Fresh doubt cast on Leamside Line plans to extend Tyne and Wear Metro to Washington following Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement budget update
The government has been accused of a U-turn that could “cut the North East out” of critical rail upgrades.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced during his Autumn statement on Thursday (November 17) that ministers would deliver the “core” of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) – a long-awaited project to boost connections across the North.
But local officials fear that will mean that a reopening of the Leamside Line, described as the “most important infrastructure investment for the region”, has been pushed out of the plans – and with it plans to extend the Metro to Washington.
Liz Truss had previously pledged that she would build Northern leaders’ full vision for NPR, reversing a £25 billion cut to the scheme that was scaled back by Boris Johnson’s government last year.
But hopes of restoring the mothballed Leamside Line, which runs between Pelaw in Gateshead and Tursdale in County Durham, have been dampened once again by Mr Hunt’s statement.
Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon said: “The Chancellor has today referred to moving ahead with a new concept of a “core” Northern Powerhouse Rail.
"I do not know what that means but I am not holding my breath – I fear that the government may have cut the North East out of this transformational scheme once again.
“Upgrading the East Coast Main Line in the North East is essential for the economic growth of the country and the region.
“Reopening the Leamside Line is an essential part of that, in fact it is the most important infrastructure investment for the region.”
The restoration of the disused line has been backed by MPs from across the North East and is essential to £745 million plans to create a new extension of the Tyne and Wear Metro to Washington.
It would also free up extra capacity to run more trains on the congested East Coast Main Line, by offering an alternative path for slow-moving freight carriages.
North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “There was never a core NPR – this is in fact a sub-standard, cut NPR.
“We will be losing out on any significant expansion, particularly with the Leamside Line, which would not only improve our inter-city rail system but is necessary for us to use that railway line as part of a Washington loop for the Tyne and Wear Metro.”
He added: “This is a government that talks about growth, but does the exact opposite.
"If you want growth, you have to invest in a better transport system and better skills and training.”
Mr Hunt committed to a “core” version of NPR but did not give further detail during his House of Commons address.
The Chancellor said: “Smart countries build on their long-term commitments rather than discard them.
"So today I confirm that because of this decision, alongside Sizewell C, we will deliver the core Northern Powerhouse Rail; HS2 to Manchester; East West Rail; the new hospitals programme; and gigabit broadband rollout.
“All these and more will be funded as promised, with over £600 billion of investment over the next five years to connect our country and grow our economy.”