Landmarks in urban transport

Landmarks in urban transport

This is an introduction to public transport in Tyne and Wear: it explains how Nexus, the passenger transport executive for Tyne and Wear came into being, and how the Metro was built and implemented, how the system operates today and what the prospects are for further development.

Tyne and Wear was the first metropolitan area in Britain to integrate fully all public transport operations: the Metro, opened in 1980 and completed in March 1984, was Britain’s first urban light rail transit system. These landmarks are part of a regional tradition of enterprise and innovation in rail transport development that goes back more than 160 years, to the pioneer railwaymen who built in the North East the first steam locomotives and created the world’s first passenger railways.

As well as surveying past achievements, the perspective takes in the present and future of public transport in Tyne and Wear. Today the visitor to Newcastle upon Tyne sees a city region of some 1.2 million population, adapting its economy to the shift away from the formerly traditional industries of heavy engineering and shipbuilding, gaining fresh investment and creating employment opportunities from the growth of new light industry and service sector skills. In transport as in the regional economy, the theme is transition. Recent changes in the planning, supply and financing of road public transport in Britain have placed the Metro in a more challenging and competitive environment. The extent of bus/rail integration has reduced, but the Metro is responding positively and effectively to the process of change, so as to secure its future as the mainstay of the Tyne and Wear system.

Traffic growth and transport planning

Until the late 1950s, public transport in Tyne and Wear was a blend of trams, trolley buses and motor buses, in addition to suburban rail services. Then, like most other places in Britain, the area phased out its electrically-powered urban transport in favour of diesel buses; and in 1967 diesel power replaced electric traction on the suburban rail network. This was a period of rapid growth in car ownership and road traffic, when the weight of investment nationally swung away from railways towards highways. But the problems of traffic growth in towns and cities made people aware that the demand for urban movement could only be met sensibly by finding an appropriate balance between roads and an improved public transport system.

The legislative outcome was the Transport Act 1968, which set up Passenger Transport Authorities and Executives in the main urban areas: the Authority (PTA), composed of elected local government members, and had a policy role in defining the pattern of investment that would achieve a properly integrated system of public transport: the Executive (PTE), made up of professional and technical staff, had the task of implementing the PTA’s policies so as to ensure the system operated efficiently.

Tyne and Wear PTA and PTE came into being in 1969, at the time when a strategic framework for land use and transportation planning in the area was being developed through a major study undertaken jointly by local authority staff and consultants. The key transport objective of the study was to devise a balanced programme of investment in roads and public transport. Evaluating the options for improved public transport, the study team found that the best course of action was to convert the suburban British Rail network into a rapid transit system with direct penetration into the central area. The bus network would be restructured to complement the rapid transit system, and car commuters encouraged to transfer to rapid transit for peak hour trips to and from the centre. These measures would have the benefit of holding back the growth of peak traffic flows across the highly congested cross-Tyne road links.

Railway history: the North East tradition

Tyne and Wear owes its place in railway history to the inventive genius of engineers such as George and Robert Stephenson, who developed the earliest steam of locomotives as a means of improving the transport of coal from the pitheads of Northumberland and Durham to river piers and wharves. Previously coal had been hauled along largely wooden railways that relied on horsepower, human effort or the force of gravity. From the structures of this period, Causey Arch and Beckley Burn embankment remain as the oldest surviving railway viaduct and embankment in the world.

George Stephenson built his first engine ‘Blucher’ in 1814 when he was an enginewright at Killingworth Colliery. He and his son went on to apply new technology to the construction of passenger railways. Their workshops at Killingworth (1804-1826) are now the site of a railway museum. In 1823 they established in Forth Street, Newcastle, the world’s first locomotive construction company, and two years later opened the first passenger system in the world-the Stockton and Darlington Railway-with their engine ‘Locomotion’. It was in Forth Street that they built their most famous locomotive, ‘Rocket’, which set new standards of speed and efficiency, winning the Rainhill Trials in 1829 and inaugurating in 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world’s first intercity link.

During the following decade rail development came to Tyneside. The initial lines were mainly industrial, but in 1839 the Newcastle and North Shield’s Railway began service-and this has a claim to the distinction of being the first suburban passenger railway in the world. Its alignment, together with other sections of the early rail system, now forms part of the Metro route.

At the end of the 19th century, the area possessed a broad network of suburban railways, largely under the ownership of the North Eastern Railway Company. In 1904 the company brought a further technological advance to the North East when it electrified its busiest section, the Newcastle to Tynemouth line- one of the first outside London to be electrified. The line was extended in 1908 to form the North Tyne Loop; more lines were brought within the system, and by 1937 electrification had crossed the Tyne to South Shields.

Development of the Metro integrated system

Investment in rail rapid transit was the main recommendation of the ‘Transport Plan for the 1980s’ produced by the study team in 1971 and adopted by the authorities in the area as the basis for future transport development. Further analyses showed that conversion of the local rail network to rapid transit was technically feasible, in that non-passenger rail traffic could adequately be routed elsewhere; and they confirmed the financial viability of the scheme, which was forecast to yield a satisfactory rate of return on the necessary investment. The Government accepted this result, and in December 1972 agreed a 75 per cent infrastructure grant towards the capital costs of the system. Parliamentary approval was needed before the land could be acquired or construction could start: this was obtained in 1973 through the Tyneside Metropolitan Railway Act, which also provided for agreements to be reached between the PTE and British Rail on matters relating to the ownership and operation of the new system that had so far not been resolved.

