When work started on Metro in 1974 it became Britain’s largest urban transport project of the 20th Century, and stood out as one of the greatest achievements in North East England's rich industrial heritage. Built at a time of national financial crisis and high unemployment it seems a miracle that Metro ever got up and running. But against all the odds the project was seen through to completion and was opened in the summer of 1980 to a fanfare of critical acclaim. Metro was an instant success story and became part of everyday life on Tyneside, and on Wearside in 2002.
Those who were bold enough to believe in the project had delivered something that was ahead of its time, something which today remains the envy of other British cities. Among Metro's biggest champions was Michael Campbell, the so-called Statesman of Jarrow. Cllr Campbell was leader of the Tyne and Wear County Council throughout its existence, and It was his campaigning, influence and determination that played a crucial role in convincing Government ministers to take the idea of Metro seriously at a time when public money was scarce.
The origins of Metro date back to 1971 and a document called ‘The Transport Plan for the 1980s’. This came up with a rail solution to give commuters a modern, fast and reliable route into the heart of Newcastle, a solution that would beat growing congestion around the Tyne bridges and tunnels – Metro was born.
It was felt that the introduction of a modern urban railway using tunnels to reach the most popular central destinations would provide the backbone of a fully integrated public transport system, in the short term for the benefit of the majority without access to cars, and longer term as an attractive alternative to the car. The financial viability of Metro was confirmed following extensive lobbying by the Tyne and Wear PTA, local authorities and politicians throughout the region by December 1972. The Government agreed to a 75% grant towards the cost of building the system. The construction of Metro began in 1974 and less than four years later after it came into existence, the Tyne and Wear PTE found itself responsible for developing the largest urban transportation project in Britain.
By 1975 two prototype passenger cars had begun trials at a purpose built Metro test centre, which included 2.4km of track with a tunnel section, car shed and control room, plus other support and training facilities. Tunnels were driven beneath the busy streets of Newcastle and new viaducts built to span the Tyne and Ouseburn valleys. Ground conditions under Newcastle were favourable for tunnelling. The sections were driven mainly through boulder clay, though in parts the presence of water and sand lenses required the use of compressed air.
Beneath Gateshead the ground was made of alternate layers of sandstone and coal seams that had first been worked in the 14th century, demanding a different form of tunnel construction. The engineering of these underground sections and the central area stations entailed an extensive series of public utility diversions, as well as measures to avoid damaging impacts on the architectural heritage of the centre of Newcastle. The construction programme met with several delays. Partly because of differences between the PTE, British Rail, and the railway unions about who should own and operate the system, and partly as a result of the financial crisis of 1976 when the Government imposed a freeze on major capital projects in the public sector.
By 1977 these problems had been resolved, and Tyne and Wear County Council (formed in1974 after local government reorganisation) agreed to commit to the project almost all its capital investment in transport so as to ensure completion of the system.
When Metro opened to the public in August 1980 it set new standards for urban transport which has since been copied across the globe. It was Britain’s first light rapid transit system and the heart of an integrated transport network. From its inception Metro was a strictly no smoking zone and was the first railway in the country to be truly wheelchair compatible. By the mid-1990s Metro pioneered mobile phone connectivity in its tunnels and was the first railway in Britain to play classical music at stations to improve the passenger waiting environment.
The system was progressively opened in phases through to 1984 when the full 55km of the original network became operational with the opening of the line into South Shields. In its first year of full operation there were more than 60 million passenger journeys, confirming Metro’s potential as the mainstay of a fully integrated public transport system.
A Government report published at the end of 1985 showed that the integrated system was succeeding in meeting critical travel needs more efficiently and attractively, offering improved levels of transport service and mobility for the population as a whole. In 1991 Metro was extended to Newcastle Airport, a link which still boasts the shortest journey time between an airport and a city centre in Britain.
The local rail network was privatised in 1996, however, throughout this period, Tyne and Wear PTE, Nexus as it is now called, kept responsibility for the operation of Metro.
Metro was extended to Sunderland in April 2002, at a cost £100m. The Sunderland line was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 2002, with the track between Pelaw and Sunderland stations shared with other rail operators, and a new Metro-only line built along an historic rail route to South Hylton.
In August 2020 Metro marked its 40th anniversary, with its part in the fabric of everyday life on Tyneside and Wearside stronger than ever.