The North East is facing a near "disaster scenario" with a new rail timetable that will see many vital services axed.
Details of a new East Coast Mainline (ECML) timetable that will come into force in May 2022 were announced last week, which will increase the number of trains between Newcastle and London from two to three per hour - with a faster journey time.
But there is a heavy price to pay for the boost in connections to the capital, due to capacity restrictions on the stretch of railway between Newcastle and Northallerton.
The frequency of trains between Newcastle and Manchester, via Durham and Darlington, will be halved from two an hour to just one.
Meanwhile, plans to increase the frequency of services between Teesside, Sunderland, and Newcastle have been postponed.
Under the proposals put out for public consultation last week, Grand Central will increase its Sunderland to London trains from five to six each day - but LNER's early morning and late-night trains between Sunderland and London will be scrapped entirely.
One area that will benefit from the changes, however, is Chester-le-Street, which will get a train each hour instead of every other.
Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon told the North East Joint Transport Committee on Tuesday that the new timetable was "almost like a disaster scenario for the North East" and "significantly hampers the economic prospects of major centres of population".
North East leaders have been pressing the government to commit to reopening the disused Leamside line, which runs between Pelaw in Gateshead and Tursdale in County Durham, to free up capacity on the congested ECML by allowing slow-moving freight trains to be diverted.
Doing so would also restore train services to towns like Washington for the first time in decades and pave the way for a major expansion of the Metro system, but Coun Gannon said that "sometimes it feels like we are saying the same thing over and over and the resources aren't available".
Glen Sanderson, leader of Northumberland County Council, called the proposed new timetable "very frustrating" and said it sends the "wrong message at the wrong time".
Coun Gannon added after the meeting: "We think that the proposed East Coast Main Line timetable for May 2022, now out to consultation, is a major step backwards for the region.
"In order to free up space for faster and more frequent trains to London, some trains serving Berwick, Durham and Darlington will be sacrificed and the region's links to the North West will be cut back. Furthermore, Sunderland is proposed to lose its direct LNER service to London. This feels very imbalanced.
"These proposals are bad for the region and we will be saying so in our consultation response. The government and the rail industry should concentrate their efforts on improving the East Coast Main Line - including reopening the Leamside Line - so that rail links to all destinations can be improved."
LNER response in full
Our proposed May 2022 timetable has been developed by Network Rail with all train and freight operators on the East Coast Main Line. It has involved balancing long-distance, high-speed, regional and commuter/local services alongside the needs of the rail freight sector. Due to this approach, our focus on maximising the benefits of investment in the East Coast Main Line for passengers and managing remaining compacity constraints on the route, the timetable does involve a series of trade-offs.
The purpose of our consultation is to seek views on the proposed changes, which include 39 more LNER services each weekday, up to 17,000 extra seats per day and reduced journey times and on long-distance services between London, the East Midlands, the North of England and Scotland, while protecting reliability.
We propose to deliver an additional Newcastle-London service per hour. This will improve journey times to and from Newcastle and other key destinations on our route, while also increasing seats to and from Newcastle. As was identified by Network Rail in 2014 and 2015 and the rail regulator in 2016, there is not the capacity north of York for the pre-COVID service plus our and Open Access operators’ new services. In line with the decision made by the rail regulator in 2016 the proposed timetable will see one TransPennine Express service removed each hour, in favour of an additional LNER service per hour.
As a result, amongst the DfT operators, half of the paths will be LNER and half will be a mix of CrossCountry and TransPennine Express. Overall, this enables more seats and faster journey times for the whole route.
There will continue to be good connectivity between Manchester, York and Newcastle, with one direct service an hour. There will be more seats overall between York and Newcastle, due to LNER’s longer trains – although with a change in York.
This compromise aligns well to customer demand on the route, which sees over 70 per cent of journeys to and from destinations between York and Newcastle being to and from destination on the East Coast Main Line served by LNER and others, and 12 per cent of journeys to and from destinations off the East Coast Main Line run by TransPennine Express.
We propose reducing the frequency of our services at Darlington and increasing them at neighbouring Durham to better match frequency with demand.
In 2019, Darlington had two London trains per hour, and an average of 1,100 passengers to and from London each day. However, Durham had fewer services and more customers. This change improves that balance while continuing to support fast journeys between our key destinations.
Once Darlington station capacity works are complete, we will work with our rail industry partners to consider timetable changes in the Tees Valley in the coming years. Our aim will be to maximise the benefits of infrastructure investment at Darlington while ensuring we avoid creating congestion on local routes.
Later this year, LNER is introducing its first Middlesbrough service and, enabled by the May 2022 timetable change and the completion of Middlesbrough station works after that, LNER will introduce a regular Middlesbrough service through the day.
Our Sunderland service, introduced by the previous operator in 2015, has never been as popular as originally hoped, with low patronage levels. This results from there being very good local train services between Sunderland and Newcastle, where customers can connect onto our frequent services.
In addition, Grand Central also runs a direct Sunderland-London service, which is increasing by a further train service per day from May 2022, meaning that there will, overall, be the same number of Sunderland-London service as under the current base timetable.
By removing the LNER service we will be reducing this inefficient duplication while also ensuring a high level of seats on London-York-Newcastle-Edinburgh route services, which will be of benefit to Sunderland customers too.
We propose reducing the frequency of our services at Berwick and increasing them at neighbouring Alnmouth to better match frequency with demand, while also protecting fast journey times. Under the new timetable, Berwick will have one LNER train every other hour which is a better service than other stations with similar passenger numbers. Alnmouth which has a similar number of London-bound passengers as Berwick will have a small service increase, resulting in the same London-bound service frequency as Berwick.
Overall, both stations will have a train each hour to and from Edinburgh and Newcastle, alternating between LNER and Cross Country.