Retired staff recall their memories of Metro's Royal opening in 1981

Her Majesty The Queen in 1981 meeting PTE staff
11 November 2021

Former PTE staff, now retired, remember the day that Her Majesty The Queen officially opened the Tyne Wear Metro on November 6, 1981.

David Thornton, 80, of Jesmond, was a Metro rolling stock engineer for 18 years from 1975 to 1993. It was his job to ensure the train was in working condition for the Queen’s visit.

David said: “I was responsible for the Metro train Her Majesty travelled on that day in 1981. There was a lot of pressure on. I had been in at the depot since the early hours of the morning to make sure everything was right.

“We picked out three trains for the visit and then selected the final one from them. We made sure the trains were sparkling clean inside and out. They all had to be checked meticulously by the police for obvious security reasons.

“I can recall the general manager at the time had said to me that it was my job to get the train sorted for the Queen and he didn’t want anything to go wrong. I stayed on that train throughout the entire visit. It all went fine in the end. I had actually hidden a technician in the cab in case something did happen to go wrong. We had even got him brand new overalls in case he had had to emerge in front of the Royal party to carry out a repair.

“I was lucky enough to be introduced to the Queen when she arrived at Monument Metro station. It was a very proud day for all of us who had worked on the Metro project, because many people had believed that it couldn’t be done. My thoughts were also with the many staff on duty that day who didn’t get to meet her but played such a vital role too.

“The director general presented me to the Queen and told her what my job was. She asked me what that meant and I explained that I was a rolling stock engineer and it was my job to look after all of the Metro trains in the fleet.

“The Royal party then got on board. We all got on the other set of doors and off the train went. We all stayed on board while she went out to dedicate the new Metro bridge. 

“At Gateshead we got seats right at the to watch her unveil the plaque and officially declare the Metro system open. It remains a wonderful memory. The final leg was the journey up to Heworth, where the Queen and the Duke took time to speak to the Metro driver. The Duke asked if he could get into the cab and have a closer look at the controls.”

David’s wife, Joan, 79, also got the chance to attend the Royal opening as a guest. 

She explained: “I was working as a school teacher at the time at a local comprehensive but I made sure I had that day off. It was a truly memorable day and one that I’ll never forget. It was such a huge honour to be invited along and to with the Royal party throughout the visit. I made sure I had a nice outfit picked out for the big day. Even the bomb scare didn’t put any of us off 

“I very much recall how close we were to the Queen at Gateshead. When she unveiled the plaque I could even see what she had in her handbag – a pen and a pair of glasses in a case.

“I can remember the part of the visit at Heworth when Prince Philip went into the driver’s cab and the Queen touchingly sort of roller her eyes a little bit at him.

“Another abiding memory was the lavish reception we had afterwards at Newcastle civic centre. There were 400 guests. It was so busy and we had a wonderful meal. That night we had also been invited to a dinner hosted by the Metro trains manufacturers at Gosforth Park Hotel so it really was quite a long day for us.”

Bruce Ennion, 80, of Morpeth in Northumberland, was a contract administrator at the PTE when Metro opened.

He said: “It was an exciting day for all of us. There was also a lot of blood press as we had to ensure everything was working right for the Royal visitors.

“It was good to see the Queen and Prince Philip and I remember them walking by me at Gateshead Metro station before they unveiled the plaque to declare the Metro open.

“I always recall how the duke looked less taller than he looked on his photographs. It was an enormous with an enormous amount of security, and it was a real highlight of my time working for the Metro.

“I remember we put in many hours of work in the days leading up to the visit. It was a very important occasion. At that time the Metro was the largest mass transportation project in the country. It was really important Tyne and Wear and for many people I the region. A lo of effort as put into trial running. There was tension and stress about the Queen visiting but it all went well on the day. Four decades later it remains one of the most memorable days for the Metro.”

Phil Mantey, of Newcastle, was a design technician with the PTE. It was his job to get everyone assembled before the Royal party arrived at Gateshead.

He said: “I remember that The Queen and Prince Philip arrived a bit earlier than planned. I ran up the stairs to stop the band from playing and I then darted back down to ensure all the staff who were to be presented to Her Majesty were in their places. 

“It was a really stressful ten minutes on what was a huge day for us all and such a proud day for the region.

John Baggs, 80, worked for the PTE from 1969 to 1988. He was a planning officer who played a key role in making Metro become a reality before going on to become its general manager. John was introduced to the Queen during her visit. 

He recalled: “It was a fantastic day. I can still see it like it was yesterday. There was a tremendous amount of pride for the region and for the fact that we had done it. We had managed to build a Metro system where other cities had failed. 

“I was lucky enough to be one of those who got the chance to be presented to the Queen when she was at Gateshead Metro station to unveil the plaque. I was also on board the special train she travelled across the new Metro bridge on after she had officially named it.

“I vividly recall there was a bomb scare and we got to Gateshead a lot earlier than expected. It was police advice to speed the visit up.

“The director general at the time, David Howard, was the one who introduced Her Majesty to us. He explained my role in the project to her and she remarked that it must have seemed like such a long time to get the Metro system all built.

“I recall the Duke of Edinburgh was always a few paces behind the Queen, which was of typical of him. As she disappeared around the corner after meeting us all he didn’t do all of the meeting and greeting as he knew they had to get on with the visit. 

“I also recall the councillor, Jack May, in his speech before the plaque was unveiled, had said that it was a historical day, but to our amusement his Geordie accent made it sound like he had said it was ‘a hysterical day’.”

Ray Shanks, 66, of Wardley in Gateshead, was one the workers who installed Metro’s 77km of new tracks. Ray, who worked for the PTE 38 years on infrastructure renewal, was one of the staff invited to see the Queen officially open the new Metro bridge.

He said: “I was in the temporary seating they erected just next to the Metro bridge at Forth Banks. I was working for a contractor called Western House who had fitted all of the track junctions on the network. I was only 25 when the royal visit took place.

“We had the day off that day. We got to our seats well in advance of the Queen arriving. I had a great view of her getting off the train and stepping on to special gantry where she dedicated the Metro bridge and we all gave a round a applause at that moment. There was a photo in the local newspaper the next day and you can see me in the seats looking on at the ceremony.

“I then watched her get back on to the train and it went off across the bridge to the ceremony they had planned over at Gateshead.

“It was all quite surreal but it was also huge day for the Metro and a really proud day for the staff. I went on to work for the PTE, now Nexus, and it gave me great career for over three decades.”



Rolling Stock (retired) Engineer David Thornton

Contracts Administrator (retired) Bruce Ennion

Former PTE General Manager John Baggs

TV report from 1981 Royal opening

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