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Train Enthusiast Portillo Takes In Tyne And Wear Metro Tunnels

Home / News / Train Enthusiast Portillo Takes In Tyne And Wear Metro Tunnels

Mention the phrase ‘underground rail’ and it is usually London’s Tube or the Glasgow Subway that comes to mind, but this is also applicable to Britain’s first modern light rail system.

Whereas modern tram systems such as the Manchester Metrolink only pass through tunnels that used to be on the rail network and lack any underground stations, the Tyne and Wear Metro has included this element right from its beginning in 1982.

This fact will be highlighted to those unfamiliar with the system by former politician Michael Portillo, who has been riding on it while filming his BBC series Great Coastal Railway Journeys.

Although the station to gain most attention from the former minister will be Tynemouth, which has recently undergone restoration work and has, in Mr Portillo’s words, “one of the finest glass roofs in Britain,” viewers will also get to discover that some stations on the network have no roof as they are in tunnels, such as Central Station in Newcastle.

Tynemouth and most of the other stations on the system were formerly mainline stations, but the conversion of the system to a Metro, which opened in 1982, required a significant revision involving extensive tunnelling work to provide much more comprehensive connections for the new rapid transport system across the urban area.

This scheme produced a series of Tube-style underground stations in central areas of Newcastle and another across the Tyne in Gateshead. Moreover, subsequent expansion saw two more underground stops established in Sunderland, although the one at the city’s main railway station shares a platform with mainline trains. Overall, nine out of 60 stops are underground.

Establishing the system itself and the tunnels was no easy task. Firstly, work began in 1974, at a time when other Metro-style projects (such as the Picc-Vic line under Manchester) were being axed. The digging of tunnels was also challenging, as the Metro’s operator Nexus notes, due to the age of the city, the risk of damaging buildings and geological issues such as coal seams below Gateshead.

This entailed some major works around the tunnels, such as installing extra supports to hold up Grey’s Monument at Monument station – the only underground station name to appear in two different British cities. In Gateshead, the presence of both coal and sandstone required different methods of tunnel construction to the more favourable boulder clay conditions under Newcastle.

While the number of subterranean stations is actually fewer than Glasgow (where all 15 stations on the Subway are underground) and a far smaller proportion than London (where the name Underground belies the fact that only 44 per cent of the system is beneath the capital’s streets), there may be more to come.

In 2016, the government agreed £1 billion of funding for an expansion of the system, which could see not just the outermost sections stretching further to the fringes of the conurbation, but also new inner city sections that could require more tunnels, such as areas just west of Newcastle city centre, plus the Metro Centre in Gateshead.

While Manchester continues to discuss having an underground line to complement its extensive Metrolink and the idea of such a system in Bristol continues to be fiercely debated, the towns and cities of north-eastern England have not only had an underground metro service for 40 years, but may soon be adding significantly to it.

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