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Branching into freight

The planned reopening of a mothballed branch line to take freight off the main east coast route offers the bonus of new local passenger services. David Hayward reports from County Durham.

Little known Victorian civil engineer John Gibb would today be very proud. As designer of a 10 span, 1838 masonry railway viaduct over the River Wear in County Durham he saw his once crucial East Coast Main Line crossing near abandoned in less than 30 years - downgraded to carrying the odd coal wagon.

But over 150 years later it is about to come to life again as part of a pioneering example of integrated rail transport and could possibly carry some of the world's fastest trains.

The Leamside branch line, which includes the 90m long Victoria viaduct, still sports most of its trackwork and, though it last saw a real train back in 1964, it is officially only mothballed rather than abandoned.

The 35km branch line, running between Ferryhill and Newcastle roughly parallel to the ECML, is one of four similar routes close to the main line that Railtrack is urgently upgrading to carry freight traffic.

The rail operator's primary aim in its £2bn main line upgrade is to nearly double the four high speed train paths per hour. This is best achieved by making the line four track running throughout, permanently separating fast passenger trains from slow freight traffic.

The four little used branch lines, totalling 290km, will offer a short cut to four tracking the main line itself by having most freight diverted on to them.

This not only frees the existing, generally twin track, ECML solely for high speed passenger traffic, but also - with heavier freight wagons off the route - cuts maintenance and inconvenience costs on the main line.

Work has started on the longest 140km branch line, between Doncaster and Peterborough, where contractors Jarvis and Grant Rail have separately relaid 23km of track. Next year, the same contractors, under a framework agreement, will move north to relay 70% of the Leamside track.

Vintage semaphore signalling will be replaced by modern mainline light displays, and minor refurbishment is needed to the 40 or so bridges including Victoria viaduct. The revamped route will reopen in October 2003, along with a second linked 100km branch line just to the south which needs little work.

According to Jim Devine, head of Railtrack's programme managers Fluor Daniel and Mott MacDonald, the £40M cost of the branch line upgrade represents value for money.

'It will nearly double the available main line trainpaths in the area from five to nine per hour, ' he says.

'That is worth about £80M in faster journey times.'

But there is a second equally valuable bonus in upgrading the Leamside line that could become an example for the new-age rail network's approach to integrated public transport. The reopening could see not only freight traffic crossing Victoria viaduct, but also new local passenger trains into Newcastle and its suburbs offering alternative commuter routes for 10,000 daily car drivers.

Long vanished station names, such as Fencehouses and Ferryhill, could be joined by those of more recent communities such as Washington New Town, to create up to five new local stations, allowing a regular passenger service along the line.

Local councils, Durham and Sunderland, plus Tyne & Wear metro operator Nexus, are busy establishing with the sSRA whether such a passenger service can command a positive business case.

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