Nexus’ modernisation programme for the UK’s most widely used and fastest growing transport network outside of London is well under way, and further integration is on the cards as it looks ahead
The Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive, or Nexus as it is publicly known, is responsible for Britain’s most frequently used public transport system outside of London – the Tyne and Wear Metro. With a transport budget of £210 million a year, Nexus owns and manages a Metro system serving five districts within the region with 60 stations. It also operates the Cross-Tyne Shields ferry service, as well as subsidised local bus services. In an attempt to improve the passenger experience and efficiency of the network, Nexus is currently halfway through an 11-year regeneration programme worth over £350m, which is already showing significant results.
Last year, the Metro transported over 39 million passengers across its network. This represented a five per cent increase on the year before, making it the fastest growing light rail system, again, outside of London. Tobyn Hughes, Managing Director of Nexus, says that this is a particularly significant achievement as it has not involved the introduction of any new lines of stations. Instead it is the result of the ‘Metro: all change’ modernisation programme, a Government-funded scheme to drive improvements throughout the network by focusing on existing infrastructure.
“Our modernisation programme involves securing the long term future of Metro by replacing key pieces of infrastructure including tracks, signals and overhead lines,” he explains. “We are also improving the accessibility of our stations, and we have refurbished the interiors of our fleet of Metro trains, as well as carrying out essential work to prolong their life for up to 15 years. The investment is of paramount importance as Metro is 35 years old and the system really needs the money spent on it to ensure it continues to serve the public for many generations to come.”
Due for completion in 2021 and now at its halfway point, the modernisation programme is on course, meeting all time line and budget targets. Just over £200 million has been spent since 2010, which has involved three major line closures to replace 25km of track, the modernisation of 25 stations plus the complete refurbishment of 86 Metrocars.
“In total the Metro fleet comprises 90 Metrocars,” Tobyn says. “These trains are now into their 36th year of operation. This recent programme has extended the life of the fleet into the mid-2020s, however, we will need to have replaced this rolling stock by then. By working with the North East Combined Authority in talking to the Government, a full business case is being drawn up for submission to the DfT over the next six months. We estimate a cost of around £400 million to replace the fleet, including any associated work on the signalling equipment. So, whilst the current programme is about securing Metro’s ageing infrastructure, the next step will be about looking closely at the rolling stock.”
As another significant part of this current investment programme to modernise its Metro, Nexus has introduced a smart ticketing system under its Pop brand. Further cementing its position as a transport network second only to London, the new system is the first of its kind outside the capital and, since its introduction in 2012, has already helped drive value and convenience to over 80,000 season ticket, student and Gold Card passengers. For the initial rollout, the strategy has been to bring all season ticket customers over to the smart system, as well as offering a ‘click-and-collect’ service to all Metrosaver and student passengers whereby they can order a ticket online in order to be loaded onto their cards the next day.
“As of November 2015 we have extended this offering with the launch of the Pop Pay As You Go service,” said Tobyn. “We have quickly grown to more than 1,000 cardholders largely through word-of-mouth following a launch event with Transport Minister, Andrew Jones MP in November. A full-scale marketing campaign will start in January when we really expect sales to take off.” Focused on delivering even more savings and convenience to customers, the Pay As You Go users will see the best fare for them calculated automatically at all Metro validators and gates, with an average saving of 10p and 20p per journey for standard fares and day travel passes, respectively. The system can be topped up online or at other dedicated facilities, has a guaranteed daily price cap and last journey ‘overdraft’ facility built in to it. It is also being implemented on a growing number of bus routes across the North East.
Whilst ongoing improvements are being driven into Nexus’ existing light-rail network, the company is also looking towards expanding its presence across other parts of the region’s transport infrastructure. “We will be playing a greater role in the regional train services in North East England on behalf of local authorities,” says Tobyn. “The new Northern rail franchise contains not only partial devolution to Rail North but also the creation of a North East Rail Management Unit. This unit, the first of its kind in the country, will see performance, marketing and investment devolved further than ever before.
“We will be working with the new Northern Rail and TransPennine franchisees to build a structure that delivers meaningful impact for passengers, in the context of what promises to be an excellent franchise deal that will transform local services. Our role straddling both light and heavy rail services in North East England is an opportunity to drive greater synergies between the two, through smart ticketing, service quality and integration of services and investment in the longer term.”
Nexus will also continue looking closely at improving its local bus services with its Bus Strategy programme, which aims to reverse long-term decline in local bus ridership, maintain vital local accessibility, and deliver better value for the £60 million of public money that is used to support the bus network each year. One possible avenue, which Nexus is currently working towards, is a bus franchising scheme, a process of devolution whereby the organisation would tender for a series of contracts for the operation of bus services. The ambition here is to increase levels of integration across the local public transport network and improve the planning and operation of bus services in the region.
With challenges continually posed by increasing cost pressures, Nexus will be working hard over the coming years to deliver its schemes for an improved network whilst at the same time ensuring it is able to reduce the associated operating and infrastructure costs. “We will continue to review all aspects of our capital programme to prioritise the most important projects and achieve this,” notes Tobyn. Ultimately however, based on its current growth successes and its unfaltering commitment to driving value throughout the network, the future for Nexus and indeed the North East of England as a whole looks positive.