Shapps says rail companies 'will listen' over East Coast timetable fears

The transport secretary has vowed that rail companies will listen to the North East’s major fears over a new train timetable labelled a “disaster scenario” for the region.

Thursday, 15th July 2021, 10:42 am
Updated Thursday, 15th July 2021, 10:43 am
Grant Shapps. (Picture by Tolga Akmen-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Huge changes revealed last month could see the number of trains between Newcastle and Manchester halved from next May and fewer services stopping at stations including Durham, Darlington, Berwick, and Morpeth.

While the revised timetable would add a third service every hour between Newcastle and London, capacity constraints on the East Coast Main Line mean there would be a heavy price to pay.

North East leaders have called for the plans to be put on hold and Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council and chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC), wrote to transport secretary Grant Shapps to ask for help.

Mr Shapps wrote back on Tuesday: “I appreciate your concern about the proposals and how the future timetable will affect your community.

“I recognise that the changes proposed are significant, which is why I want to assure you that the train operators involved will listen carefully to all of the feedback provided and take that into account when considering next steps in the development and implementation of this timetable.

“It is important that the proposals are locally supported and I can assure you we will listen to that feedback carefully.”

Coun Gannon told the JTC on Tuesday that the region’s concerns had been “positively received” and the newly-proposed LNER timetable, which is currently out to public consultation, has highlighted long-standing problems that are “strangling the economic potential of the North East”.

The region has long campaigned for major rail upgrades, such as the reopening of the disused Leamside Line, that would significantly increase capacity north of York and allow for new passenger services to be introduced without cutting others.

Coun Gannon said: “I know it is not an easy solution, it is major investment. But the potential it would unleash in the North East is for major, high-quality employment and economic growth that we are just not able to exploit now because of the lack of crucial transport infrastructure.”

Northumberland County Council leader Glen Sanderson called the proposed changes a “huge and unwelcome backwards step”, particularly for Berwick and Morpeth.

The frequency of Transpennine trains between Newcastle and Manchester, via Durham and Darlington, will be halved from two an hour to just one under the plans.

The number of London trains stopping at Berwick and Darlington will be cut by a third, plans to increase the frequency of services between Teesside, Sunderland, and Newcastle have been postponed, and LNER will also scrap its early morning and late night trains between Sunderland and London.

The net effect of changes being proposed by various rail operators would mean that Darlington would lose 29 trains per day, Durham eight, Morpeth 21, Berwick six, and Newcastle one.

One beneficiary, however, would be Chester-le-Street, which would have 10 more trains per day stopping than on the current timetable.

Alnmouth would also get one extra train and Northallerton would have nine more.

LNER has said that the timetable “does involve a series of trade-offs” but that the decision to cut trains to the North West “aligns well to customer demand”, and added that Grand Central would also be upping its Sunderland to London trains from five to six each day.

The company, which is owned by the Department for Transport, claimed it was increasing the frequency of services at Durham as the city has “fewer services and more customers” than Darlington, which will see its numbers cut.