A new study could signal the green light for a long-awaited rail project to finally move forward after being stuck in the sidings for months.
Campaigners are urging council bosses to urgently commission a key analysis by Network Rail of the proposed return of passenger trains to Northumberland’s most heavily populated area.
The so-called GRIP3 study – which is expected to take about six months to complete – will examine the likely capital costs of reopening the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne freight line to passenger services. Passenger services on the ABT line were axed as part of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s.
Bringing back regular passenger trains between Newcastle Central Station and Ashington – with potential stops at Seaton Delaval, Blyth, Bedlington, Woodhorn and Choppington – has been the major public transport aspiration in Northumberland for more than 15 years.
Now the South East Northumberland Rail User Group (SENRUG), which has been at the forefront of the ABT campaign, says the GRIP3 study needs to be commissioned and carried out urgently – so that the project is “shovel ready” if and when Government funding is forthcoming.
SENRUG ran a successful charter train along the line as far as Ashington in 2008, to demonstrate that it is capable of taking passenger services now. However, there has been little progress made in recent months.
Yesterday SENRUG chairman, Dennis Fancett, said the delay in moving the project forward was “very frustrating”, and there was concern at the amount of time it was taking to get the GRIP3 study signed off, let alone completed.
“There is increasing evidence that the Government will release more money for rail infrastructure projects such as this, but the projects need to be shovel ready, fully costed and with the GRIP3 complete.
“The ABT project would be perfect to get this money if the study was complete, but the county council has not yet commissioned it from Network Rail.
“At present, even if the Government wanted to fund it, we have not done the preparatory work, and that is extremely frustrating.”
Mr Fancett said he will be seeking reassurances from Labour, which is now the biggest single political group on the county council, that it remains committed to the scheme.
He added: “We really do need to get this study done with the utmost urgency. Once you are at GRIP3 everyone takes it seriously.”
The study – part of Network Rail’s Governance for Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) – is the stage in the process where capital costs are identified and various options looked at. GRIP4 would come up with a preferred option.
A county council spokesman said: “The possibility of reintroducing passenger services on this line has been identified as a priority for the area, and we are also seeking support for this on a sub-regional basis.
“We are working towards a GRIP3 report and are finalising arrangements for this with Network Rail.”
In 2011 county councillors were told re-opening the ABT line to passenger trains is a better option than extending the Metro into south east Northumberland.
More than 1,500 people signed an e-petition calling on the council to work with operator Nexus on bringing the Metro to Blyth and Ashington.
But councillors were told there were no plans to do this, and it would cost more than £100m.