Work has started on putting together a multi-million pound funding package that could result in a long-awaited Northumberland rail project finally getting the green light.
It is estimated up to £60m will be needed to restore passenger trains on the freight-only Ashington Blyth and Tyne railway line, which has been a key public transport priority for more than 15 years.
The aim is to run hourly passenger services between Ashington and Newcastle – half-hourly at peak times – on a route that was axed as part of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s.
Now county council bosses have revealed significant new developments which, they claim, bring the ambitious project a step closer to becoming reality.
They have commissioned Network Rail to complete work to examine the best options for the ABT scheme, and have allocated £750,000 to pay for further studies and scheme design.
In addition, a funding package is being put together to secure the future of the project if it gets the final go-ahead. Talks are being held with developers on potential contributions and a bid is being made to the Local Transport Board for major scheme funding.
The LTB is the North East body which is responsible for transport project funding devolved from central Government. Its major scheme priorities will be decided next month.
County council officials are also holding talks with stakeholders, including the South East Northumberland Rail User Group (SENRUG).
A key aim is to improve access to employment and the wider regional jobs market for people in south east Northumberland.
Another is providing a genuine incentive for new employers to relocate to the area. This will help to realise the potential of the Blyth Estuary Enterprise Zone by delivering growth in sectors such as offshore oil and gas, renewables, engineering, and the Cramlington manufacturing and pharmaceuticals cluster.
Northumberland County Council leader Grant Davey said: “We are now a step closer to making this long-held ambition a reality.
Securing the funding is a major challenge, but I believe this scheme is vital to help open up access to employment for people in the south east of the county. “At the same time, we believe an improved transport network, providing easy access to and from the wider Tyneside area, will encourage the growth of Blyth and Ashington as key hubs for new development, and secure inward investment in the area.”
The project will require line speed and signalling improvements, a train passing loop and new stations along the route.
A month ago The Journal revealed SENRUG was calling on the council to urgently commission the so-called GRIP3 study by Network Rail, which will examine the likely capital costs of reopening the ABT line.
Yesterday SENRUG chairman, Dennis Fancett, said: “This is excellent news and we’re delighted.
“I have a very high degree of confidence that this scheme will happen, but we still have a couple of concerns.
“We hope Network Rail will not over-engineer it and bump the price up, and we are concerned that it will take considerably longer than six months to do the study.
“We also don’t think it should cost £60m, as this is already a working line, and feel around £30m is a more realistic figure.”