabric of Tyne and Wear, setting new standards for urban transport which have been copied around the world. Passengers will soon benefit from a new greener fleet, increasing reliability and ensuring the network can continue to run smoothly into the next four decades.”

The local politicians and Tyne and Wear PTE staff, who made it become a reality, did so in a bid to reduce local road congestion. They were told that an underground light rail system would cost too much and that it may not be possible. But they held firm and Government funding of £280m was secured.

Tunnels were driven beneath the streets of Newcastle and Gateshead in what was a vast engineering project. Stations and viaducts were constructed. A new bridge was built over the Tyne and a fleet of 90 Metro trains was purchased.

Building work began in 1974 and the first passenger services were running by August 1980. The official opening by the Queen took place the following year, on November 6, 1981.

Nexus brought the Metro to South Shields in 1984, to Gateshead in 1981, to Newcastle Airport in 1991, and to Sunderland in 2002.

Metro 40: timeline:

  • 1971: Studies reveal light rail is a solution to take pressure off Tyneside’s congested road network
  • 1972: Government agrees to fund the Tyne and Wear Metro project at a cost of £100m
  • 1974: Construction begins
  • 1980: Metro system opens to passengers – Haymarket to Tynemouth
  • 1981: The Queen officially opens the Tyne and Wear Metro as the line to Gateshead opens.1984: South Shields line opens
  • 1991: Metro extension to Newcastle Airport is opened
  • 2002: The Queen opens the Sunderland line
  • 2009: Government agrees to fund £350m Metro modernisation programme
  • 2014: Metro train fleet refurbishments completed.
  • 2020: Nexus orders a new fleet of trains to arrive by 2023.

Tyne and Wear Metro in numbers:

  • 60 stations.
  • 77km of track.
  • 90 trains.
  • Three visits by The Queen.
  • 20 hours a day Metro operates, 5am-1am.
  • 1.5 billion passengers have used Metro over its 40 years.
  • 34 million passengers a year use Metro (pre-Covid-19 stat)
  • 10 million passengers a year use Monument Metro station
  • 17,000 kilometres – the total distance the trains cover every day. Equivalent of Newcastle, England, to Newcastle in Australia.
  • 240,0000 – the number of times every Metro train door opens and shuts per year.
  • 100% of stations have step free access
  • 291 – bridges, tunnels and other structures that Nexus manages on the network.

Did you know?

  • When Metro first opened the minimum price for a ticket was just eight pence
  • Metro was the first rail system in the UK to have no smoking in carriages
  • Metro was the first underground system to have mobile phone connectivity in tunnels
  • Metro was the first railway in the country where every station had step free access for wheelchairs
  • ABBA were number 1 in the UK singles charts with ‘the winner takes it all’ in the week that Metro opened in 1980

Want to read more about the Metro?

CLICK HERE for Jonathan Bray’s December 2016 article, ‘Tyne & Wear Metro: urban rail unleashed’.

You can also read Andrew Garnett’s May 2018 report below, ‘En-route to a Metro revolution’. This article was first published in Passenger Transport and is being made available online to mark the 40th anniversary of the Tyne and Wear Metro.

 

En-route to a Metro revolution

 

This article was first published in Passenger Transport in May 2018. Andrew Garnett met Tobyn Hughes and heard how the Tyne & Wear Metro is being transformed

 
Tobyn Hughes, managing director (transport operations), at the North East Combined Authority (NECA)

 
It is now 38 years since the Tyne & Wear Metro light rail system first opened for business and the system is currently more than two-thirds of the way through a modernisation process that will bring this trend-setting light rail system right up-to-date.

The original Metro network opened in phases between August 1980 and March 1984 at a cost of £265m (that’s just over £780m in today’s prices). Three converted British Rail lines – the North Tyneside loop, the Newcastle Central to South Shields branch and a freight-only link line between South Gosforth and Bank Foot that had last seen passenger traffic in the 1920s – were connected by six miles of new track.

