The Government must provide £20m to fund the Leamside Line early work if it is serious about backing North East rail, a key railway conference has been told.
Mayoral candidate Kim McGuinness has started a campaign to convince ministers to fund the Outline Business Case needed to reopen vital Northern rail infrastructure.
Speaking at the Rail Industry Association conference in Newcastle on Thursday, Kim said that the Government had to start the work now if it was to see economic growth in years to come, and said the minimum first step was funding the business case.
The conference heard that the North East needs both the Metro Washington extension and the full Leamside Line reopened to create an extensive new network of local stations on the reopened lines.
The outline business case Washington Metro Loop still needs £8.5m of work, with a similar amount at least expected to be needed to fund the initial stages of work preparing the case for the Leamside Line South. The two railway projects together would link up passengers in Durham through to Wearside, Tyneside and Northumberland.
The Prime Minister announced in his autumn conference speech that the Leamside Line would be reopened, but less than 24 hours later it had been axed from Government plans with ministers instead saying the line should be re-opened using local funds. It is estimated the total costs will vastly exceed £1bn, taking up the majority of all local transport funds on just one project.
Labour mayoral candidate Kim McGuinness said the only way for the Government to re-establish its commitment to North East transport was to back to early work now.
She said: “Reopening this line is clearly vital to the North East. We know Government has u-turned on funding the full plan, but we remain ambitious.
“That’s why today I am calling on the Government to at least now fund the business case for re-opening the line.
“The costs are significant. The outline work for the Washington Metro Loop and the Leamside South – giving us the full Leamside Line over two projects – would easily come close to £20m.
“If the Government is serious about backing this line, funding this Outline Business Case is a good start.
“We know this is possible. The Northumberland line, linking Newcastle, Ashington and Blyth, is ready to reopen soon, and it did so after Government funded the detailed business case and early site work with a £34m grant. Co-incidentally, that railway line goes to a key Tory target seat.
“We can’t have one part of the region played off against another. We need full investment in our rail infrastructure and if we can’t have that we at least need support for the early stages.”
She was backed by Martin Gannon, Gateshead Council leader, who said the Government had to match the region’s transport ambitions.
Mr Gannon, chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “We continue to stress with ministers the need for investment in both the Leamside Line and the East Coast Main Line in our region – unlocking the full potential of rail across the North East and beyond.
“The North East continues to suffer from a major bottleneck on the East Coast Main Line which stifles our economic growth. Transport funding in our region is miniscule compared with the significant levels of investment in rail in the south, and we continue to make the case for national funding to help us deliver on our economic goals.
“Investment in the ECML in the short-term would be game-changing for our residents and businesses and would release more paths to boost our rail services dramatically.
“In the longer-term, re-opening the Leamside Line - a disused 21-mile railway running from Gateshead, via Washington, to Ferryhill in County Durham - would reduce capacity constraints on the ECML and trigger a major growth in freight. It would also allow us to build stations in communities currently isolated from the rail network.”