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The Northumberland Line

Welcome to the Railfuture page devoted to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, a line recently re-named as the Northumberland Line by Northumberland County Council.

LATEST NEWS: August 2021 - We’ve begun to see a lot of activity on and around the line. Network
Temporary closure of crossing at Backworth to allow work to start.  Photo by Dave Shaw.
Temporary closure of crossing at Backworth to allow work to start. Photo by Dave Shaw.
Rail are busy renewing sections of the existing track and several special rail services have been operated between Newcastle and Morpeth via Bedlington as plans to reintroduce passenger trains on the Northumberland Line gather pace. Northumberland County Council and Northern hosted the special services which saw trains travel on a large part of the line. The stock used for these journeys, a class 158 DMU, has unfortunately not yet been cleared for the section from Bedlington to Ashington and so the passengers on the services were also able to see the currently freight only line between Bedlington and Morpeth. This section of line is also the subject of a SENRUG re-opening campaign that would allow for a direct connection between South East Northumberland and the Tyne Valley, including to the shopping and job opportunities at the Metro Centre.





The Special train at Newsham.  Photo by Geoff Stainthorpe
The Special train at Newsham. Photo by Geoff Stainthorpe
The scheme is funded by the Restoring Your Railway Fund with an initial £34m granted to allow for detailed design and those preparatory works that don’t require planning permission. The next stages include:
• Agreement to the various detailed plans for stations and other structures that have been submitted to local authorities
• Confirmation of the final funding package and agreement to the recently submitted Transport and Works Act Order.
• And then the exciting part - the reintroduction of a regular rail passenger service between Ashington and Newcastle in 2024.
The overall project cost is currently estimated to be £166million leaving a balance of £132m still to be confirmed by the Treasury. Providing assurances that this remaining funding will indeed follow the current Rail Minister, Mr Heaton-Harris, has been quoted as saying “In my time as Rail Minister, no project, when it has got as far as this, has fallen.

Introduction

Destination Ashington.  Photo by John Brierley.
Destination Ashington. Photo by John Brierley.
There have been many campaigns throughout the United Kingdom to reopen railway lines to passenger traffic. They all take a lot of work and time if they are to be successful, and examples of success are limited. The North East now has its own example of a successful campaign in the form of the South East Northumberland Rail Users Group (SENRUG) campaign to bring passenger services back to the line from Newcastle to Ashington. 

The original Blyth and Tyne railway was a network of lines and branches originally built to move coal from the collieries of South East Northumberland to the various ports on the Blyth & Tyne rivers. Passenger services between Newcastle and Ashington were withdrawn in the 1960s.

The Line Today

Biomass on the way to Lynnemouth Power Station  Photo by Dave Shaw.
Biomass on the way to Lynnemouth Power Station Photo by Dave Shaw.
The route leaves the East Coast Main Line at Benton Junction, north of Newcastle. Between Benton Junction and Newsham, the line is single track, running alongside the Tyne & Wear Metro until Northumberland Park Metro Station, where it turns north to Newsham. From Newsham it is double track right through to Ashington and Woodhorn and on to its terminus at Lynemouth power station. A single track section also connects Bedlington back to the East Coast Main Line at Morpeth. Since closure to passengers the line has been kept alive by freight traffic – currently in the form of biomass between Tyne Dock and Lynemouth Power Station and, imported through the Port of Blyth, coal on its way to Teesside and alumina to Fort William. 

The north side of the Port of Blyth is accessible from both the south, via West Sleekburn Junction, and from the north via Marchey's House junction just to the south of Ashington

At Ashington and Bedlington the platforms are still in place, albeit overgrown with weeds and needing remedial work. At Bedlington the station buildings are still intact. At other stations platforms and buildings have been demolished. 

Why should the line be re-opened?

The business case for re-opening the line is based on the re-invigoration of Ashington and other communities in South East Northumberland.
The line runs through a major part of the former Northumberland Coalfield and will serve several communities that experience multiple deprivation and have high levels of unemployment and/or dependence on benefits.
There is all party agreement on the benefits that the re-opening will bring in terms supporting economic growth, regeneration and community development in Northumberland and the surrounding regions by providing new and improved transport links for local people and businesses. The new service will improve access from towns such as Ashington and Blyth to employment hubs like Newcastle, as well as opening up new opportunities for leisure, education and travel. The new service will offer a seamless transfer onto Tyne and Wear Metro at Northumberland Park. It will also provide a real incentive for potential employers to relocate to and invest in the local area. It will also help to encourage people out of their cars and onto cleaner, more sustainable forms of transport
Whilst most households now have access to a car, there remain many 1 car households where 2 or more people are seeking work. In particular many young people cannot afford to run their own car and so are dependent on good public transport to find jobs.
Good public transport and access to work also creates inward investment. People who already have a job but looking to set up home will find places such as Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth more attractive as they can get to their place of work easily. Such people will support local businesses, creating further employment in the area.
The re-opened line will also give access to the wider rail network making it easier to reach places such as York, Leeds, Birmingham, and London. This makes the communities served by the line more attractive locations for businesses, plus giving access to a wider range of jobs in locations such as Sunderland or Durham.
The new passenger service will also support further housing development, reduce traffic congestion on the A189 Spine Road / A19 corridor, and help achieve CO2 emission reduction targets.

The Campaign

In July 2004 SENRUG launched their campaign and in December 2005 were supported by local MPs through an Early Day Motion. In January 2007 the North East Assembly commissioned a report into the proposed phased re-opening of the line.  The proposal reached Parliament again in May 2007 when SENRUG organised an online petition to 10 Downing Street which attracts over 1,000 signatures and prompts an Adjournment Debate. May 2008 saw a GRIP 4 Study launched. It was to be paid for by a freight operator but was cancelled when the freight operator’s requirements changed.

