North East Devolution and Levelling Up
Penshaw Monument

Business plan for new Metro loop – but still no money

The North East’s ever-optimistic politicians continue to dream grand dreams about the region’s public transport system, without being able to take the single most important step that would help them turn their hopes into reality.

Their latest ambitious move is to publish the business case for a Metro loop from Pelaw to South Hylton, with stations at Follingsby, Washington North and Washington South. It is part of a bigger plan to reopen the Leamside Line from Pelaw to Ferryhill in County Durham.

According to Transport North East the Washington Loop would:

  • generate over £90m per year in economic benefits to the region. Each Metro taken in the region generates £11.80 for the economy;
  • create nearly 8m additional passenger journeys a year;
  • reduce carbon emissions by nearly 87,000 tonnes a year by replacing nearly 1.7m car journeys – the equivalent of over half a million trees;
  • give Washington – the fourth largest town without access to a rail service – new connections to Newcastle, Sunderland and Newcastle Airport.

Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, said: ‘I have championed the re-opening of the Leamside Line for over 17 years, so to see a new business case submitted to the [North East] Joint Transport Committee (JTC) for a new Metro line connecting Gateshead, Washington and Sunderland is a huge step forward.

‘Washington is the fourth largest town in the UK not to be connected to a rail network. The people of Washington and Sunderland deserve access to high quality transport to aid economic growth and job prosperity not only within Washington but also across the region. The new Washington Metro Loop will do just that, and I am delighted that we are one step closer to re-opening the Leamside Line in full.’

Paul Howell, Conservative MP for Sedgefield, said: ‘I welcome…news that a business case for the Washington Metro Loop has been submitted to the JTC. Work is already underway with the development of Ferryhill and the proposed development of the Washington Metro Loop at the north of the line will only further magnify the government’s investment into the North East.

‘The total cost of delivering the new Washington Metro Loop is under 1% of the overall Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) budget and the economic benefit for the region and our people is huge, making this plan one that is good value for money and one that the government should strongly maintain its commitment to as part of delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail in full.

‘I am committed to ensuring our ministers are fully appraised of the importance of the Leamside Line in the North East transport plan. To this end I spoke to the new Secretary of State on Wednesday and will be delivering copies of these proposals to him next week.’

Chair of the JTC and leader of Gateshead Council, Councillor Martin Gannon, said: “Successive governments have committed to the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail in full and that includes re-opening the Leamside Line. The North East is united in one voice and our message to the government is clear – the Leamside Line is a win for the North East, a win for the UK and a win for this government.

“The Washington Metro Loop is a strategically important development for the area and I would urge the government to come to the table and work with us to deliver this project. It is hugely cost effective in comparison to other big rail projects recently completed in the south of England and forms a small part of the overall IRP for the north. As part of the levelling up agenda, the government needs to ensure that the north receives its fair share of infrastructure benefit to ensure economic growth and prosperity in the region.’

John Marshall, chair of the North East England Chamber of Commerce said: “The re-opening of the Leamside Line, and in particular this second phase, is strategically important to the growth of new and existing businesses within the region. The Washington Metro Loop provides new business and local people with additional links to the International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IMAP) and Follingsby Park as well as vital access to labour markets within the wider North East including the major development at Port of Tyne – a gateway for regional growth, development and transformation.’

COMMENT

The Washington Metro Loop and wider Leamside Line have the support of this website. In our view improved public transport, alongside raised levels of education and skills, are the two most important factors that will help the North East to level up.

But even if the Loop would cost less than 1% of the government’s £96bn Integrated Rail Plan for the UK,  as Transport North East says, that is still £745m, which is a lot of money. How much of the £96bn will survive the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on November 17 is unknown, but the signs are not good. Much more high-profile rail schemes like High Speed Rail to Manchester and Northern Powerhouse Rail across the Pennines are under ministerial review.

Mr Howell says work is already underway with the development of Ferryhill [station], which would be at the southern end of the Leamside Line. But even if Ferryhill Station is ever re-opened, it is just as likely to be as a northern terminus for the Stillington Line connecting the town to Stockton as a southern terminus for the Leamside Line, though in an ideal world it would link both lines, providing a fast service between Tyne and Tees.

As this website reported on February 9, the Leamside Line failed in a bid for funding from the Restoring Your Rail Ideas Fund. But the Ferryhill to Stockton Line was successful, among 37 other bidders.

Besides, according to railfuture in July this year, Ferryhill is one of nine projects sharing just £15m to have reached this stage with the aim of accelerating their development and delivery: ‘We don’t yet know how much of the £15m will be allocated to Ferryhill or how it will be spent. Even if this were to be enough to complete the work on the design this is only one step, albeit an important step, towards re-opening. A lot more money will be needed before we see trains calling at the new station.’

North East politicians, as this website has pointed out before, have a record of publishing hugely expensive plans for public transport improvements, not least an umbrella North East Transport Plan that would cost a massive £6.8bn by 2035. There is nothing wrong with ambition, but without realistic means of realisation it merely raises false hopes.

Meanwhile, the same local politicians have still not completed the new regional devolution deal that would reportedly bring in £3bn over 30 years including £900m for transport by 2027. Turmoil in Westminster may have been responsible for delay in recent weeks, but there have been six years to clear up the mess created when the region’s councils split over a previous deal in 2016 and we still don’t even know for sure whether County Durham will be in or out when and if a new deal is signed.