Metro marks 175th anniversary of ancestor railway line

It was on this very day 175 years ago that what has become a central feature of modern life first emerged

Newcastle City Libraries Jesmond stationaround c1910 showing original North Eastern Railways third-rail electric train, introduced in 1904
Jesmond stationaround c1910 showing original North Eastern Railways third-rail electric train, introduced in 1904

Passenger services started on June 18, 1839, on the new railway from Carliol Square in Newcastle to North Shields.

Around the same time, the Brandling Junction Railway opened its lines between Gateshead, Boldon, South Shields and Sunderland.

Suburban rail commuting had arrived, and the North East had chalked up a world first.

Our modern version, the Metro, still uses parts of the original routes on both sides of the river.

To mark the 175th anniversary, Metro manager Nexus is launching a history website today to tell the story of the suburban railways in the region.

The Newcastle-North Shields line was an immediate success, with more than 16,000 passengers using the service in the first two and a half months.

Although passenger numbers took off, not everyone was happy.

The vicar of Christ Church in North Shields, the Rev Christopher Reed, wrote to the railway company expressing “regret and pain” about the trains encouraging travel on Sunday - the Lord’s day.

Although wishing the railway well in general terms, he requested that no trains should run through North Shields on a Sunday between 10am and 1pm and 2pm and 4.30pm.

The new website - see www.nexus.org.uk - brings together maps, drawings, text, photographs and film footage. It has been created by Gateshead technology firm Ayo Digital.

Research by Nexus for the website turned up a map of the proposed route, presented to MPs in 1831 as the founders of the Newcastle and North Shields railway sought parliamentary approval for their scheme.

Raymond Johnstone, Nexus director of rail and infrastructure, said: “1830s Newcastle was an exciting place to be – Grainger and Dobson were executing their masterplan for the city centre and at Carliol Square the terminus of the world’s first Metro was being built.

“The original promoters saw this as a local passenger railway, the first one ever. You can see it was fought against in Parliament by local coach operators and toll gate owners who feared it would take traffic off the busy roads to the coast.

“We have also established a link between Robert Stephenson and our line for the first time. It was he who surveyed the original route, which Metro still uses today on our stretch between the modern Chillingham Road station and North Shields.

“We renewed and modernised this section in 2011 and 2012, digging down through structures and foundations laid down in the 1830s to Stephenson’s plan.”

One place where that original engineering is on show is Willington Viaduct, designed by John and Benjamin Green, where the stone piers date from 1839.

The original wooden latticework structure above was replaced by iron in the 1860s and restored by Nexus eight years ago.

South of the river the listed Gothic station building at Felling, recently converted into a house, lies on the Brandling Junction line between Gateshead and Brockley Whins.

 

The new website covers events like the construction of a large central station in Sunderland in 1879, creating a central hub for lines radiating from the town. Then there is the growth of Manors station in Newcastle, a junction with seven platforms giving easy access to Northumberland Street.

Nexus staff discovered a 10ft long plan of the station in its drawing office. It had been traced on to linen for durability in 1917 and passed to Metro in the 1970s.

For Raymond Johnstone 1904 is a key date in the story. That was the year North Eastern Railways converted its suburban lines from steam power to electricity.

The investment saw passenger numbers shoot up as trains became faster and cleaner, but success brought its own problems.

The North Eastern Railway had to commission extra trains in both 1909 and 1915 to cope with demand - and the sensitivities of passengers.

Mr Johnstone said: “The new faster electric service was very popular with fish wives from Cullercoats taking freshly-landed produce to the Grainger Market each morning. Unfortunately the baskets of wet fish left quite a smell behind.

“The company had to invest in special carriages with metal-lined compartments after complaints from commuters.”

New suburbs developed not just around stations like Whitley Bay and Monkseaton but in Gosforth, where a garden village was built.

Nexus, with the help of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, also acquired a 1938 Pathe newsreel, marking a £500,000 investment in electrification of the line to South Shields.

Mr Johnstone said: “It was only two years after the Jarrow Crusade and the reporter makes the point that investment in the railway is seen as a way of driving regeneration, a theme very much understood today, with the Transport Secretary telling the Commons recently that our current £389m modernisation has been vital in sustaining the local economy.

“The website recaptures some of the excitement around the 1970s and early 80s when Metro was being built – it was something of a miracle for what is still a much smaller conurbation than places like Birmingham and Manchester to have this futuristic system.

“Above all I think this long history shows we can’t take Metro for granted – it is here because people have battled for the concept and for investment since the early days of railways and we should not lose sight of that.

“The tunnels under Sunderland, Newcastle and Gateshead are an incredible asset taking people quickly and reliably to the urban core.

“It is hard to put a price on that but it is fulfilling the ambitions of those original pioneers who wanted railways to get right to the heart of commercial zones.”

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