Fleet on the Tyne
Owned and managed by Nexus, the Tyne and Wear Metro is one of the UK’s busiest light rail systems outside London. It carries around 36 million passengers a year, and has consistently led the way in innovation since it was established
A public body, Nexus delivers its public transportation services on behalf of local authorities, with these including the cross-Tyne Shields Ferry services and some subsidised local bus routes. However, the Tyne and Wear Metro is Nexus’ key business, and is, as Managing Director of Nexus Tobyn Hughes explained, ‘the backbone of the public transport network in Tyne and Wear.’
He gave some more details about the system and the challenges it is currently facing: “The Tyne and Wear Metro is a light rail system that carries 36 million passengers a year through five council areas in North East England – Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland, South Tyneside and North Tyneside,” he began. “We opened in 1980, and what we are now finding is that as the trains are more than 40 years old, they are increasingly developing faults where they have to be removed from service, something that customers find hugely frustrating.
“Staff at our fleet depot work around the clock to fix the trains, but spare parts are becoming obsolete. The Metro fleet did undergo an interior refurbishment between 2010 and 2014 but this didn’t resolve some of the longer term mechanical and electrical issues the old trains tend to suffer from due to their age.”
The solution is to get new trains. “We asked the Government for funding and submitted a robust business case that succeeded in November 2017 when we secured £337m towards the projected £362m cost of designing and building a new train fleet,” added Tobyn. “This and the ongoing maintenance of the fleet over 35 years makes the total contract value about £500m.”
Nexus is now in the process of sourcing the right supplier to provide the fleet, as well as maintenance facilities, which will serve Metro for 35 years, including a new depot at the existing site in Gosforth, Newcastle.
“We are currently engaged in a procurement process to determine who will design, build and maintain our new fleet, and our detailed specification takes account of consultation with more than 3000 Metro passengers in 2016 and 2017, followed by market engagement with train builders to refine the plans. The shortlisted bidders are challenged to design trains that will operate efficiently and robustly, supplying a step change in Metro availability and performance, with a bright modern appearance,” said Tobyn, as he expanded on Nexus’ vision of what the new rolling stock will deliver. “We want to see trains that improve passenger flow and dwell times at stations through improved seating layouts, wider doors and stand-back areas, wide aisles, and a layout to encourage flow of passengers through the vehicle. This is also aimed at improving passengers’ sense of security, accessibility for all and providing space for large items and luggage. There will also be improved digital connectivity for passengers and air conditioning.”
In addition to providing these state-of-the-art vehicles, the successful bidder will also be responsible for maintaining the current fleet of trains to ensure there is a smooth transition between the old and new fleet between 2022 and 2024. Said Tobyn: “A shortlist of three bidders will be announced in June, and the winning bidder will then be confirmed in November. We are getting 84 new trains, and the aim is for these to start arriving from late 2021.”
Clearly a very significant investment project for the organisation, it is nevertheless nothing new to Nexus – as Tobyn pointed out, the organisation has already invested £300m in the renewal of its infrastructure since the Metro all change modernisation programme began in 2010. “Hundreds of individual projects have been successfully completed to upgrade the stations, while the biggest schemes have involved the replacement of tracks and bridges. As things stand we have now put in 60km of new track, refurbished 35 of our 60 stations, replaced 27 escalators, 24 sets of points, 12 lifts, 85km of signalling cables and 17km of overhead line,” he said. “The replacement of the Metro’s overhead lines is a huge project that will continue over the coming years, and all of this work is securing the long-term future of the Tyne and Wear Metro, so it has been money well spent, delivered against all of the targets the Department for Transport set down.”
Another noteworthy scheme that sits separately to the overall Metro modernisation programme is the South Shields Transport Interchange, a £21m project involving the construction of a new bus and Metro interchange in South Shields. “This is long overdue for people who live, work in, and visit South Tyneside. When the new interchange opens to the public this August it will give the town a completely new, bright and modern facility for connecting with bus and Metro services,” noted Tobyn. “It has been led by South Tyneside Council and funded as part of their town centre regeneration scheme. The project received £9.4m from the Local Growth Deal through the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). The Local Growth Deal is supporting major capital investments to promote innovation, economic and skills infrastructure and sustainable transport across the North East LEP area.”
Given the extensive nature of the development and expansion underway at Nexus, it is evident that there is a need for the organisation to not only recruit new staff but ensure that all of its employees are well-trained and functioning at the top of their game. “Our workforce is at the heart of everything that we do,” confirmed Tobyn. “I’m committed to the development and training of our staff because they are the ones who make us a success.”
To facilitate the continuous training and development of its people, Nexus is currently constructing a brand-new, £9.8m learning centre that will transform the quality of the training provided to the Nexus workforce and industry partners. “This is necessary to ensure we keep Metro as part of the everyday life of the hundreds of thousands of people who use the service every day,” said Tobyn. “It will also be the place where our increasingly diverse workforce will go to develop themselves professionally, and to work on strategies to improve what we do and how we do it. The new centre will bring our training facilities into the 21st Century and allow us to move out of some of the old, temporary classrooms that we currently use.”
The development is being funded through a £7m grant from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s Local Growth Fund and a £1.4m contribution by Nexus.
Tobyn continued: “The new facility will include a 70 metre stretch of dual track for us to carry out rail infrastructure training, including track, track points, signalling and overhead line. The new three-storey training centre itself will house a new computerised Metro driver training simulator, in preparation for the delivery of new Metrocars from 2021. It will also allow engineering staff to learn how to maintain the new trains, and for us to safely and securely stable Metro trains overnight in South Shields.”
Furthermore, Nexus also has plans to deliver a mobile smart ticketing option for customers this year, which will make paying for Metro travel and accessing the system even easier.
With so many substantial projects underway, Nexus has to prioritise and Tobyn explains that delivering the new Metro fleet is at the top of the agenda. “This is the biggest single project since the Metro was built in mid 1970s,” he stated. “We expect to get the first new trains in late 2021 and then we will see a phased introduction of the new rolling stock through until 2024. When one new train arrives, another old one will be taken out of service. There will also be the construction of a temporary depot, which we will need while we transition to our new facilities.”
It is apparent from talking to Tobyn that Nexus is dedicated to continuously developing the Tyne and Wear Metro over the coming years, with new schemes being added to the agenda and ambitious plans being considered all the time. “We remain committed to further extensions of the Tyne and Wear Metro, a view which is firmly shared by our local authority partners. In the coming years, we will do much detailed work to assess the feasibility of extending Metro lines into different parts of the Tyne and Wear region so that we can put together a business case and bid for Government funding,” he concluded. “There is also much more that we want to do in terms of infrastructure renewal on the Tyne and Wear Metro. We are already talking to ministers about continued funding of our asset renewal programme long into the future.”