Around four miles of this was in newly bored tunnels, with the remainder at ground level or on elevated structures, including the 850-metre long Byker Viaduct across the Ouseburn Valley (like Preston’s much celebrated bus station, it is now something of a Holy Grail for Brutalist architecture buffs) and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge over the River Tyne.

Extension projects have followed, taking the Metro to Newcastle Airport in 1991 and to Wearside in 2002. Today the system is 48 miles in length with 60 stations, all served by a fleet of 90 Metrocars comprising two prototypes built in 1975 by Metro-Cammell in Birmingham and 88 production vehicles produced between 1978 and 1981. All are based on the Stadtbahnwagen B, a German light rail vehicle, developed in the early 1970s.

When the Metro was created, it was intended to form part of an integrated public transport system that would look not unlike the system that can be found in much of Switzerland today. The local bus network was reconfigured to act as a feeder network to the Metro. The Metro was intended to cover trunk journeys, while buses were reoriented toward shorter local trips, integrated with the Metro schedule, to bring passengers to and from Metro stations, using unified ticketing. The concept aimed to make it possible to travel from one end of the Tyne & Wear region to the other, by public transport, within 90 minutes using a single ticket.

This was the era of T. Dan Smith, when they built a motorway right through the centre of Newcastle. Beeching cuts were still happening too, and yet they decided to spend a considerable amount of time planning a modern, European, integrated public transport system with light rail at its heart

Tobyn Hughes, managing director (transport operations), at the North East Combined Authority (NECA) pays tribute to the far-sighted vision that brought the Metro to life in the 1970s. Although ostensibly a NECA employee, his role incorporates that of director general of public transport body Nexus, the Tyne &Wear PTE. Amongst other things, it operates the Metro system.

“This was the Tyne & Wear of the 1960s,” he says. “This was the era of T. Dan Smith, when they built a motorway right through the centre of Newcastle. Beeching cuts were still happening too, and yet they decided to spend a considerable amount of time planning a modern, European, integrated public transport system with light rail at its heart. A Labour-led administration then convinced a Conservative government to fund it, securing some of the first funds from Europe in the process, and then, a couple of years into construction, the entire project was allowed to continue during a period of severe budget cuts following the IMF bailout [of 1976]. Incredible!”

A low cost system

There was rationale in the government allowing the Metro project to continue. Two of the three former BR routes that form the basis of today’s network were decrepit and run-down by the late 1960s when the then Tyneside (without Wearside) PTE was first formed. Although once electrified, they were by that stage operated by first generation Diesel Multiple Units. Stations were, on the whole, unstaffed and heavily vandalised. The entire service was doing nothing to attract patronage. Meanwhile, subsidy to keep this grotty, unattractive rail service going was unjustifiably high for the nascent PTE.

Driver Only Operation is a huge thing at the moment – we’ve been DOO since the system opened

“So conversion to light rail offered the chance to cut costs to the PTE,” explains Hughes. “Stations were mostly unstaffed still, but were heavily modernised and had CCTV put in. Driver Only Operation is a huge thing at the moment – we’ve been DOO since the system opened. The Metrocars are smaller and lighter than conventional rail vehicles. That means the infrastructure doesn’t need to be as robust either; the QEII bridge over the Tyne is actually a remarkably lightweight structure. The sum of that means it’s a low cost system.”

Nexus still reaps benefits the far-sighted vision from the early 1970s to slash operating costs. However, the Metro still depends heavily on financial support from the government in the form of an operating subsidy. It’s worth about £25m each year but, as Hughes points out, this represents good value for money when compared to heavy rail networks of comparable scale and scope in other major urban conurbations in the UK.

