The government has announced that two rail lines that have been closed to passengers for more than 50 years are to receive around £800m funding to bring them back into operation. East West Rail, which will eventually connect Oxford and Cambridge, will get £760m and the Northumberland Line, which is still open to freight, will receive £34m for initial work that is aimed at restarting passenger services.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said that reopening the lines would help connect communities that had been left behind and were an important part of the government’s ‘levelling up strategy’. “Restoring railways helps put communities back on the map and this investment forms part of our nationwide effort to build back vital connections and unlock access to jobs, education and housing,” said Shapps. He said that the investments would “return the routes to their former glory”.
Welcoming the news, North of Tyne mayor, Jamie Driscoll said: The first £34m of funding for the Northumberland Line has been announced and the rest is in the pipeline. This is great news and it will make a real difference to people's lives. Colleagues in Northumberland have been working on this for years, so I hope they feel justly proud. Once the line is fully open, people will be able to get from Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth into North Tyneside and Newcastle and join the Metro system. Not many schemes reflect so perfectly what can happen when we work together across the North of Tyne.”
Simon Middleton, regional director at AECOM, which has led the development of the Northumberland Line project to reach the latest milestone, said: “This funding announcement gives us the green light to reintroduce this much-needed rail service, through an innovative project which shows how Beeching cuts can be quickly and efficiently reversed. Working with Northumberland County Council, Network Rail and SLC Rail, AECOM is helping to bring about a rapid transformation in transport choices for people living and working in Northumberland, opening up new routes for them to get to work, study or connect with different communities.”
Some environmental critics of the announcement have highlighted the fact that diesel engines and not electric will initially run on the lines. Shapps said that hydrogen or battery-powered trains might replace diesel in the future but Labour MP for Cambridge Daniel Zeichner said: “Every rail expert will tell you it will cost more later to electrify a line. In a time of climate emergency, we really shouldn't be building railway lines for diesel, it's got to be electric.”
While welcoming the East West Rail investment, Zeichner called for the government to reconsider its plans to use diesel-powered trains. “Rail is the right way to get people in and out of a city like Cambridge but it’s got to be done in an environmentally sustainable way. It seems crazy to be building new railways which aren't electrified in the first place,” he said.
Shapps said that he most important thing was the infrastructure. “It's about building the stations, things you need to do no matter what kind of train you're going to run on there, if it's going to take passengers,” he said.
Northumberland County Council leader Glen Sanderson said: “This is absolutely fantastic news and means we can now finalise our plans to deliver this transformational project for both Northumberland and the wider region. Along with our partners we’ve done so much work to get the scheme to this stage and the Government is clearly convinced this is a project that needs to happen.
“With trains running through our county into the heart of Newcastle every half hour this will provide a massive boost to the county, in terms of opening up education, housing and investment. It will also have a positive long-term environmental impact, helping with the move away from cars to greater public transport use and cutting congestion in bottleneck areas.”
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said the Northumberland Line was a critical piece of local infrastructure that would help reconnect people in south east Northumberland and north Tyneside closer to Newcastle city centre, a source of well-paid jobs. “Having better connectivity will help attract businesses to that area and it will help to deliver genuine levelling-up,” Murison said.