Every morning at around 06.45 an empty two-coach train arrives at the remote, and delightfully preserved, Northumbrian station of Chathill – 11 1/4 miles north of Alnmouth on the East Coast Main Line and the most north-easterly place to be served by Northern Rail. After a brief pause it carries on many miles northwards to cross over onto the up line at a former station called Belford, before returning to become the 07.08 commuter service from Chathill to Newcastle.
This is the only train from Chathill for almost exactly 12 hours, until the return working of an evening commuter service from Newcastle heads south at 19.10. There are no trains in the northbound direction at all, so any passenger for Berwick-on-Tweed or Edinburgh needs to travel south to Alnmouth, then return on a northbound train from there.
Given the sparseness of the service it is perhaps hardly surprising that passengers are few and far between. ORR figures for 2015/6 say that 2,574 people used the station – roughly 50 a week or seven per day – but my experience this week suggests that the figure maybe rather smaller. I was one of only two passengers to board at Chathill on Monday (19th June) and was again one of only two passengers to alight off the evening arrival from Newcastle at 18.49.
Chathill is not the only near-ghost station on this section of line – a trio of others are Acklington (2015/6 just 296 passengers or one a day), Widdrington (3,408 passengers or about ten a day), and Pegswood, recording an amazingly identical 2,574 passengers to the Chathill total.
My Monday morning head-count raises some doubts about the accuracy of these figures, with the tally on that day being two boarding at Acklington, five at Widdrington and one at Pegswood.
While high speed East Coast and Cross Country services pass through Chathill several times an hour, hardy souls aboard the 07.08 service will take one hour 13 minutes to complete their 46-mile journey to Newcastle, with the train shunted into a loop south of Alnmouth for ten minutes to allow an East Coast service to overtake.
The return journey is also liable to the same delay, as I discovered when my return service on Monday was ten minutes late into Alnmouth, having had to be looped to allow a delayed East Coast service to pass.
What is needed at Chathill is a bold re-think to the service. Its potential catchment area encompasses attractive coastal towns such as Seahouses and Craster, while a re-opened Belford station – midway between Chathill and Berwick-on-Tweed – would be able to offer a direct bus link to the nearby town of Bamburgh and its famous castle.
Instead of simply extending a couple of the hourly Newcastle-Morpeth local services, as has been the case for many years, what would make a real difference would be the running of a few semi-fast Berwick-on-Tweed to Newcastle services, that could offer connections with services to and from Edinburgh, attracting Scottish passengers to the Northumbrian Coast, as well as greatly improving access to and from the area for passengers to and from Newcastle and further south.