Railfuture believes that the Middlesbrough – Newcastle rail journey needs to be improved. Our campaign calls for new passenger services from Middlesbrough, Thornaby and Stockton via the 10-mile Stillington freight only line (from Norton South junction north of Stockton station to Ferryhill South junction on the East Coast Main Line), and then via the East Coast Main Line to Newcastle. This would reduce overall journey time on direct train between Middlesbrough to Newcastle from 1 hour 15 minutes to 55 minutes.
This proposal aims to help with the regeneration of Teesside by access to jobs in the Newcastle and Gateshead areas, and attract industry to Teesside through better connectivity of the region. Travel times between Durham, a university city and world heritage site, would be halved. For example: to travel from Stockton to Durham by train now takes anything from 80 to 90 minutes including a change of train. Using the Stillington line could reduce this to 30 minutes.
There is a firm franchise commitment from Northern to introduce a “Northern Connect” service Middlesbrough to Carlisle but the route between Middlesbrough and Newcastle is not yet clarified.
At a meeting between Arriva, Rail User Groups and RFNE (26th September 2019) the “Northern Connect” service proposals were discussed. It appeared to be case that Network Rail’s reluctance to allow running from Stockton to Durham and Newcastle, via the ECML, was not final. Northern, along with Nexus and other stakeholders, were still trying to negotiate a way forward using the Stillington Line and the ECML as it is the quickest, and shortest at 42 miles, route between Teesside and Tyneside. If an agreement to use this route could be achieved the new ‘Connect’ service would be in addition to the current route via the Durham Coast Line, which would still run hourly between Nunthorpe and Hexham via Middlesbrough and Newcastle. It seemed that Network Rail’s main concern arises from their need to accommodate more ‘main-line express services’ from 2021 onwards. We assume that this is a reference to the open access service to be run by First Group that will run from Edinburgh to London (non-stop between Newcastle and London) and proposed additional LNER services that will result in their running 3 London Edinburgh services each hour. Most of these timetable changes are scheduled for 2021. The September 26th meeting was told that paths for the ‘Northern Connect’ Service on this part of the ECML service had been granted for the present but might not exist once the new Intercity services started to operate. However, all parties were trying to work out how to run the ‘Connect’ service beyond after that date.
The various Rail User groups are trying to get “stakeholder” status, on a matter of this importance as one way of getting their message across. Our message is simple: local and intra-regional services matter to local people and must be found a place alongside InterCity expresses.
On 6th January 2020 the Middlesbrough Gazette reported on a meeting of the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) held on December 18th 2019. The Authority had been told that the route, via Stillington and the ECML, had been rejected by Network Rail due to a lack of capacity on the ECML north of Ferryhill. The authority was reported as expressing their frustration because they see the new service as key to improving links between Middlesbrough and Newcastle.
The Gazette story goes on to say that a Network Rail spokeswoman told them that they, Network Rail, are committed to working with train operators and stakeholders on the provision of an improved service between Middlesbrough and Newcastle. Network Rail are also quoted as saying that an alternative route via the Durham Coast Line had been identified. However, before this service can begin running, Network Rail would need to carry out work to bring an old freight siding back into use in order to remove some freight services from the line. Network Rail hope to carry out this work in Summer 2020.
The story that the User Groups were told on 26th September and the story in the Gazette could seem, at first sight, to be incompatible. However, what both stories tell us is that InterCity services get priority on the ECML and that slower services (we are assuming that Northern would use 158’s on this particular ‘Connect’ service) won’t be given paths on this particular section of the mainline. In other words, local services don’t really matter in the big scheme of things.
Coastliners, the relevant user group, and RailFuture NE say that this is not satisfactory and that , in any case, we don’t believe that it is impossible to find an hourly path each way between Newcastle and Ferryhill. After all paths are found for Freight trains that run at slower speeds.
The bad news, from our perspective, is that Tees Valley Rail Implementation Plan 2020 says (p.27) that whilst the route for the Northern Connect branded service from Middlesbrough to Newcastle and then on to Carlisle has not yet been finalised, with routes via the Durham Coast Line and the Stillington Route still under consideration, “the preference of the TVCA and our constituent authorities, as well as our partners in the wider North East Region, is for the service to run via the Durham Coast".
The good news is that the North East Joint Transport Committee (NEJTC, in responding to a call for evidence from the National Infrastructure Commission, have argued for a new route to be established all the way from Northallerton to Newcastle using the existing line to Stockton, the Stillington line to Ferryhill and then the Leamside line to Pelaw. Their aim is to create space for the new services that will be using the ECML as a result of both Northern Powerhouse Rail and, eventually, High Speed 2. A further benefit of this proposal is that it provides what would be in effect a 4 track ECML, urgently needed to support economic growth, without having to completely re-build the present line.
We know that there are already proposals to add additional services between London and Edinburgh and this, coupled with additional demands in the future arising from both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, won’t be possible without substantial additional capacity being added to the ECML. Network rail have published a study exploring how to increase capacity between York and Newcastle. It would be nearly impossible to add two further tracks alongside the current ECML and so attention has turned to using alternative alignments to increase capacity. One of their proposals is to re-route slow freight trains via Northallerton, Stockton and then via the Stillington Line. However, there don’t seem to be any proposals in the document to open the Stillington line for passenger use and so there is no real benefit to passenger services.
What next? Come back here for updates on the campaign as and when they happen.
If you’ve enjoyed reading the above, why not consider joining Railfuture. You can do so at https://www.railfuture.org.uk/join/. When you log in to the Railfuture home page you will see a whole range of information about our work and, from this page, you can link to the North East Branch for details of local activities and campaigns.
Updated March 2022
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