In North Shields, the whole of the shops were closed and nearly every window exhibited some sign of rejoicing, either in the shape of a Union Jack or, in humble imitation, a red petticoat.

The day was observed as a general holiday. Long before the hour of starting, a number of persons had collected about the railway station and all along the banks on each side of the line, or where a glimpse of the passing trains could be obtained. When all was in readiness, a shrill whistle was sounded and on this instant the band commenced playing God save the Queen, in the midst of which – the firing of cannon, the waving of handkerchiefs by the ladies and the mingled plaudits of a thousand voices – the train proceeded along the line.”

Much relief was felt locally when services on a six kilometre section of the Tyne & Wear Metro resumed on 3 September following a 23-day closure for track renewals. Hardly surprising really – more than 7,000 Geordies ride the rails between Tynemouth and Wallsend daily. Replacement buses bridged the gap.

Whether the festivities quite matched the colour and vibrancy of those on 18 June 1839 – described above by the Newcastle Journal – seems unlikely. Cannon firing? Think of the risk assessment. But the line’s 173 years of operational history officially began on that Tuesday as two locomotives, Wellington and Hotspur, hauled the first adventurers along the Newcastle & North Shields Railway.

Changing times

Authorised by a parliamentary Act of 1836, engineering for the new line was entrusted to Northumbrian-born Robert Nicholson, then just the tender age of 28. The route was staked out during the autumn of that year; construction got underway in earnest on 13 January 1837. Problems inevitably presented themselves, extending the timescales. But the outcome was a 61⁄2-mile railway with few curves and gradients no stiffer than 1:200. A tunnel of 70 yards, 24 bridges, numerous culverts and substantial earthworks were unable to steal the limelight from two iconic stone and timber viaducts at Ouseburn and Willington Dean. Both still carry trains today, although timber had given way to cast iron by 1869.

The Newcastle & Berwick Railway soon extended the branch to Tynemouth, moving thereafter to a nearby through station when an end-on junction was made with the Blyth & Tyne. 1904 saw the route incorporated into the Tyneside Electrics network with the installation of a third rail system. Diesels took over in the Sixties as both rolling stock and infrastructure tired. But with passenger numbers dwindling, British Rail turned its back on the line in August 1980. However, it re-emerged two years later as part of the Tyne & Wear Metro – a modern urban transit system connecting existing railway alignments via new tunnels driven beneath Newcastle and Gateshead.

Like the rest of us, the Metro is creaking a little 30 years on. Daily ridership is considerable, topping 110,000. So a £385 million capital investment, known as the All Change programme, launched in 2010. Funded largely by central government, it will see Nexus – which owns and manages the network – modernise stations, install new lifts and escalators, refurbish the fleet of 90 Metrocars and lay 60km of new communications cable. On top of all this, drainage is being improved, bridges and earthworks repaired, signals upgraded and 30km of track renewed, including four major junctions. It’s an ambitious plan, aiming to secure the Metro’s future for years to come.

Gearing up

The first substantive phase of those track renewals has benefited the section between Byker and Tynemouth, heading eastwards to the coast from Newcastle city centre. A 23- day blockade over the spring of 2011 delivered 6km (everything here is measured in metric) of new track. A similar output was achieved during this summer’s exercise which was scheduled for the school holidays when passenger numbers are lower, but taking care to avoid the Olympic football at St James’ Park.

Nexus(2A) [online]

Fulfilling the works thus far has been Balfour Beatty Rail which is currently at the halfway point of its three-year framework agreement with Nexus. Hopes are high for an extension. An Early Contractor Involvement period began in February, allowing practicalities around the year’s planned projects to be considered. As well as the blockade, October’s renewal of a double junction at South Gosforth and new drainage around Howdon level crossing were encompassed. Contract award came in May, triggering a number of preparatory works including reballasting and tamping through the Tynemouth tunnels and the renewal of North Shields Junction over two 54-hour weekend possessions.

Two fundamental constraints have focussed the mind of Mark Wood, Balfour Beatty Rail’s project manager, and his team: Nexus’ commitment to minimising the blockade’s impact on the public – in other words, closing as few stations as possible – and the 12-tonne axle loading over some of the network’s structures.

The latter served to preclude deliveries of long welded rail by train, so one of the more laborious activities involved the almost nightly welding of 60-foot rails – about 800 of them – into 72m lengths in a compound at Hylton Street. As with other materials, these were then distributed through the site using Unimogs, trailers and roadrailers. Tamping duties were discharged by a Dutch crew operating a lightweight machine provided by VolkerRail.

