EXTRA carriages to ease congestion on a packed Tynedale train are expected to be restored from this morning following a surprise deal, The Journal can reveal.
Only last week, Hexham MP Guy Opperman criticised Northern Rail for failing to reach a “speedy solution” in the “torchgate” dispute with the drivers’ union Aslef.
But an unscheduled meeting between the two sides has secured an “interim” agreement with the extra carriages being hitched to the early morning Hexham to Middlesbrough service.
The MP called it “fantastic news” and he was joined by Northern Rail and commuters.
Aslef originally called the dispute on health and safety grounds.
The union claimed the way the new carriages were attached meant drivers had to jump down from the cab and walk from one end to the other in order to change direction.
It was deemed a hazard because in darkness, drivers could stumble or fall without a proper light.
The extra carriages were removed from the train just before Christmas with Mr Opperman offering to buy drivers’ torches to solve the lighting stand-off.
Mr Opperman said: “This is now fantastic news and the union and Northern Rail should take credit for trying to sort this out.
“But one wonders why this interim agreement could not have been reached at an earlier stage to avoid all the difficulties and frustration for passengers.”
The row concerns the 7.42am train from Hexham to Newcastle and Middlesbrough.
The service arrives early and shunts into a siding to allow a Glasgow service to pass by. Drivers used to walk inside the train to change cab and take the service back to the station.
But with no walkway between extra carriages this became impossible.
The deal involves an “understanding” between top company officials and the union.
Full time Aslef officer for Northern Rail Colin Smith said: “Under this interim agreement the company has agreed that safety is the most important consideration and a driver can decide if it is safe to walk alongside the train in the dark.” Asked if the lighting issue had been solved he added: “He can put on all the lights in carriages to light up the path way and drivers already carry lamps they can use.”
Aslef said it supported the need for longer trains and better services for passengers and the two sides are expected to meet again on February 3.
Northern Rail said it had been desperate to reach a deal and welcomed the stop-gap agreement.
A spokeswoman said: “We are very pleased to be able to reintroduce these additional carriages to provide more seats for passengers on the 07.42 Hexham to Newcastle service from today.
“We know that this extra capacity is needed on this particular service, which is why we have been working with all parties to reach a resolution as soon as possible.
She added: “This interim agreement means passengers will have more seats on the service improving the quality of their journey and we would like to thank them for their patience over the last month.”
Chairman of the Tyne Valley Rail Users Group Malcolm Chainey said passengers would be relieved that the train will be longer after weeks of difficulties.
He said: “The service has been jam packed in the past with standing room only. Now everyone should be able to get a seat.”