Britain's light rail revival was spearheaded by Tyne & Wear Metro in 1980; Richard Hope reports on another key milestone scheduled for January 13 2002 when light rail operation over the Railtrack network is scheduled to begin

THE GERMANS did it first in Karlsruhe in 1992. Now Britain is set to follow suit. If all goes according to plan, Sunderland will be added to the Tyne & Wear Metro map next January by the apparently simple expedient of permitting the lightly-constructed articulated cars to share 13 km of double track owned by Railtrack with conventional passenger and freight trains.

Immediately south of Sunderland station, 5 km of a disused railway heading west through the city centre is being re-opened as far as South Hylton. The 12 stations on the 18 km extension will be served by six Metro trains an hour that currently terminate at Pelaw.

Arrangements for shared use of the 13 km Pelaw - Sunderland section proved to be quite complex. From the safety point of view, HM Railway Inspectorate's primary requirement when it agreed to the proposal in 1996 was that train protection should be provided to minimise the collision risk.

T&W Metro was created in 1980-84 by linking former British Rail suburban lines through tunnels under the centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead. It is fully signalled, and has Indusi train stops fitted throughout the 59 km network that includes an extension to Newcastle Airport added in 1991.

On the Railtrack network, regulations introduced in 1999 require all trains and a proportion of signals (mainly protecting conflicting movements) to be fitted with the Train Protection & Warning System by the end of 2003.

The shared track from Pelaw, where new chords connect Metro's South Shields line to the Newcastle - Sunderland line, is currently being resignalled. Control is being transferred to Railtrack's Tyneside signalling centre with three manual signalboxes abolished. Both Indusi and TPWS are being installed at every signal. Once mixed operation begins, DMUs and locomotives that are not equipped with TPWS will be barred from operating on this section.

To power the Metro trains, this stretch of line is also being electrified on the 1·5 kV DC overhead system. This required some track lowering and the reconstruction of four bridges. As Railtrack remains responsible for safety and maintenance, the power will be switched from the electrical control room at York that supervises the 25 kV 50Hz East Coast main line through Newcastle.

Apart from the new connections at Pelaw, the only other significant tasks on the shared section are conversion of a level crossing to full barriers monitored by CCTV, and the construction of three new stations at Fellgate, Stadium of Light and St Peters. Three existing unmanned stations are being upgraded to Metro standards.

Station platforms were not altered when T&W Metro was created, so there is no difficulty about Metro cars and DMUs operated by Arriva Trains sharing the single island platform at Sunderland. This subsurface platform is being covered over by retail developments, and it will have intermediate signals so as to provide berths for two trains on each of the fully reversible through tracks.

Only one boundary

The Metro is owned and operated by T&W Passenger Transport Executive, trading as Nexus, which negotiated a deal with Railtrack over the extension. For a maximum price of £90m, Railtrack undertook to deliver all the works from Pelaw to South Hylton. The trackbed beyond Sunderland, partially used as a footpath and cycleway, has been acquired by Nexus and leased to Railtrack for 99 years.

This means that there is only one system boundary, at Pelaw, where trains pass from Metro infrastructure onto the Railtrack network. Nexus has a 30-year access agreement under which fees paid to Railtrack cover ongoing costs as well as rewarding the £40m contribution made by Railtrack towards the total investment of £98m. £35m comes as a grant from central government, £15m from the European Regional Development Fund, and the balance of £8m from Nexus.

No new rolling stock is needed because the Metro already has 90 cars, and only requires 71, plus one spare, to operate the current service. Ken Mackay, Director of Major Projects, explains that Nexus had to become a licensed train and station operator in order to run its trains to Sunderland and South Hylton on Railtrack infrastructure.

There are currently two or three fast and two stopping trains each hour operated by Arriva Trains between Newcastle and Sunderland. These are subsidised by Nexus and carry 2·2 million passengers a year. From January, the six Metro trains per hour to South Hylton will replace the stopping trains. Arriva's non-stop trains will continue.

Mackay points out that Nexus has moved the Metro towards a zero operating subsidy, and 'we must not worsen that by going to Sunderland.' This means that revenue earned on the extension 'must cover the additional operating expenses and the access charge paid to Railtrack; the target is 10 million passengers a year'.

To protect this revenue stream, the Rail Regulator has agreed that for the first 10 years of the access agreement 'moderation of competition' rules will apply to the 11 unmanned Metro stations on the Railtrack network. Arriva will continue to staff and manage Sunderland station.