Patronage woes

Despite the significant part that Metro plays in the day-to-day activities of Hughes and his colleagues, buses still carry three times more passengers than the Metro. Patronage on both modes is heading in the wrong direction; bus ridership has been falling steadily over the last decade, from 129.9 million in 2009/10 to 114.3 million in 2016/17. The Metro too is suffering, with patronage falling by 2.5 million in the last year to reach 37.7 million in 2016/17. It’s a long way from the peak of 59.1 million passengers recorded in 1985/86 when the network was considerably smaller in scope. This was the final year before bus deregulation, which saw the much vaunted integration project across Tyne & Wear ripped apart.

Patronage continues to fall and it’s an issue causing Hughes great concern. “There are three things behind that, I think,” he says. “You have the wider societal changes, so people are adopting different ways of working – I know a few people who work from home one or two days a week now. You also have the impact of online shopping, so people are not travelling into the centre of Newcastle to go shopping as much as they used to. Then you have the impact of the engineering works and issues that are affecting reliability of Metro, in particular the aging fleet.”

He says that his gut instinct is that the total number of people travelling is not in decline, merely the frequency of their trips. Hughes also feels that it is the discretionary travel between the peaks that is fluctuating the most at the moment, although he has concerns that those engineering works and reliability issues with the Metrocars could be having an impact on the commuter market.

Modernising Metro

As well as providing a subsidy towards operating costs, the government also funds capital expenditure. Back in 2010, Nexus concluded an 11-year agreement with the government for a significant programme of asset renewals. It’s worth between £30m and £40m each year and is covering a backlog of renewals that had built up over the last couple of decades. It is covering things like replacement of track and overhead line equipment, refurbishment of structures, station modernisation, and a replacement radio system for the Metrocar fleet.

“By 2010 the Metro system was 30 years old and it was starting to creak,” says Hughes. “The revenue subsidy was keeping operations going, but there had been a minimal level of capital funding since the system opened and a lot of the assets were really life-expired. We were incredibly lucky to get an 11-year settlement as it meant we could think long term and assemble a proper asset renewal team. I mean, Network Rail only gets five-year certainty with its Control Period, so I’m thankful we received something on a multi-year basis.”

When we started in 2010, there were gaps in our knowledge, we were heavily reliant on people remembering where cables were, that sort of thing. Now we have a proper asset database

Hughes says this programme has transformed Nexus for the better. The PTE has broadened its expertise into a project management and asset management and investment organisation. This expertise is reaping dividends beyond the Metro to other areas of the organisation too. “We have incredible experience now,” he says. “When we started in 2010, there were gaps in our knowledge, we were heavily reliant on people remembering where cables were, that sort of thing. Now we have a proper asset database, we know what’s where and that’s great. We’ve also got incredible planning skills, not just in the actual engineering works, but in things like neighbourhood engagement, customer consultation. That’s paying dividends elsewhere.”

Nexus has taken a pragmatic, horses-for-courses approach to these works. The PTE has created its own in-house delivery team that bids for work where it makes sense. Hughes gives an example of the renewal of cable ducting across the network. It’s a job where an outside contractor was, in Hughes’s words “skinning us alive on costs”. “We want to make our funding work as hard as it possibly can for us, so that means extracting every bit of best value that we can,” he explains. “So it made sense to do it in-house. I mean, it’s not applicable to every job and we are benchmarking costs against outside contractors, so we take a pragmatic approach.”

Hughes points to a forthcoming project that will see the system’s overhead line equipment renewed. The Metro has a unique 1500v DC system (most other light rail systems in the UK are powered by 750v DC) and it is coming to the end of its life. He says that electrification activity by Network Rail has sucked a lot of the expertise and capacity for that sort of work from contractors out of the marketplace, so Nexus is assembling its own team to do the work itself. This has other benefits. While a third party contractor might insist on a long-running blockade, a Nexus team has the capacity to be flexible by working overnight and at weekends in order to minimise disruption. “It also means we have the potential to start bidding for overhead work elsewhere,” reveals Hughes. “Any profits from that would, of course, be reinvested back here for the benefit of our customers.”

