Making hay whilst the sun shines has never been a hallmark of the rail industry. No preparatory work was done on the Ashington re-opening when the line was closed for a year north of Marchey’s House whilst the Lynemouth power station was being converted to biomass. The track improvements and station construction at Ashington will of course be much more expensive when working on a live operational freight line. The CIS at Morpeth was left faulty for virtually a year during 2019, despite being constantly reported by SENRUG. As a result, hapless customers had to endure the debacle of the TPE launch last December, and now the vagaries of the key worker timetable, without any idea as to whether an expected train is actually on its way or not. Although Northern finally appear to have woken up to the problem, fixing it now, with difficulties of sending engineers to site due to the social distancing regulations, will prove more complex and more expensive, at a time when Northern might perceive it has bigger issues to focus on. And for years, the rail industry as a whole has neglected the standard of toilets and basic hygiene, both on trains and at stations, content to let them remain out of service, faulty, dirty, or not stocked with water, soap or towels. Even my first long-distance journey on a brand new out-of-the factory Azuma train had the 2 toilet compartments in my coach both locked out of order. This last point will be now prove to be a major obstacle for the industry as we emerge from lockdown. Despite herculean and much appreciated efforts across the industry to re-focus on hygiene over the last 2 months, customers have long memories, and the perception that the railway does not offer hygienic hand-washing facilities at any stage of a journey could take a long time to shift, and considerably slow down the return to rail as lockdown is lifted.
Nevertheless, despite this massive task ahead for the industry, and SENRUG will play its part in shouting the message once it is convinced the required facilities are genuinely in place, we do have some good news to report. The modest additional County Council car park at Morpeth opposite the station buildings appears complete and ready for action. Northern have confirmed they will introduce afternoon opening of the ticket office at Morpeth once the building renovation is complete (thus giving access to those all-important toilets and handwashing facilities). TPE are stopping a single morning train and evening return at Cramlington – sadly a temporary arrangement only whilst Northern have replaced their own services with busses – but it proves that where there is a will there’s a way. The consultant’s report on the north of Morpeth local service should be ready for final publication – and the draft was looking very encouraging. East Coast Trains, the open-access company (part of FirstGroup) have confirmed again this week that their plans for the new Edinburgh – Morpeth – Newcastle – London service remain on track, with trains being delivered to Newton Aycliffe as I write, and expected service start date being Autumn 2021. And perhaps most importantly, we were delighted that Baroness Vere, Under Secretary of State for Transport, wrote in yesterday’s (5th May 2020) Journal “We’re also still committed to fulfilling our ambition to level-up and are pressing ahead with the Ashington—Blyth passenger link”. Maybe there is indeed light at the end of this rather long tunnel.