So in 1973, less than four years later after it came into existence, the PTE found itself responsible for developing what at the time was the largest urban transportation project in Britain this century. Rather than recruit a sizeable team to undertake the design work in-house, it was decided that the PTE would determine the technical requirements and performance standards of the Metro and then bring in consulting engineers, with specialist expertise in various aspects of rapid transit design. The Executive attached to the project key personnel who would later play a part in running the system: it maintained a co-ordinating role in the overall management of the project, and itself managed specific contracts in key operational fields such as signalling and communications. British Rail worked closely with the PTE throughout the design and construction stages.

The technology of the Metro was selected for its simplicity, cost-effectiveness and proven reliability. The design standards were defined to meet two objectives (I) achieving the minimum cost consistent with safety and performance criteria; and (II) allowing the system to be inserted easily in localities where rail rights of way were not already available. With the approval of the Government’s railway safety inspectorate, bridge loading standards were drawn up specifically for the Metro, enabling major structures to be built to the precise requirements of the system.

The first civil engineering contracts were let in 1974, for the construction of tunnels under Newcastle and Gateshead central areas. 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.

In 1975 two prototype passenger cars began 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. These two cars, numbered 4001 and 4002, remain in service today.

The construction programme met 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 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.Implementation required a co-ordinated sequence of network revisions for each section of route, involving the withdrawal of British Rail local services, their replacement by temporary bus links, the opening of successive sections of rapid transit route, and the introduction of integrated bus services. The first section of the Metro started revenue service in August 1980; the system was completed in 1984.

The features of the Metro are summarised in the following section of this article. In 1984/85, its first year of full operation, the Metro recorded over 60 million passenger boardings – some 25 per cent of the public transport total for Tyne and Wear – confirming its potential as the mainstay of a fully integrated public transport system. The report of the Metro Monitoring and Development Study, a Government-funded assessment of the social and economic impact of the Metro, 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.

The advent of deregulation

But the principle of integration had come under threat from two political developments, namely the Government’s plans to deregulate the market for local bus services, and its intention to reorganise local government in 1986, which included the abolition of metropolitan county councils such as Tyne and Wear and the restructuring of transport authorities. The Transport Act 1985 brought in the process of deregulation, with area radical changes to the previous state of affairs:

  • The need for road service licences was removed, so that any bus operator (subject to safety standards and restraints on traffic congestion) was free to run a bus service on a commercial basis whenever and wherever he chose, and to set his own fares
  • Publicly-owned bus operators were transformed into private companies, working on the same commercial basis as other operators
  • Local authorities were allowed to intervene only to secure those areas of supply that the market would not provide, and they had to do so through competitive tendering – their powers to subsidise public transport were limited to specific services not supplied commercially and concessionary travel facilities for particular groups of people

Bus deregulation came into effect in Tyne and Wear in October 1986. The change did not affect the status of the Metro or other suburban rail services. But it meant that the PTA and its Executive now had a substantially different set of responsibilities. Since deregulation, the PTA’s role has been to formulate policies, in liaison with District Councils, on the following items:

  • The supply of bus services regarded as necessary on social grounds but not provided by the private sector – these are termed ‘secured’ bus services
  • Concessionary travel and special needs transport
  • Financial support for the British Rail Newcastle-Sunderland line, the Metro and the Shields Ferry across the Tyne
  • The promotion generally of public transport

In Tyne and Wear there are three main categories of bus service secured by the PTA: (i) services maintaining essential all-day public transport links that are simply uneconomic for commercial operators to provide – for example, in small communities and areas of high unemployment; (ii) services catering for early morning journey-to-work trips and evening social travel; (iii) those providing additional buses to ensure adequate capacity and comfort on lower-frequency commercial services.

The PTE implements the Authority’s policies, operates the Metro and the Shields Ferry, administers commercial ticketing and the concessionary travel scheme, and provides service and timetable information on all travel opportunities in the area, whatever the operator.

Further developments

The existing Metro system was planned over 30 years ago. It opened in stages during the early 1980s, was extended to Newcastle International Airport in 1991 and to Wearside in March 2002. The present Metro system comprises of 74.5 kilometres of track, 60 stations, employs about 600 staff and over 38m passengers are carried each year.

Nexus have plans to continue expansion of the Metro system to other areas of Tyne & Wear and beyond, so these areas may benefit from high quality public transport. However Metro is now old technology and we are also looking to more modern solutions to expanding Metro, including street-running trams and high quality segregated bus routes.

Traffic congestion in Tyne and Wear is not so bad as in other major urban areas. However we are travelling more and making longer journeys than we used to. More and more households in Tyne & Wear are getting a car. Therefore traffic congestion will only get worse if no action is taken to provide a quality public transport alternative to the car. There are also parts of the population who because of age, income, disability or choice cannot drive a car and who rely on public transport for their travel needs. Convincing people to use trams instead of cars will assist in alleviating congestion and reducing air pollution:

  • Trams can run on the existing Metro system with Metro trains and therefore we can make very good use of the existing tracks, tunnels, stations and bridges when introducing new tram routes
  • As trams can run on Metro tracks when the trams join the existing system passengers can stay on the tram and ride through to the centres of, for example, Newcastle (they do not have to change to a Metro train to finish their journey) and there will be no need to build expensive new tracks and stations in City Centres currently served by Metro
  • Trams systems are cheaper to build and operate than Metro systems
  • And as they are cheaper and can run on street we can look to run trams to areas where it would be impossible to operate Metro

Work is ongoing to identify the best routes for trams. Tram systems are expensive to build and run and thus are only likely to be built in urban areas where travel demand is high. However the benefits of a good modern high quality public transport system are considerable and the development of trams in the area will build upon the success of the current Metro system.

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