Northumberland County Council is to find £3.5million to get plans for rail passenger services in the south-east on the right track – with the target of a 2022 start date.
The local authority has long been keen on a renewed link for passengers on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, now dubbed the Northumberland to Newcastle line – something which the current Conservative administration says reflects its new status as a regional, not just local, priority.
The council says it is determined to reintroduce direct trains between south-east Northumberland and Newcastle Central, so that thousands of residents a day can be transported along the 20-mile route between Ashington and the city centre.
This is because bringing back passenger services on the current freight line could boost the local economy by up to £70million, with more than 800,000 annual return journeys by 2038.
Now, councillors are being asked to sign off on approximately £3.46million of spending to develop the next steps, with the aim of submitting an outline business case and proposal for the detailed design by the end of the year, and passenger services planned to commence in 2022.
Council leader Peter Jackson said: “We have always supported this ambitious proposal to help secure future jobs and growth across the whole county.
“The reintroduction of passenger services on the existing freight-only line has been an aspiration of the county council for many years and fits with key local and regional policy in terms of promoting economic growth across south-east Northumberland.
“The feasibility work we commissioned is nearing completion and the emerging strategic outline business case indicates there is a positive benefit.
“It’s important we maintain momentum with the development of the scheme and commit financially towards the next stage, which will include design work, business-case refinement, a detailed highways impact assessment and a range of engineering and ecology work.
“I’m particularly pleased the scheme is now being recognised as one of regional importance in the Government’s Transport for the North proposals.
“I am determined as leader of the council to make the case for continued investment in our great county.”
The decision-making cabinet is being asked to approve the additional funding at its meeting next Tuesday (February 12), as the money is not currently set aside in the budget.
There is capital funding allocated for the project, but this cannot be spent on feasibility work where the final scheme potentially may not be delivered and therefore the money must be found in the council’s revenue budget.
Cabinet members are being asked to agree that, for now, the £3.46million comes from ‘balances to be determined’ by the council’s section 151 officer – who is responsible for the authority’s finances.
The report to councillors explains that the project would start in early March – hence the need to get the spending approved now – so that the seasonal nature of environmental surveys don’t result in a 12-month delay and to meet the time-scale of the emerging Transforming Cities Fund.
Coun Richard Wearmouth, cabinet member for economic regeneration, added: “Commuters and shoppers could speed between Ashington and the heart of Newcastle in as little as 35 minutes, with several new or rebuilt stations along the route linking towns to key areas of employment, training and leisure attractions as well as providing transport links across the wider region and the UK.
“By its very nature, this is an extremely ambitious long-term project and it’s important residents know a lot of work is going on behind the scenes to make this happen.
“And while there is still much work to be done to make the case for investment this is a significant step down that road.”
At the council’s corporate services committee yesterday (Monday, February 4), Lib Dem leader, Coun Jeff Reid, had asked about the rail line, questioning why the council had previously proposed spending £7million on its development, which had now dropped to £680,000. “That’s not progress,” he added.
Coun Jackson said this wasn’t the case, with the biggest step forward being establishing the project as a regional priority, while Coun Oliver added: “It’s not a race to spend money.”
It was also suggested that there would be news on progress soon, evidently a reference to this latest proposal, unveiled in the cabinet papers published this morning (Tuesday, February 5).
However, Coun Reid described the project as ‘a waste of time and money’ anyway, adding that the council and the Government would eventually discover that ‘this scheme is not sustainable’.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service