North East Conference Report

Report on the Railfuture National Summer Conference held at Darlington on 22nd June 2019
Conference title:- “Rebirth of the Railway”
Venue:- The Dolphin Centre, Horsemarket, Darlington
Date:- Saturday 22nd June 2019
Organising Group:- Keith Simpson, Dave Shaw, Ian Walker, Peter Walker and Nigel Warner, all members of Railfuture North East Branch acting on behalf of the Board of Railfuture National

“North’s rail demands must be ambitious” says the NEXUS Transport Strategy Director.

Railfuture’s 2019 national Summer Conference took place at Darlington on 22nd June.

Entitled “Rebirth of the Railway” it encompassed five keynote addresses which tackled different aspects of the contemporary railway and its operations, as well as flagging up future aspirations.

In a passionate and hard hitting speech headed “Rail in the North”, Philip Meikle, Transport Strategy Director for NEXUS, the body that controls the Tyne and Wear Metro, left delegates in no doubt what was required if the railway in the North of England was to realise its potential and begin to catch up with rail provision in the South East. His varied career path had included work in call centres, as a guard, work in control rooms, engagement with the specification of rail franchises for central government, senior management posts, train operating roles both in the UK and abroad, and now his current job with NEXUS. It is probably an understatement to say that Philip Meikle is well versed in rail operations (and rail politics)! He had been a regular and enthusiastic user of Metro as a youngster and now as an adult. He doesn’t have a car by the way. Now Philip views his mission as being to help Metro secure a brand new train fleet and expand its network within an integrated NE set up both Metro and heavy rail. He acquainted his audience with details, albeit complex, of the arrangements for the governance of rail in the NE and clarified the NEXUS role within this. Meikle identified three primary railway issues in the NE, namely the ECML (“which you either love or hate”), rail devolution and the future of Metro itself. He was adamant that to prosper the ECML would require both HS2 and the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail network. “HS2 is about economic regeneration” he said. “We in the North must be ambitious in our demands”. If we are serious about addressing ECML capacity issues, its resilience and making it HS2 ready by 2033 then there must be an early start on the necessary infrastructure work. He advised any HS2 package would have to include an upgrade of the Durham Coast Line and reinstatement of the Leamside (Ferryhill to Heworth) route. Meikle saw devolution of responsibility for rail within the North East and the wider North of England as essential if good decision making was to be achieved. Strong inference here that past decision making undertaken at DfT (and Whitehall in general) had often proved flawed. Rectifying this would entail all serious decision making being done at a local level with various options available for the organisational model best able to deliver same. The speaker pulled an interesting “rabbit” out of the hat during the course of his address. Namely every passenger carried on Metro or heavy rail in the North East adds £8.50 to the gross product of the region. Delegates were urged to remember that figure! And an estimated £437 million is the total amount NE heavy rail and Metro together contribute directly to the area economy. And Metro itself: the present trains were now nearly 40 years old and becoming unreliable. Cost of fleet replacement, plus a new depot, is put at £337 million. Specifications for the new trains include a 35 year design life and some catenary free running (which entails battery provision).

The opening address at conference was given by Heather Scott, Leader of Darlington Council and Cabinet Member for Transport at Tees Valley Combined Authority.
Heather reminded us that effectively Darlington had been the birth place of the railway. She listed special events scheduled for 2025 to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the launch of the first service over the Stockton to Darlington line. She also referred to the building of Britain’s very latest operational steam locomotive, the Peppercorn Class A1 No 60163 “Tornado”, just a short distance away from the Dolphin Centre. Financed and engineered by the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust “Tornado” entered service in 2009 since when it had clocked up a hefty amount of main line running, plus of course numerous special visits to a host of main line linked heritage railways. The A1 Trust currently have another main line loco under construction, though its launch date has yet to be confirmed. But Heather’s concern for the past was balanced by her sharing of a list of future improvements she and her colleagues wanted implementing for both freight and passenger services in Tees Valley Area. Her list included proposed major revamps at Darlington (which is on the ECML) and Middlesbrough stations, both projects scheduled for completion by 2025. She emphasised that Tees Valley was wanting to play a key role in the development of hydrogen trains, primarily for local services. Due to its long history as a major centre for the UK chemical industry Tees Valley seemed well suited to drive forward the quest to design the necessary technology to deliver hydrogen power units for the trains of the future. So plenty of optimism here!