Towards a new fleet

The Metrocar fleet is becoming increasingly unreliable and showing its age. Hughes pays tribute to the engineering team based at the South Gosforth depot that keep the fleet on the track. A refurbishment of the Metrocars by Wabtec at Doncaster, which concluded a couple of years ago, focused on tackling corrosion, renewing interiors and improving accessibility. It means that underneath there’s a lot of time-expired equipment, fostering a ‘make do and mend’ culture that is labour intensive and less than ideal. Nexus measures the fleet’s reliability in kilometres per four-minute fault. At present the fleet is producing around 7,000km per four-minute fault. Benchmarking of nearly 20 other metro systems from around the world has the Metro system at the bottom of the league table for reliability.

After a well mobilised, not to say vocal, campaign where Nexus worked with local politicans, business leaders and other regional stakeholders, the government announced last year that it would contribute £337m towards the cost of the new fleet, due in service in 2021.

Hughes says he is encouraged that around five manufacturers have shown interest in taking forward a bid for the contract. In fact, procurement of the new fleet is split into three separate contracts – the new fleet; a new maintenance facility at the existing South Gosforth depot site; and a long-term maintenance contract.

No appetite for outsourcing

Although maintenance of the new Metrocar fleet will be outsourced, operations will remain in-house. Between 2010 and 2017 the Metro was operated by DB Regio, a subsidiary of the German rail operator. This was as a result of a government requirement that forced Nexus to invite tenders for service operation from 2010 in return for unlocking the significant capital investment in the Metro infrastructure.

Hughes says that this process did allow Nexus to have an in-house bid, but lost out to DB Regio. It is not a process that the PTE intends to repeat in a hurry. “It didn’t meet their expectations financially and, from our point of view, it didn’t give the outcomes for passengers we would have hoped for,” says Hughes. “We are different to the rest of the UK rail network because, for the very large part, the infrastructure is owned by us, the trains are owned by us, and the stations are owned by us. Outsourcing the operation, like it was a rail franchise, just didn’t make the best sense at all.”

Growing the network

The 2002 extension to Sunderland and South Hylton saw Metro sharing Network Rail metals between Pelaw and Sunderland. The use of lightweight Metrocars on this stretch of track, with their lower levels of crashworthiness, led to a pragmatic approach with what was then Railtrack in order to overcome some of the safety hurdles.

“The Metrocars are given a ‘double block’,” explains Hughes. “So to get around the crashworthiness issue, on the national rail network they take up double the line space. So, if a red signal says ‘the block in front of me is occupied’, they [the Metrocars] get two.”

He says that while it’s a pragmatic solution, it is constraining capacity on the Newcastle to Sunderland line, where both Grand Central and Virgin Trains East Coast now use paths for empty stock movements. Meanwhile, it also means that level crossing gates on the line remain down for longer than they need to.

To solve some of these issues, the new fleet of Metrocars will be built to higher levels of crashworthiness. They are also being specified in order to offer as much operational flexibility as possible; indeed they will be passively equipped to work on either the existing 1500v DC Metro network or the 25kV AC power supply of the national rail network. Meanwhile, the fleet will also be equipped with rapidly evolving battery technology.

As battery technology improves, the range will grow and so we anticipate in the not too distant future being able to take trains where there’s no power supply at all. That opens up a lot of options for us

“Initially we anticipate that will just help us when there is a power supply failure so it will get the train to the next station, or move around the depot site,” explains Hughes. “But, as battery technology improves, the range will grow and so we anticipate in the not too distant future being able to take trains where there’s no power supply at all. That opens up a lot of options for us.”

That could see the Metro network extended to serve the Ashington and Blyth line in Northumberland or the mothballed Leamside line between Ferryhill and Pelaw via Washington. “The North East was the birthplace of the railways, so there’s a lot of disused rail alignments around where it would be relatively easy for us to put track down,” says Hughes. “Of course, I’m simplifying the process and we’d need funding, but we’re specifying the new fleet to have as much flexibility as possible. That way we have as many options as possible for the future.”

 
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