Feature: How the Tyne and Wear Metro was built

Metro train original yellow and white livery
21 August 2020

With the Tyne and Wear Metro is celebrating its landmark 40th anniversary, here is a look back on a pioneering project that changed the face of transport in North East England. 

Metro was a £280m project that transformed local public transport - and put Tyneside one step ahead of other northern cities.

Built against all the odds, at a time of Government spending cuts in the mid-1970s, local politicians held their nerve to make it a reality.

When work started 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.

Nexus, the public body which owns and manages Metro, says that the system is one of the North East England’s most significant infrastructure projects – taking 15 million car journeys off congested roads.

“You’ll never get away with it”, said Tony Ridley, Director General of the newly created Tyneside Passenger Transport Executive, when the idea of was first presented to him in 1971.

But the doubts soon ebbed away as local politicians convinced government ministers to agree the funding. Metro was to become reality, with plans in place for a phased opening of the network.

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.

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 (which became Nexus in 1996) found itself responsible for developing the largest urban transportation project in Britain.

Huge tunnels were driven beneath the streets of Newcastle and Gateshead. Stations and viaducts were constructed. A new bridge was built over the Tyne and a fleet of 90 Metro trains was purchased.

Many of Metro’s lines, and some of the stations, were existing from rail routes that were converted into carrying the new lighter rail rolling stock.  The first passenger services were running by 11 August 1980 between Haymarket and Tynemouth, though the official opening by Her Majesty the Queen happened on November 6, 1981.

When Metro first opened the minimum price for a ticket was just eight pence.

The system reached Gateshead in 1981, going as far as Heworth, and the North Tyne loop was completed in 1982. It was extended to South Shields in 1984 and to Newcastle Airport in 1991. The Sunderland line was opened in April 2002 at a cost £100m after a three year construction project. 

Customer Services Director at Nexus, Huw Lewis, said: “Metro is part of everyday life in our region and is a source of enormous pride. What an amazing story success story this railway has been for the whole region.

“Many major capital cities around the world have metro systems, including London, New York and Tokyo. For Tyne and Wear to be in that exclusive club is nothing short of remarkable. What they build was ahead of its time for a northern city in England. 

“The people of Tyne and Wear have really taken Metro to their hearts and I don’t think anyone could imagine life without it.” 

Metro’s iconic tunnels were a significant feature of its construction phase. Tunnelling under an old city like Newcastle, with its narrow streets and historic buildings, was a challenge in itself. It was a very slow process and a great deal of work had to be done to ensure that none of the city’s treasured landmarks were damaged in any way.

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 tunnels beneath Gateshead ran through thick coal seams which were mined as the construction continued, while 15th century bell pits were found and made safe.

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.

One of the largest construction sites was in Gateshead, where a new central interchange would connect bus and Metro services, rather than on the fringes where previous stations had stood.

Work began on underpinning Grey’s Monument in 1975 – Monument station was going to be built directly underneath it. Vertical and horizontal supports had to be added to the plinth of the monument to shore up its foundations.

The portico of the Newcastle Central Station had to be shifted slightly during tunnelling so had to be taken down in 1977 (it was replaced in 1979 after a concrete slab to bear its weight had been built). Disruption to city centre road traffic was inevitable.

The new bridge over the Tyne, which was to be called the Queen Elizabeth II Metro bridge, was the engineering centrepiece of the system. With a span of 360 metres it towers high above the river. It was originally painted white until its re-paint in 2007 when it was painted blue. 

New stations were built to a template set down by North East architects Faulkner Brown. It brought a high design standard. Margaret Calvert, the country’s leading typographer, was asked to deigns the signs, having previously created the all of the fonts for the UK’s road and rail networks. 

The new trains had started arriving from 1975 onwards. Ninety carriages were ordered and they were made in the West Midlands by a firm called Camell. A test track for the new fleet was built at Middle Engine Lane in North Tyneside. Two prototype passenger cars had begun trials at the 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. The first ever Metrocar, number 4001, in May 1975 and the car 4002 in July that same year. Between January and March 1978, two trains bound for the Hong Kong Metro system were tested there. The public were given the chance to visit the Metro’s test track. There were many school visits before the facility was closed in the summer if 1980.

When Metro opened to the public 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 cost of the Metro system came in at £280 million. It was a lot of money in 1980, and many people complained about the cost. The project did go over budget. Was Metro value for money?

The Tyne and Wear PTE boss at the time, Desmond Fletcher, described the Metro as a ‘Rolls Royce system for the price of a Mini’.

Watch the story of Metro timeline.

Videos

1981: Royal Opening

1989: Clocking up the kilometres

Feb 2000: Start of Sunderland line development

Story of Metro in pictures

© 2020 Nexus Tyne and Wear - Public Transport and Local Information.