Mother of invention

The Metro system isn’t blessed with many crossovers. Only one, at North Shields, was located within the limits of the planned blockade, beyond the eastern extent of the sections being relayed and rather distant from the two main compounds at Limekiln and Brewers Lane. This could have proven logistically challenging. Widening the blockade to cover the nearest crossovers at either end would have resulted in the closure of at least two more stations and created operational difficulties. A non-starter in other words.

The search for salvation led to Non- Intrusive Crossover System Ltd (NICS), developers of a temporary solution which was trialled during the Trent Valley four- tracking scheme some years ago. Product approval inertia, driven by the fear of importing risk, subsequently thwarted further application and, as a result, it had not gone into manufacture. However, with Nexus buy-in, NICS was asked to build three systems, two of which were fitted – providing a left and a right-hand turnout – and used extensively during the blockade.

“This was the only way we could see, economically and practically, of achieving the outputs required by Nexus within the timescale”, asserted Mark. NICS facilitated the renewal of both tracks within one blockade, obviating the need for another closure at the same location next year – clearly a preferable outcome for communities along the line.

As its name suggests, NICS provides a temporary crossover for engineering movements without impacting on the existing tracks or signalling. It can remain in situ – locked out of use – when the lines are open although some components may need to be removed depending on vehicle clearances. Weighing 13.5 tonnes and transported in palletised sections, it comprises four main parts –

• ramps which lift the train by 48mm so that its wheel flanges are clear of the permanent track’s railhead, and then lower it again after the movement;

• switch plates to support and turn out the train;

• crossing plates which carry the train over the existing six-foot rails;

• gut rails forming connections between the switch and crossing plates.

The resulting crossover is 58m long and can be installed in less than 12 hours. Precision is required with the site survey, ensuring the correct track geometry, sleeper type and spacing. Although here it was used on straight track, the system can cope with some curvature as long as the tracks are coplanar.

Balfour Beatty Rail staff travelled to Scotland for training on how to operate NICS. Changing the configuration from normal to reverse, and vice versa, is muscle-powered, taking about five minutes. It’s simple – as the best ideas often are – and cost effective. Mark insists “They’ve worked really well.”

Nexus(5) [online]

Perpetual motion

Beyond a willingness to innovate, the key to successful delivery of the blockade works was granular-level planning – long hours spent analysing the methodologies and cycle times. Resources had to be in the right place – and in the right order – before the go- button was pressed. A hundred tower lights went out over two preceding weekends to allow round-the-clock working.

At the western end of the site, the Limekiln compound acted as the main distribution point for the new ballast and concrete sleepers – mostly G44s with Pandrol Fastclips. Redundant track panels made their way out to Hylton Street. The majority of the spoil – some 20,000 tonnes of it – was brought to the former council site at Brewers Lane, becoming a substantial feature in the landscape until Lafarge made it disappear for recycling. The old sleepers will also find new roles elsewhere.

On site, a merry-go-round of movements was established using the non- intrusive crossovers: spoil train, ballast train, sleeper train – six in total, comprising Unimogs and trailers. In addition to the 5,500m of renewals, a further 6km of track was reballasted, tamped and restressed. Just under 120m of drainage went in at North Shields, along with a new turnout. NRL Rail acted as subcontractor for the signalling design and fitment of point motors for the new S&C.

A number of track slews were programmed to obtain the optimum alignment geometry, particularly through the stations. Arup, working on behalf of Nexus, was responsible for the design. Associated with all this were adjustments to the 1,500V DC overhead line equipment, including the renewal of some cantilever arms. An early requirement was the removal of around 40 impedance units which had to be reinstalled and tested prior to handback.

Due recognition

Much was done over 23 days and more is on the way. Tentative plans are coming together for another blockade next year. The All Change programme ensures the Tyne & Wear Metro will continue its rejuvenation for much of the next decade.

It’s fair to presume that the workforce of 2012 will not receive the same acclaim as those who pioneered the Newcastle & North Shields Railway back in 1839. Perhaps that’s only right. But with this story, the rail engineer might have redressed the balance a little, even if in marginally less purple prose than the Newcastle Journal’s.

“Every person appeared highly gratified and the greatest admiration was expressed at the excellent construction of the line, whilst the smoothness of the motion and the comparative freedom from jolting and noise fully proved the superiority of the mode of laying down the rails. There can be no doubt that the undertaking will be duly patronised.”