Nexus is also considering taking out insurance against revenue falling below, say, 84% of the target - 'the government is quite interested in that', according to Mackay.

Tight construction schedule

Railtrack may well be wishing that it had insured against a cost over-run, for it accepted a tight construction schedule. Delays in securing government approval for the funding deal meant that the go-ahead came only days before the December 31 1999 deadline for securing the ERDF grant.

Work commenced in June 2000, and ERDF rules require the project to be completed by the end of this year. The route is expected to be ready in October for Metro to commence driver training. Last November, civils contractor Christiani & Neilson became insolvent. Within three days, Railtrack had arranged for the contract to be taken over by Skanska Construction, including plant on site and many employees, but there must have been a price to pay.

Given that track was in situ for freight as far as Pallion until 1994, well after planning for Sunderland Direct began 10 years ago, the amount of work required to restore the line to South Hylton is substantial. At Park Lane, a cutting had been filled in and a bus station constructed over the top on a concrete raft supported by bored piles. The filled material had to be excavated from under the raft in a congested and busy site in order to build the station, and the alignment altered because the piles were not in the ideal location.

Between University and Millfield stations, another infilled cutting had to be re-excavated, while maintaining the new footpath and cycleway at approximately the original ground level. This meant that the south side of the cutting had to be steepened, with the ground supported by 50 km of carbon-fibre rod used as soil nails. The loose material on the north side has been supported by treated timber.

Between Millfield and Pallion, a road serving an industrial estate occupied part of the original alignment. This required the creation of a new trackbed cut into a steep and unstable slope that had to be retained by extensive piling. A new bridge to carry a road was also needed.

The line terminates at South Hylton at a single platform long enough to berth two trains, so that one can be held out of service if need be. Just beyond is the site of a former level crossing, which would be restored as such if the line were to be extended to Washington.

Parker wants to add 14 tram routes

Back in the 1970s, T&W Metro was launched as the core of an integrated public transport strategy. As each stage opened, buses were diverted to Metro stations. Passenger journeys soared from 10·3 million in 1980-81 to 61·1 million in 1984-85. Then in 1986, buses outside London were deregulated. The Passenger Transport Executives were forced to sell their fleets, the centre of Newcastle filled up with buses, and Metro patronage slumped to 42·7 million by 1990-91.

Not even the opening of the Airport extension in 1991 checked a remorseless downward slide to 32·5 million passengers in 2000-01. If Sunderland Direct hits its target, the total should be back over 40 million by 2003.

Mike Parker joined Nexus as Director General in 1994. He quickly persuaded the Passenger Transport Authority that the Metro could cover its operating costs within five years - despite an apparent near-halving of patronage since it opened (he believes patronage 'probably never hit more than 55 million in reality'). Costs were cut, revenue increased, and in 2000-01 the Metro did break even before depreciation.

Parker believes bus deregulation was only part of the problem. T&W still has the highest number of public transport trips per resident of any British city, including London. And car ownership was exceptionally low, although it is now catching up. Particularly bad for the Metro was the creation of new jobs to replace heavy industry on greenfield sites.

Nexus has a number of bus priority schemes in the pipeline, including guided buses to connect with the Metro. Last December, the government promised £9·6m to double the single-track sections of the South Shields line, allowing two extra stops between Jarrow and Hebburn. Another new station is planned at Backworth on the North Tyne loop.

Parker's 20-year vision is to extend Metro's reach by building a network of up to 14 tram routes covering perhaps 100 km. Three routes would be completed by 2011 under the government's 10-year transport plan (RG 9.00 p541). These would share the Metro's central tunnels under Newcastle and Gateshead, with stepped platforms similar to those on Brussels' pre-metro lines. All T&W platforms in tunnels are long enough for this.

He has persuaded the PTA to adopt this strategy, and consultants are being sought to assist in preparing the business case. Thus far, says Parker, 'the response from interested parties has been good.'

  • CAPTION: The chords at Pelaw, linking Metro's South Shields line (above) with the Railtrack route to Sunderland, form the boundary for control of signalling, power supply and train radio
  • CAPTION: Between University and Millfield the cutting had to be re-excavated and widened. Soil nails support the slope on the right, while a Sustrans cycleway is retained at a higher level using timber to support loose fill

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