SENRUG Charter 2008 at Bedlington.  Photo by John Brierley.
SENRUG Charter 2008 at Bedlington. Photo by John Brierley.
In June 2008 SENRUG organised a charter train which made 3 trips round the line as far as Ashington. One of the trips is reserved exclusively for stakeholders, politicians and the press.

In March 2009 Geoff Hoon (Secretary of State for Transport) toured the scheme and SENRUG presented the case for the re-opening to him. By June 2009 ATOC had expressed support in their “Connecting Communities” report. 

March 2010 saw SENRUG organising a “hustings” meeting prior to General Election and all 3 parliamentary candidates promise to support the scheme and in November 2010 the scheme was included in Northumberland County Council’s Local Transport Plan

June 2013 saw Northumberland County Council launch the GRIP 1 Study with Network Rail.  GRIP 2 followed in October 2015 followed by GRIP 3 in the following year when Northumberland County Council set out an ambitious timescale that would have seen trains running by early 2021.  

Campaigns involve a lot of work over a long period of time. As well as meeting with the people who have the power to make decisions SENRUG didn’t forget the power of the community. In April 2014 they organised a schools competition to commemorate 50th anniversary of closure They asked schools to create a 5-8 minute video setting out the business case for re-opening the line. The winning team from Hirst Park Middle School were taken to Westminster to present their video to their MP. You can watch their video here. The competition provided a great educational experience for the schools and generated significant positive media coverage whist helping to build the support in the local communities.

Campaigning continued and in Feb 2019 Chris Grayling (Transport Secretary) paid a visit to the area and spoke encouragingly about the project and the campaign, September 2019 saw Northumberland County Council (NCC) run a public consultation on their proposals for what they now called 'The Northumberland line' and in October 2019 the line was included in DfT's new Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline and we saw the start of design and development work. £1.5m came from government to support development of Northumberland line project and in May 2020 Northumberland County Council committed a further£10m to the project, and we began to see boots on the ground as survey work and ground investigations began. The draft of the North East Transport Plan indicated regional support for the plan and ideas for the use of the line now appear in other places including the Network Rail Traction Decarbonisation plan – a plan that suggests the need to look, in the longer term, at electrification of the new line.

January 2021 saw Government committing a further £34m to allow for land acquisition, completion of detailed design, and for Network Rail to commence early works prior to relevant planning approvals.

In another innovation the project will use the principle of land value capture as a source of funding. There is little doubt that the value of land and property is increased when new public transport infrastructure is built, and the idea of funding transport infrastructure by ‘capturing’ a share of these increased values isn’t entirely new but has always been seen as difficult to achieve in practice. However, Edinburgh Rail (better known as E-Rail), commissioned by Northumberland County Council, have developed a method of doing so. Twenty one development sites that might see a significant increase in value as a result of the investment in the railway have been identified and negotiations with the owners are ongoing. Whilst details are not as yet in the public domain there are reports that substantial sums will be raised once the developments actually take place. It will be interesting to see how this new source of funding for projects progresses in the longer term.

What do we get for the money?

As well new stations at Northumberland Park, Seaton Delaval, Newsham, Blyth Bebside, Bedlington and Ashington the Northumberland Line will also see 18 miles of track upgraded with several new crossings, passing loops, and bridges.

SENRUG Charter 2008 crossing River Wansbeck. Photo by Graham Galbraith.
SENRUG Charter 2008 crossing River Wansbeck. Photo by Graham Galbraith.
Northern, who will operate the service and have already appointed a project manager, expect to offer two trains per hour on weekdays and Saturdays between 6am and 7.30pm, with an hourly service after 7.30pm and on Sundays. The journey time between Ashington and Newcastle should be around 35 minutes.








Once the first phase is complete and the line is re-opened – what needs to come next?

Northumberland County Council, we are told, don’t see the re-opening of the line as the end of the story. Active consideration is being given to an extension to Newbiggin by the Sea via Woodhorn stopping at the site of the Museum of Mining and Northumberland Life - a major tourist destination. Once the line reaches Woodhorn it would only take half a mile of new track along an existing alignment to reach Newbiggin by the Sea.
A service from Cambois to Morpeth via Bedlington might also be possible – with aim of providing an East to West service in the area and offering a further range of connections as well as being able to serve the proposed British Volt factory at Cambois.
The existing Newcastle – Cramlington – Morpeth service could be extended, via a re-opened station at Choppington, to Bedlington reopening a route closed to passengers in April 1950.
A new spur from Newsham to Blyth Town Centre would be challenging but not impossible. SENRUG believes that this service should be provided by the means of an extension of the Tyne and Wear Metro making joint use of line between Northumberland Park and Newsham – and taking advantage of the fact that the new Metro Cars will be able to run under battery power rather than requiring an OHL facility. Such a service, say SENRUG, could run directly to the Airport and would also provide easy access to many other destinations in Tyne and Wear from the centre of Blyth.
The campaign continues for an additional station at Seghill and for a better link between the Rail and Metro stations at Manors.
Finally, and in the longer term, there is scope to consider utilising the privately owned freight line from Ashington to Butterwell to a new north facing junction on the East Coast Main Line south of Widdrington. The alignment is being protected and SENRUG understands that it could be acquired by the Council. This would allow extra capacity for services to Widdrington, Alnmouth and beyond as well as adding to the potential for the line to be used as a diversionary route at time when the ECML has problems.

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.

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