The present system uses much former railway infrastructure, mostly constructed between 1834 and 1882. One of the oldest parts being the Newcastle & North Shields Railway opened in 1839. In 1904, in response to tramway competition which was taking away passengers, the North Eastern Railway (NER) started electrifying parts of their local railway network north of the River Tyne with a 600V DC third-rail system, forming one of the earliest suburban electric networks, known as the Tyneside Electrics. In 1938, the line south of the Tyne between Newcastle and South Shields was also electrified. In the 1960s under British Rail, the decision was made to de-electrify the Tyneside Electric network, and convert it to diesel operation due to falling passenger numbers, and the cost of renewing life expired electrical infrastructure and rolling stock. The Newcastle-South Shields line was de-electrified in 1963, and the north Tyneside routes were de-electrified in 1967. This was widely viewed as a backward step, as the diesel trains were slower than the electric trains they replaced.
Planning and construction
In the early 1970s, the poor local transport system was identified as one of the main factors holding back the region's economy, and in 1971 a study was commissioned by the recently created Tyneside Passenger Transport Authority (now known as 'Nexus') into how the transport system could be improved; this study recommended reviving the badly run down former Tyneside Electric network by converting it into an electrified rapid transit system, which would include a new underground section to better serve the busy central areas of Newcastle and Gateshead, as it was felt that the existing rail network didn't serve these areas adequately. This new system was intended to be the core of a new integrated transport network, with buses acting as feeders to purpose-built transport interchanges. The plans were approved by the Tyneside Metropolitan Railway Bill which was passed by Parliament in July 1973. Around 70% of the funding for the scheme came from a central government grant, with the remainder coming from local sources.
The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge under construction in 1978.
Three railway lines, totalling 26 miles (42 km) were to be converted into Metro lines as part of the initial system; the North Tyneside Loop, and the Newcastle-South Shields branch (both of which were formerly part of the Tyneside Electric network) and a short stretch of the freight-only Ponteland branch, between South Gosforth and , which had not seen any passenger traffic since 1929. The converted railway lines were to be connected by around six miles (10 km) of new infrastructure, which was built both to separate the Metro from the existing rail network, and also to create the new underground routes under Newcastle and Gateshead. Around four miles (6.4 km) of the new infrastructure was in tunnels, while the remainder was either at ground level or elevated. The elevated sections included the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge; a new 350 metre bridge carrying the Metro across the River Tyne, and the 815 metre Byker Viaduct across the Ouseburn Valley, between Byker and Manors stations.
Construction work began in October 1974; this involved the construction of the new infrastructure, re-electrifying the routes with overhead line equipment, the upgrading or relocation of existing stations, and the construction of several new stations, some of which were underground. Originally it was intended to be opened in stages between 1979 and 1981, however the first part of the original network opened in August 1980, and the remainder opened in stages until March 1984. The final cost of the project in 1984 prices was £265 million (equivalent to £781,700,000 in 2018 prices).
Some extensions to the original system have since been built. A short 3.5-km extension from to Newcastle Airport was opened in 1991, using a further part of the former Ponteland branch.
In 2002 an 18.5-km extension was opened from Pelaw to South Hylton via Sunderland. Costing £100 million, this extension used part of the existing Durham Coast Line to Sunderland, but did not take it over; instead the line between Pelaw and Sunderland was adapted to allow a shared service between the Metro and the conventional rail services, becoming the first UK system to implement a form of the Karlsruhe model. Three intermediate stations on the route were rebuilt, and three new ones were added. Within Sunderland, 4.5 km of a former freight line which had been abandoned in 1984 was reused for the route between Sunderland station and South Hylton, becoming the second Metro segment to be built on a disused line.
The opening dates of the services and stations are as follows:
A Metrocar at Tynemouth in 1980, on the first part of the network to be opened.
Four Lane Ends, one of many transport interchanges built around a Metro station
The Tyne and Wear Metro was the first railway in the UK to operate using the metric system; all its speeds and distances are stated in metric units only.
When the Metro opened it was intended to form part of an integrated public transport system, with the local bus network reconfigured to act as 'feeders' for the Metro. Metro was intended to cover trunk journeys, while buses were reoriented toward shorter local trips, integrated with the Metro schedule, to bring passengers to and from Metro stations, using unified ticketing. Integration lasted until deregulation of bus routes in 1986. It is however still possible to buy Transfare tickets that combine a Metro and bus journey.