Feature: The Tyne and Wear Metro train fleet at 40

The first Metrocar 4001
1 October 2020

With the Tyne and Wear Metro is celebrating its landmark 40th anniversary, here is a look back at the trains that changed the face of transport in our region.

Their iconic yellow and white colour scheme and cutting-edge technology made them stand out from the very first day that they entered service.

Metro’s trains have become iconic, woven into the social and economic fabric of our region over 40 years.

People were in awe that an underground light rail system had arrived in North East England.

It was such a big deal that it even featured on the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World programme.

And who can forget that episode of Spender when Jimmy Nail famously ran after the train down the tunnel, or when a whole train was transported to Gateshead for the National Garden Festival. 

Nexus, the Metro operator, has just recently unveiled its new trains, and their bright yellow livery is a firm nod to those early days of Metro.

This ageing fleet that has become a firm part of everyday life, with its service now spanning more than four decades. From 2023 it will start to be phased out, making way for new rolling stock that will deliver a step change in technology and transform the passenger experience, with greater reliability and energy efficiency.

The current trains have been a familiar sight and sound for so many people down the years. Today, they still run, in all weathers, for 20 hours a day.

These workhorses take people to jobs, to school, and to places of leisure. They have served every single Great North Run since the event was launched. 

When they first entered service in 1980, they transformed the way that people could move around Tyneside, offering fast and direct access to congested city centres and to wider areas as the Metro network was expanded in stages. They helped to cut road congestion, between Newcastle and Gateshead in particular.

Nexus, the public body formerly known as the Tyne and Wear PTE, ordered 90 trains once the Government funding for Metro got the green light. The fleet alone was to cost £25m.

Since 1980 the Metros have undergone two major refurbishments, had three different colour schemes, have carried 1.5 billion passengers, and they have covered three million kilometres, the distance it would take to get to the moon and back five times over.

Customer Services Director at Nexus, Huw Lewis, said: “The Metro trains have helped to put our region on the map. They are known throughout the world and there is a great deal of affection for them.

“They have given us outstanding service over 40 years and have clocked up many thousands of miles. They are true workhorses, running for 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

“These trains are an undoubted local icon and many people will be sad to see them go.

“The driver’s eye view that you get from the front passenger seat, something which is always very popular with families who use Metro, is just one aspect that will be missed.

“But while we rightly celebrate the service of our trains on their 40th anniversary it is also vital that we look to the future. They have become an increasing maintenance challenge and the new trains that we are getting will transform the service we can offer to our customers.

“The old trains will continue for now, and they do have a heritage value that will be recognised when the last train finally leaves service.”

But what is the in-depth story of Metro’s iconic trains?

While the idea of a Metro system was still being pitched to Ted Heath’s government in the early 1970s the first carriage designs were drawn up to offer a futuristic vision for a region synonymous with heavy industry and deprivation.

When funding was finally approved in late 1972 a procurement process was started to find a company that was capable of building the Metro trains.

By 1976 a test track had been constructed at Middle Engine Lane in North Tyneside, and an order had been placed for the trains. They were made in Birmingham by a renowned British train manufacturer called Metro-Cammell. The company had an outstanding track record, having already built trains for the London Underground, Glasgow subway, British Rail, and the Hong Kong Metro. Metro’s test track was even used by them to put some of the new Hong Kong trains through their paces in 1978.

The first two prototypes were delivered to the test track in May and June of 1975. These units were used for trials and driver training and have since clocked up a total mileage that is roughly 20 times more than an average family car will travel in its entire lifetime. 

The design for the Metro trains came from a contemporary German tram called a Stadtbahnwagen B, but what was built was entirely bespoke for the Tyne and Wear Metro, which was not to be a street-running system.

The trains were designed to run using high voltage power, supplied by overhead power lines delivering 1,500 volts. Each train weighed 40 tonnes and had 84 seats, with room for 188 standing. Unlike the London Tube trains, with is linear seating, the Metro came with a banquette seating layout. 

By March 1980 a total of 56 trains had been delivered, by rail, to Metro’s Gosforth depot, with the number rising to 90 over the next few years as more of the Metro network was completed. The test track was used for scores of school rail safety talks prior to its closure in July 1980. It was visited by 35,000 people over its five years of operations. 

The original Metro prototypes, carriages 4001 and 4002, were then sent away to be modified so that they too could be capable of entering passenger service on the network.

Metrocar 4001 was the very first test train to travel to South Hylton after the opening of the Sunderland line in April 2002.

The fleet has had three different colour schemes. The original PTE yellow and white was replaced during a refurbishment programme in the mid-1990s, which saw red, blue and green woven into the yellow design.

The next major revamp started in 2010 and that saw the arrival of the current sleek black and yellow livery.

From 2023 onwards the current fleet will start to be withdrawn from service. As each new train arrives an old one will be mothballed. 

However, Nexus plans to retain some of the old trains for heritage purposes. The rest will go to a scrapyard. 

It will bring the curtain down on a fleet which has proudly served the people of Tyne and Wear for many years.
 

Videos

Metro's train fleet

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