The new era of light rail in the UK was ushered in by the opening of the first phase of the Tyne & Wear Metro system, based around Newcastle. Regeneration of areas alongside the Metro system was boosted in 2002 by the new 18.5km Sunderland extension, of which 14km is on existing heavy rail line between Pelaw and Sunderland and 4.5km - south of Sunderland to South Hylton - on a disused railway alignment.

In the early 1970s, poor public transport was pinpointed as a serious brake on the area’s economic development and although a heavy rail system radiated from Newcastle city centre to many outlying areas, it was not suitable for modern demands. The 1970 Tyne-Wear Plan suggested major investment to convert the North Tyne loop and South Shields branch from heavy rail to modern rapid transit standards.

Despite its name, the initial phases of T&W Metro did not serve Wearside, and by the mid-1990s there was a strong need to extend the system. Tyne & Wear PTA and Railtrack joined forces to plan and implement the extension of the network to South Hylton via Sunderland, a project known as Sunderland Direct.

Tunnelling under the centre of Newcastle began in 1974 along with work on four principal exchange stations (Four Lane Ends and Regent Centre in the north and Gateshead and Heworth to the south), each strategically close to major road intersections.

The first phase, opened between 1980-84, proved a big success, and was carrying 33.4 million passengers in 2001/02. Demand for extensions, notably south from Newcastle to the city of Sunderland, was high and has been easily achieved using largely existing heavy rail alignments.

Approval came in December 1999, with the cost estimated at £100 million, just over one-third coming from central UK government, £40.5million from Railtrack (now Network Rail), owner of much of the land, and the rest from the Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Authority.


Despite 44.5km out of the initial 55.8km being built on or alongside already existing railway, the project has been complicated as much of the existing infrastructure required renewal, as well as needing new stations, signalling and electrification equipment.

Of the new routes, 7.6km are in tunnel, mainly under central Newcastle, and 4.5km of new surface railway has been built. There is also a new 352m crossing of the River Tyne, immediately south of the main heavy-rail interchange, Newcastle Central.

The new Sunderland extension was built by Railtrack, the then private rail infrastructure owner, which ensured full integration with the heavy rail services using the same corridor.


Unusually for the UK, the Tyne & Wear Metro adopted a rolling stock design which was incompatible with national standards, more akin to a Frankfurt ’Stadtbahn’ vehicle.
Designed and constructed by Metro-Cammell (now part of Alstom), Birmingham, each trainset is formed of articulated six-axle twin vehicles, each 27.8m long, with seats for 68 to 84 passengers and standing room for a further 188. Ninety twin-car sets are in use and all underwent rebuilding between 1984-87. Power is provided at 1,500V DC through overhead wires.

The units were originally designed to be coupled in trains of up to three twin-car sets. Each set is equipped with air brakes and air-operated doors, with electro-magnetic emergency track brakes.

No new vehicles were acquired for the Sunderland extension, although more intensive usage of the fleet has been necessary to meet the extra demands of the new service.


Magnetic track circuits operate the fixed-colour light signalling, generally three-aspect in tunnels and two-aspect on open line. A train identification and control system carries information from on-board transponders to track-level equipment, which operates the points and station information systems. The T&W Metro uses a train-stop system based on the Indusi signalling system used by German and Austrian national railways.

Gosforth control centre has two-way radio contact maintained with the trains, which are driver-only operated. Stations have passenger alarm points and are monitored by closed circuit TV.


Construction of the Sunderland extension began in spring 2000. The official opening was carried out by HM Queen in May 2002.

Further lines are possible following the British government’s announcement of the allocation of billions of pounds to improve public transport, made in July 2000, which saw light-rail systems placed high on the agenda of solutions to general transport problems. Extensions north of the Tyne have been mooted, although no firm plans are yet in place.

Work starts on Tyne & Wear Metro extension: The Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott launched work on the extension to the north east’s Metro system to Sunderland.
Launching the work in Sunderland on Friday 25th February Mr Prescott said:
"These are three - but very important - steps in the right direction for local communities. When we launched our 10-year-plan for transport last December we said it would take a decade to turn around the years of under-investment in Britain’s transport network.
"Projects like this one in Sunderland ... show that we can successfully use a range of solutions to tackle difficult local problems.
"These are real, practical steps that will make a real difference to people’s everyday lives by giving them the sort of modern, linked transport system they need and deserve. Modern integrated transport systems are about improving our daily lives."

The extension of the Metro to Sunderland, which involves joint running of light & heavy rail will take two years and cost GBP100m, with cash coming from a public-private partnership. It will directly link the two city centres of Newcastle and Sunderland as well as new stations at Sunderland University and Sunderland Football Club’s Stadium of Light.

Metro system extended to Sunderland

The Metro extension has cost £100m.
After waiting 20 years for the Tyne and Wear Metro to be extended to their city, passengers in Sunderland have welcomed the light railway system to Wearside.

All but one of the new stations in Sunderland and South Tyneside have opened to the public, though final work still has to be done to complete most of the stations.

Twelve new stations have been added on the nine-mile extension line, which runs from the existing Pelaw Station in South Tyneside.

The Sunderland extension will have more than 200 Metros serving Wearside every day, running every 10 minutes during the day and every 15 minutes in the evening.

’Affordable travel’
A television, radio, and poster campaign has been launched to attract passengers on to the multi-million pound system.

Mike Parker, Director General of Nexus, which operates the Metro service, said it was "marvellous" news for Sunderland.

He said: "The new Metro extension will serve more than 90,000 households in Sunderland and will open the city to 750,000 people in the rest of Tyne and Wear.

Mike Parker: Good news for Sunderland
"Thousands of jobs will be created along the Metro corridor by businesses flocking to take advantage of a strong public transport system.
"The people of Sunderland will be able to enjoy the benefits of affordable travel for shopping, leisure, work and college."

The Sunderland extension is a Public Private Partnership between Railtrack and Nexus - the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive.

Featured suppliers on this project: