The next generation of transport
As operators of the second busiest light rail system in the UK, Nexus is responsible for the effective running of the Tyne and Wear Metro network and delivering the modernisation that its customers will greatly benefit from
North East England has a historic connection when it comes to railway innovation. The first railways were constructed here in the 1600s in order to facilitate the transport of coal to the banks of the Tyne and Wear rivers for shipment to London. Two centuries of development led to the opening of the Newcastle and North Shields Railway in 1839, the first in the world to be conceived as a suburban passenger line. Fast forward to 2017, and the public transport infrastructure of Tyne and Wear has expanded exponentially.
Nexus, the trading name for the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive, is tasked with the job of providing, planning and promoting the region’s public transport networks. The Tyne and Wear network is thought to be the most highly frequented of any in the UK, outside of London, and each year it handles approximately 39 million journeys. In administering funds on behalf of the North East Combined Authority, Nexus’ goal is to improve the economic prosperity of Tyne and Wear.
“The past year has played host to several important developments,” begins Tobyn Hughes, Nexus’ Managing Director for Transport Operations, “one of those being the end of the concession agreement between Nexus and DB Regio, as of 1st April 2017. In the period leading up to and following the end of this agreement we have been working hard to increase performance across the network, specifically when it comes to punctuality.”
Nexus’ success in increasing its punctuality and performance levels is particularly impressive when you consider the age of its metrocars. The 90 cars that make up its fleet were originally built by Metro Cammell in the late 1970s, and have now reached the end of their design life. “While these cars have served us well, and they continue to do so, their current performance levels are being recorded at around 7000 kilometres per disruptive fault,” Tobyn explains. “We measure this as equating to a four-minute delay, which falls below our high standards. Any delay experienced is going to have an impact on customer perception of the system, regardless of the overall improvement in performance, so this needs to be addressed accordingly.”
Two years ago, the company began the preparatory work on commissioning a new fleet of metrocars. “Our cost estimate for this new fleet comes in at between £420 million and £430 million,” Tobyn reveals. “We believe that, with a higher level of performance, 84 of these new cars will be sufficient to service the network and we are currently in talks with the Department for Transport (DfT) regarding funding. We believe the case for this modernisation is clear and we hope to be in a position to seek approval from our own Combined Authority by the end of the summer to begin the procurement process.”
At the same time as it is looking to secure the future of its metro car fleet, Nexus finds itself seven years into an 11-year funding programme for the modernisation of the region’s rail infrastructure. This programme is designed to tackle the issue of the backlog of heavy engineering works that accumulated over the previous several decades and to increase levels of capital maintenance so that such a backlog does not amass again.
The last seven years have seen Nexus focus its efforts on the northern part of its network, carrying out work such as track and permanent way renewals, the shoring up of embankments, improving drainage systems, and refurbishing bridges and viaducts. It has also refurbished and improved stations around the system.
“As part of this summer’s works we are replacing the 19th century Killingworth road bridge,” Tobyn continues. “The bridge carries the Metro across a busy arterial road, and the narrow span of the bridge creates a congestion pinch-point on the highway below. Rather than simply refurbish the bridge, we jointly bid with the highways authority to replace and widen it. This will have a hugely positive impact on congestion in the area, while making the Metro system above it fit for purpose.”
While this work continues, Nexus is also in the process of replacing its overhead line infrastructure. Taking the decision to internalise this project to increase flexibility, Nexus’ internal capital renewals team is now in the process of preparing for work to commence in June 2017. With all the necessary equipment and machinery to hand, the team will carry out the majority of this work at night in order to avoid unnecessary disruption.
A separate consideration for Nexus and its Combined Authority relates to the long-term operating model for the network in the wake of its concession agreement with DB Regio concluding. “Vertical integration is a widely discussed term in the rail industry at the moment, and we think it is absolutely the right model for the Tyne and Wear Metro,” Tobyn says. “Our own experience shows that by integrating the work of the Metro operator and the system infrastructure provider we create the best results for our customers.”
Nexus has clearly made significant gains in recent times and moving forward it is its intention to cement these. “We will continue to work towards delivering increasing levels of punctuality and satisfaction, while looking to start the procurement process for new rolling stock,” Tobyn concludes. “We are currently targeting 2021 as the date that these trains will enter service, by which time we also expect a new modernisation funding model to be in place and plans to be underway to extend the Metro system.”