COUNCILLORS are backing calls to restore passenger train services to Blyth and Ashington rather than extending the Tyne and Wear Metro network into the county.
More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition calling for the Metro network to be expanded to take in south east Northumberland.
The petition calls on Northumberland County Council to ask Metro operator Nexus to consider running trains to towns including Blyth, Ashington and Bedlington.
Supporters of the petition say a Metro extension would forge closer links between south east Northumberland and Tyneside and Wearside, improving access to jobs and training opportunities.
At a council meeting at County Hall in Morpeth last week, however, the Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority and Nexus ruled out expanding the Metro network north as they consider the £100m-plus estimated cost to be prohibitive.
Instead, the authority and Nexus support the council’s preferred option of reopening the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne freight line to diesel-powered passenger services.
Passenger services on the line, opened in stages between 1840 and 1872, were stopped in 1964 as part of a nationwide review.
Gordon Harrison, a planning officer at Nexus, said: “We are not convinced that a Metro is necessarily the answer.
“If we were to extend the Metro as we know it up to, say, Ashington, we would be looking at a journey time of 43 minutes.
“We have competitors. There are people who have cars and bus companies who can achieve a time very similar with an express bus.
“We need the right technology – something that is diesel-powered and reasonably fast.”
Most of the councillors supported the plans, believing that reopening the line as a heavy passenger rail service would benefit the area.
Coun Grant Davey, pictured, of Blyth’s Kitty Brewster ward, said: “They wrote the petition because they have worries and concerns about growing unemployment in Northumberland.
“They saw a rail line that runs through south east Northumberland as probably a way forward to try to get people into the network and get a greater opportunity of work.
“If we can offer any form of rail link, we could help the area dramatically.”
Coun John Taylor, of Longhoughton, however, argued that the freight line would not be suitable for passenger services.
“There are some serious practical problems on that line,” he said.
“It is a track that takes heavy equipment, but you cannot get high speed on it.
“It is a very twisted track, which does not help the speed either. It’s not going to be easy.”
Councillors agreed that the possibility of reintroducing passenger services linking the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne Line to Newcastle Central railway station or the Northumberland Park Metro station at Shiremoor should be investigated further.
Coun Peter Jackson, of Ponteland South, said: “There is cross-party support for this.
“I have been pushing the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne Line for a number of years.
“Transport is a big issue right across Northumberland, and we have lots of communities with really poor transport links.”