The lovely, shiny, well-maintained railway line from Ashington into Newcastle would be the envy of many a town, were it not for one thing: it doesn't carry any passenger trains. Despite its great potential to carry commuters, ease congested roads and regenerate the area, the line carries just a few freight trains a day. Dennis Fancett's vision is to get passengers back on the Ashington Blyth & Tyne line.
"It seems a nonsense not to reopen the line for passenger trains," says Dennis Fancett of South East Northumberland Rail User Group (SENRUG). "For a minimal cost it would provide access to jobs and assist in the regeneration of the area."
As part of their campaign, in June 2008 Dennis and his group chartered a special, one-off passenger train on the line to raise awareness of its potential.
Charter a train and cause a buzz
"This idea can only work if the tracks are in place and maintained," Dennis is quick to caution, "So not many rail reopening groups will be able to copy our idea exactly." That said, the 'Ashington Future' – the name given to the special train – generated a fantastic buzz, made the headlines and massively boosted support for SENRUG's campaign.
After persuading Wansbeck District Council to fund the one-off train, Dennis and his group temporarily hired (or 'chartered') a standard, two-coach train from Northern Rail. Northern Rail arranged the date and time of the special trip with Network Rail, and then it was SENRUG's job to publicise it.
The train actually made three trips from Ashington to Newcastle and back. The first was filled with specially-invited local politicians and journalists, while the second and third were open to the general public. Tickets sold out in days.
"We aren't a nostalgia campaign: this railway will play a key role in the future development of the area."
Stock up on headache pills
Dennis puts the success of the venture down to: "Sheer hard work".
SENRUG's first task was to persuade the council to fund the trip; they discussed it informally with the council's chief executive and were invited to write a funding proposal.
Once this was agreed and the date confirmed, the group had just two months to fill the train three times over. "Someone needs to be available at least 50 per cent of their time in that crucial window," Dennis advises. "Managing the invitation process should not be underestimated."
The first trip was invitation-only, and a logistical headache. "Even though seats were complimentary we had to use tickets, as the capacity of the train was fixed at 150 seats. We didn't want anyone standing as we thought that would be an 'own goal'. So we released invitations in waves, sending out more as people either declined or didn't reply. Make sure you give a date by which responses must be received. This entitles you to say 'too late' to anyone who's very slow!"
Wisely, Dennis kept track of everything using an Excel spreadsheet. He also advises other campaigners to: "Use email if at all possible. It's quicker, easier and saves postage. If you're selling tickets to the public, as we did for the second and third trips, have only one ticket outlet, such as a friendly shop. And organise public liability insurance early – most insurers simply refused to quote for our trips."
Keep it real
Dennis felt strongly that the trips should give a realistic sense of what passenger journeys on the line would be like if it was reopened. The group chose a standard, two-coach train and set the ticket price at just £6, a realistic fare for a journey of this length.
"We would stick with our decision to set a low price for tickets," Dennis says. "We knew we could have charged £20 and still sold out, but this wasn't compatible with our intention of creating the feel of what a standard train service would be like."
Build up goodwill
In earlier campaigns SENRUG had shown itself to be sensible and cooperative; this helped the group to build positive relationships with local councils, a supportive MP and Northern Rail. Dennis also stresses the importance of being helpful to journalists. "Inviting the press on the first trip was key. It's important to make yourself easy for the press to contact and not to be shy or scared of them."
A local school made this video about the Ashington Blyth & Tyne line, featuring Dennis