Railfuture North East welcomes TfN’s publication of its outline preferences for Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), and reviews the East Coast Main Line (ECML) aspects. Reinstating the Leamside line, seen here in 2009 crossing Victoria Viaduct over the River Wear 17 years after it ceased to be used but before the track was lifted, would create a 4 track route from NPR to Newcastle. Image from Wikimedia.
Most of the major construction and improvement for NPR will, of course, be to the west of the ECML, but the commitment to improve the ECML north of York is the subject of this article. Having said that, we see the new NPR route over the Pennines as a longer term project and capacity enhancements on the Trans-Pennine route via Huddersfield as complementary to it. This is achievable in a much shorter timescale and is necessary to alleviate congestion that was significantly impacting services before the reductions in the light of the Covid pandemic.
While line speed enhancements and new construction are important to make rail attractive and reliable for passenger journeys, it is imperative that adequate provision is made for freight. It is by providing regular, direct and reliable paths for freight trains that the greatest contribution to the country’s climate change agenda can be made through achieving modal shift.
The commitment to create a 4 track railway from Church Fenton, where both NPR and HS2 are projected to meet the existing railway, to Newcastle is welcomed. Achieving it by reinstatement of the 21 mile Leamside line from Ferryhill to east of Gateshead is in line with our preferred options.
The geography of the York area means that serving the city will incur the time penalty of slow running through the current station area. There should be a discussion about whether, in the very long term, an avoiding line to the west of the city (say, from the Bolton Percy area to the Tollerton area) would be worthwhile and cost effective.
Since the closure of the line from Harrogate to Northallerton, the North East has relied for all its southern rail connections on the line from York to Northallerton, hence it is included in this review. While the line is generally straight, flat and 4 track, the expected increase in services, particularly following NPR and HS2, may highlight some shortcomings which could be lessened with some small level of additional expenditure during scheduled renewals.
- The main lines have a speed limit of 125 mph throughout from Skelton Junction, and with ETCS providing in-cab signalling, this may well be increased. It will be important that the differential between the main and slow lines is minimised so that the mix of traffic may be better accommodated.
- There need to be regular opportunities to transfer traffic between main and slow lines to provide maximum flexibility. At these points, the permitted speed over the connection should not be less than the permitted speed on the slow lines, otherwise capacity on the main lines is compromised by the excessive slowing. There are currently various places where the connections between main and slow lines are at lower speeds and these should be able to be improved as part of routine renewals without vast additional expenditure.
There are also commitments for LNER to provide an extra hourly service from London to Newcastle, for a new Open Access operator, First East Coast, to operate 5 trains daily each way between London and Edinburgh and for LNER to commence a 2 hourly service from London to Middlesbrough, all within the next 18 months.
In addition, there are regular freight flows many of which serve Teesport and the remaining steel plants on Teesside, while others serve destinations on Tyneside and further north.
This traffic should be able to be carried on the 4 track section south of Northallerton without difficulty, but capacity problems may well arise as additional traffic from NPR and HS2 is generated. The main capacity issues arise on the 50 mile 2 track section from Northallerton to Newcastle. There have already been problems with obtaining paths for an accelerated Teesside to Tyneside service which was planned to use the ECML over the 23 miles from Ferryhill to Newcastle, calling at Durham and Chester-le-Street. Middlesbrough is only 30 miles from Newcastle as the crow flies, but the regular service via Sunderland (47 miles)takes typically around 79 minutes, the proposed service (42 miles) would have taken less than 60.
The document is silent on improvements to the line between Northallerton and Ferryhill, save for mentioning improvements to Darlington station. Railfuture North East proposes that the existing line from Northallerton to Eaglescliffe and then on via Stockton to Ferryhill should be developed to provide the additional capacity on this stretch. The additional distance over the route via Darlington is small, just over 5 miles, and, if it obviates the need for freight trains to be recessed to be overtaken by passenger trains, it could well prove to be the quicker route. Combined with the reinstatement of the Leamside line mentioned in the document, and in conjunction with the existing route via Darlington and Durham, this will create the desired 4-track route all the way from York to Newcastle. The recent announcement of the creation of a 'Freeport' in the Teesside area may well create added traffic giving additional impetus for the improvement of this route. It will require:
- Signalling improvements to improve capacity, there are currently some long sections between signals.
- Gauge improvements to W12 loading gauge to accommodate all intermodal traffic (It is understood that this may already be in hand from Northallerton to Eaglescliffe).
- Attention to permitted line speeds, minimum aspiration should be for 75 mph for freight services and 90 mph for passenger.
- As electrically hauled freight becomes more common, in line with the decarbonisation strategy, electrification. In the short term, work in respect of gauge enhancement should include creating clearances for future electrification.
Whilst Hartlepool (pop. 92,000) and Sunderland (pop. 175,000) on the Durham Coast route are served by Open Access operator Grand Central, this does not have the security of a franchised service, as has been demonstrated by its withdrawal during the Covid pandemic. Apart from this service, southbound travellers from these towns are required to change at Thornaby and again at Darlington or York. Connections provided by the current service are poor. We are disappointed that no mention is made of improving connectivity to these towns by routing a regular long distance service that way as has been suggested in the Tees Valley Integrated Transport Plan. A number of long distance trains did use this route until the 1970s. If one of the existing hourly services from York to Newcastle were routed this way that would, again, relieve pressure on the Durham route.
Having said this, the opportunities for the diversion of further traffic via the Durham Coast route are limited. The line is shared with Tyne & Wear Metro between Sunderland and Pelaw. Metro services make 6 intermediate stops on this section and run every 12 minutes. Additionally, the current metro trains, which weren’t built for shared operation with heavy rail services, require an extra signal section separating them from other trains and some additional speed restrictions are placed on freight services. The good news is that the metro trains are shortly to be replaced with new trains from Stadler, which will be built to Tram-Train standards of crash protection. This will remove the need for these extra restrictions, but that will be partially offset by an increase in frequency to every 10 minutes.
There needs to be a balance struck between the provision of ever more long distance high speed services and connectivity within the region. There needs to be adequate provision for intra-regional and local services giving connectivity between the Tees Valley, Tyneside and Northumberland.
TfN have chosen, for understandable reasons, to link NPR and HS2. While their aspiration to a 4 track railway between York and Newcastle is appreciated, attention also needs to be given to the line north from Newcastle to the Scottish border and, in conjunction with Transport Scotland, onwards to Edinburgh as this will also become increasingly congested.
We welcome the ongoing work to reinstate passenger services to Ashington, which will use the ECML for the first 4 miles north from Newcastle and the current investigation into the running of a much more frequent local service between Newcastle and Berwick together with the proposals to increase services in the Tyne and Wear valleys. All of these much more 'local' improvements will impact on the use made of the ECML and need to be factored into future plans. In short, the ECML in our region needs to become much more than a fast way of getting to Scotland!
Connecting the people, communities and businesses of the North: Transport for the North's advice to government on the Northern Powerhouse Rail network