Freight and passengers at odds over space on UK’s East Coast line
Fitting fast freight and passengers on the East Coast Main Line in the UK is proving a challenge. The main long distance operator on the line – the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) – has drawn a storm of criticism for its timetable proposals. Local groups, media and politicians have all cried foul at recast stopping patterns and reduced through services.
The UK’s prestige route between London and Edinburgh is full. This can be drawn the conclusion from the turmoil of a proposed timetable of LNER on the East Coast Main Line.All UK passenger operators are required to recast their timetables in May each year. Not everyone is always pleased with the changes, but rarely are certain parties as displeased as they are with the plans for the East Coast Main Line this time.
“Our proposed May 2022 timetable has been developed by Network Rail with all train and freight operators on the East Coast Main Line. It has involved balancing long-distance, high-speed, regional and commuter/local services alongside the needs of the rail freight sector”, says LNER. However, that has done little to satisfy displeased communities across the North East of England, where the changes will have the most impact.
New rail freight business
Teesside is an area of North East England that is reinventing itself. The region is dominated by Middlesbrough, and communities built on steel-making, like historic railway town Stockton, and Redcar, the unlikely star of the film Dunkirk. After multiple blows to the region’s traditional heavy industry, the area is taking advantage of that industrial legacy to forge new rail freight business – particularly around bulk handing from the expanding Teesport.
The elected civic leader for the area, Ben Houchen, has been a keen supporter of economic regeneration, with an emphasis on green development – and that has included welcoming new rail freight flows. “This news is a kick in the teeth for local people across Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool”, he said. “We are investing a huge amount of money. I expect train operators to provide the good-quality services which they promised to deliver. It is unacceptable that LNER are planning on cutting trains to London by a third and postponing the planned increase in services to Sunderland and Newcastle.”
Critical rail freight route
Famous as the route of the Flying Scotsman, and connecting iconic British destinations including London, York and Edinburgh, the East Coast Main Line (ECML) is also a critical rail freight route on the national network. Rail freight operators GBRf and DB Cargo both have their operational headquarters on the line, and Freightliner operate multiple flows out of the successful iPort Doncaster. Add to that intermodal flows from east coast ports, including Felixstowe, and the line sees much more than famous expresses rushing by.
Network Rail has been working to increase capacity on the line. The East Coast project is the single biggest programme of works currently in the hands of the national infrastructure agency. High-profile work, like the reshaping of Kings Cross passenger terminal in London and the grade-separated junction at Werrington just north of Peterborough, have been complemented by many more track, signalling and infrastructure projects. All these works are designed to meet both growth in passenger and freight traffic alike.
Regressive timetable changes
LNER has mounted a robust defence of its position. That though has done little to quell the storm of protest in the region. Speaking to a local newspaper, the leader of the local authority in Gateshead, a city neighbouring Newcastle, foresaw the changes as a real problem for his community, which is struggling to recover from de-industrialisation. Council Leader Martin Gannon, said: “It’s almost like a disaster scenario for the North East and significantly hampers the economic prospects of major centres of population.”
His counterpart in the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, added to that disappointment. “In the coming days and weeks, I will be urging LNER to reverse these regressive timetable changes”, he said. “I’ve already raised my concerns with Network Rail about this matter and will be discussing it with the Transport Secretary to try and rectify what is an obvious error.”