The statue of the Newcastle United and England footballer Jackie Milburn in Station Road, Ashington, Northumberland.

UK rail reopening kicks off North Northumberland Line

The statue of the Newcastle United and England footballer Jackie Milburn (1924-1988), located in Station Road, Ashington, Northumberland.Image GeographUK - WikiCommons

A freight only branch line, serving former mining communities north of Newcastle, is set to open for mixed traffic from next summer. The North Northumberland Line, currently serving the port of Blyth, will see passenger traffic reintroduced next year, after an extensive refurbishment of the infrastructure, and the building of six new stations. The heavy rail opening is independent of the renewal of the train fleet serving the Tyne and Wear Metro.

The seventeen mile route (27 km), connecting several communities with Newcastle upon Tyne, is being reopened as part of the UK government’s Restoring Your Railways – an initiative to reverse some of the extensive rationalisation of the 1960s. Although the line did not close, it was reduced to a secondary freight only line. However, that has made reopening within the limited budget of the scheme more viable. The government is working with the local authority, Northumberland County Council, the infrastructure agency Network Rail, and the incumbent passenger train operator Northern Rail to restore regular services from next year, creating faster and easier journeys between Ashington and Newcastle.

boost business opportunities and investment

The line is currently used for delivery of alumina tanks between Blyth and Fort William in Scotland. Historically, the line was extensively used by coal traffic, and mixed goods landed at the port. The reintroduction of passenger services will see journey times slashed in half, bringing Newcastle within 35 minutes of the terminus at Ashington.

Colliery traffic at Ashington in 1960s
Historically Ashington was a busy centre for coal traffic by rail (image Roger Cornfoot – Geography UK project)

“Communities in Northumberland can get ready for regular train services that will better connect people to jobs, education and opportunities while growing our economy”, said Mark Harper, the UK Transport Secretary. “Restoring lost railway connections will drive tourism, boost local business opportunities and encourage investment. I’m pleased to say that we are on track to reopen this historic line next summer.”

Other examples under consideration and construction

Britain’s railway network was reduced by about half of its route mileage under a radical rationalisation in the 1960s. Although branded as Restoring Your Railways, the government initiative is a limited programme of reopening, with a handful of short branch lines involved. Other examples under consideration include bringing services back to Fleetwood near Blackpool, and Fawley near Southampton. The scheme has already seen the successful delivery of the Dartmoor Line, which reopened to passengers in November 2021 and has since doubled its passenger services and benefitted students studying in Exeter. Other projects, such as the Levenmouth railway in Scotland, are being pursued independent of this initiative.

Work underway on North Northumberland Line
Work underway on North Northumberland Line

The North Northumberland Line does represent a significant project nonetheless. Six new stations will be opened – at Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth Bebside, Newsham, Seaton Delaval, and Northumberland Park. From there, the line will parallel the existing route of the Tyne and Wear Metro and then the East Coast Main Line for the final run into Newcastle Central station.

Almost 100 high-skilled jobs

The construction phase is short, given that much of the infrastructure is still in place. “This is such a transformational scheme which will bring benefits for residents, businesses and visitors for generations to come”, said Glen Sanderson, the Northumberland County Council Leader, the local authority for the region. “[The railway] will boost the region’s economy through improving access to jobs.

According to the promoters, construction work has already created almost 100 high-skilled jobs and apprenticeships. They say that demonstrates the economic benefits of the project already realised for the local community. They also say they expect congestion to be relived, and air quality to improve as people will be encouraged away from their cars and on to trains.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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