Heather Scott was followed by Tim Rutter, Head of Technical Services at Hitachi. He emphasised that Hitachi’s factory at Newton Aycliffe had cascaded large sums of money into the local economy.
Tim then majored on building trains for the future. Probably best known for its “Bullet” trains operating in SE England - and in Japan of course! - Hitachi were now constructing long distance high speed trains for both LNER and GWR (AT 300’s) and EMU’s for Scotrail (AT200’s). Along with Bombardier (of Derby) the company were mounting a bid to build the trains for HS2. He described some specific Japanese elements in train manufacturing, particularly the company’s strong commitment to a set of core values – harmony, sincerity and pioneering spirit to which all Hitachi employees from the CEO downwards were expected to adhere. He also praised the willingness of Hitachi staff in Japan to share their ‘Japanese’ train making skills with their Newton Aycliffe colleagues. Matters now on Hitachi’s agenda included the development of expanded train maintenance facilities in the UK, investigation of alternative fuel sources for powering trains, the development of a digital train fault forecasting system and a venture into the world of smart ticketing.
Asked about the UK’s likely departure from the EU and the possible effects on his company, Tim assured Conference that Hitachi was “resilient” and would be able to weather whatever changes were coming down the line.
And an interesting finishing touch to this input was the news that Hitachi were doing “work” in a number of NE schools to help inspire the next generation of train construction engineers.

First input after lunch comprised a brisk, illustrated address from Matthew Hunt, Director at the Port of Sunderland. He described the enterprising efforts of that port to grow its rail born freight which had ceased in 1993 when its rail connection was closed following cessation of local coal mining. In 2015, however, Network Rail restored it which led to some usage for the conveyance of scrap metal. Now the port is extending its rail link and mounting a campaign to market it, in particular, for the bulk carriage of containers. We shall watch with anticipation! But well done Sunderland (and Matthew in particular) for an enterprising attempt to establish a flourishing freight rail-head in the port.

The final key-note input of the day came from railway journalist and a Railfuture vice-President, Alan Williams. His subject was what he called the “Cinderella Line” – aka the Middlesbrough to Whitby forty mile route via the beautiful Esk Valley. Alan, incidentally, is Chairman of the Esk Valley Community Rail Partnership. The relevant TOC is Arriva Northern. Alan shared some of the many tribulations (and a few of the joys) involved in operating a rural rail line within the contemporary social and economic climate. He reviewed the Esk Valley line’s history. Recommended for closure by Beeching , the lack of a suitable road network in the Valley eventually “won the day” and the line survived. The daily service comprised eight trains each way, reduced to four under Regional Railways cuts in 1990. Besides bringing visitors to the seaside resort of Whitby, the Esk Valley trains play an important role in transporting local school children in term time. With privatisation in 1994, the threat of closure loomed again, but once more the difficult road situation in the line’s immediate catchment area caused good sense to prevail. Now, at last, after endless campaigning, an all the year round Sunday service has been secured and with the December 2019 timetable changes will come the addition of two more daily trains each way. This is an important breakthrough since it will enable some return journeys from the Valley to destinations south of Middlesbrough to be made within the day which is not possible at present. Noted incidentally that passenger carryings on the line 2017/18 were up 19% compared with 2016/17. Alan emphasised that for its role to become more effective restoration of the former eight trains was required, this in turn meant there would have to be infrastructure investment. For example an extra platform at Batternsby and an additional passing loop between Grosmont and Whitby. Ironically, according to Alan, there is money available for these and other upgrades, but he claimed the “industry” is reluctant to spend that money.
An issue of concern is that some of the Esk Valley trains were now running to and from Carlisle, about 100 miles distant from Whitby which meant the risk of poor timekeeping in the Valley section of the route was very real.
The relationship between Esk Valley CRP and the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR) was mentioned. The latter operates up to five daily trains in high summer between Grosmont and Whitby so that good liaison was required between the NYMR and Arriva Northern. And the future? Although relations between the Esk Valley CRP, Arriva and NYMR had improved over the recent past, fact remained that the respective interests of the three organisations did not always coincide. Worryingly Alan had a suspicion that Arriva were not really interested in the line so that its future could not be guaranteed “cast iron”. With 3 million plus day visitors to Whitby per annum, the town badly needed an effective rail service to provide an alternative to mass car invasions which patently it was not equipped to cope with.

And finally……..__

Conference was attended by some 60 delegates who enjoyed the comforts of the modern (and spacious) Dolphin Centre located just a few minutes’ walk from Darlington’s Bank Top station. And there was good food to boot!
The Conference organisers, North East Branch, are to be congratulated not only on choosing an excellent venue, but also for their delivery of an efficient and stimulating event ably chaired by local Railfuture member Nigel Warner.
The only “downside” was the late withdrawal of Ben Houchen, the elected Mayor of Tees Valley, who was scheduled to deliver one of the keynote addresses. He was required to attend an emergency meeting in connection with the future of British Steel. Mayor Houchen is known for his pro-rail views and his speech had been eagerly anticipated. In the event Heather Scott , Leader of Darlington Council, stepped in for him The NE Branch wish to record their gratitude to Heather for taking part at very short notice.