Tyne and Wear Metro is the busiest light rail system in the UK outside London, carrying around 40 million passengers a year, and is vital to the staging of major events including the Great North Run, stadium rock concerts in Sunderland and Premier League and Olympic football.

Owned and maintained by Nexus, the system began operation in 1980, springing its biggest benefits from running through purpose-built deep tunnels beneath Newcastle city centre, segregated from other traffic and rail networks.

But beyond these tunnels the system exploits a suburban rail infrastructure up to 173 years old. In many cases embankments are of an ash build that is crude by modern standards.
In fact, the route between Chillingham Road in Newcastle and North Shields, on which the first three years of modernisation has been focussed, has been in constant use since 1839, when it was opened as the world’s first dedicated commuter rail route.

The ambitious Metro: all change modernisation programme is the first phase of a £580 million programme to renew and upgrade Metro over the next 20 years, and it has already made a real difference to Metro passengers and the region’s economy.

Unlocking Victorian secrets

But a programme this intense has brought with it two major challenges for Nexus, and its major contractors: firstly, how to deliver unprecedented investment while maintaining a high-quality passenger service, and secondly, how to contend with the unexpected challenges that would come from renewing infrastructure that, in places, dates back to the age of Robert Stephenson.

The inward investment Metro: all change represents, with the Department for Transport making a commitment of up to £350 million to this £385 million first phase of the programme, has also sustained and created hundreds of jobs in the engineering and construction sectors.

An asset survey was integral to the process by which funding was secured. This has been taken much further since the programme began in full, with detailed examination unlocking the secrets of the Victorian foundations on which Metro relies. This asset knowledge will remain invaluable in the decades ahead as Nexus ensures its infrastructure is managed effectively.

Dedicated team work

A second strength of the programme has been Nexus’s decision to work with a small number of framework contractors and consulting engineers.

By working intensely and regularly on projects, framework contractors have been able to build familiarity with the assets quickly – as well as a good relationship with the Nexus project directors and managers overseeing the work. They have also been able to adapt to the distinct operational practices on Metro infrastructure while bringing innovation.

Nexus itself has had to go through huge organisational change to support this ambitious delivery. The Nexus Rail engineering section was, before 2010, structured primarily to fulfil a maintenance function, not a long-term programme of asset renewal involving many times its previous workload.

A dedicated renewals team has been created with project managers recruited from across the UK rail industry and within the organisation. This has been further enhanced by Nexus’ decision in 2009 to set up a graduate programme attracting the best new young engineers.

A new Project Management Office has also been established to ensure strategic oversight and efficient control of hundreds of active projects at any time. Its role is both to help manage cost against budget and ensure that projects proceed smoothly through design and delivery stages in order to meet targets agreed with the Department for Transport.

A fine balance

While the vast majority of investment in Metro over the next decade will be spent on infrastructure, Nexus is also committed to refurbishing stations, primarily to improve accessibility. Although the whole of Metro has been wheelchair accessible since it opened in 1980, modernisation is a chance to reach higher modern standards.

The major station at North Shields has been completely rebuilt and enlarged to provide modern standards of accessibility, staff facilities, enhanced retail space and an appropriate gateway for the town centre’s retail core. It stands on the site of several older buildings presenting its own unique engineering challenges. Most of all, North Shields had to remain open as much as possible for its 1.5 million passengers a year during 18 months of demolition and construction.

Government investment comes with a requirement on Nexus to deliver a target spend each financial year while ensuring efficient delivery so the money does not run out before the whole programme is delivered.

It is a fine balance – in the last year we managed 36 separate possessions including one ‘Major Line Closure’ of 23 days and a second of six days, while protecting major events and weekends before Christmas when retailers rely on Metro to deliver footfall.

Detailed sales and travel data is used to plan works to minimise the impact on the passenger, and thus the impact on fare revenue, which Nexus retains.

Some work has been planned in after 9pm on evenings instead of the standard weekend to impact fewer passengers. Even the choice of which evenings to use can be driven by an analysis of ticket machine sales, as they differ between the line to the airport and the line to the coast, for example.

North East England was the birthplace of the railways and we are honoured to operate over some of the very earliest alignments. These routes are embedded in the community, and we must never forget that as we take forward our ambitious modernisation programme.