A TRAIN operator has said the impact of coronavirus will push back the start of a new rail service between Teesside and London.

Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald complained about "delay after delay" after LNER said the service between the town and the capital would start in December 2021.

Labour’s Mr McDonald claimed he had been told previously that May next year was a “backstop” for its introduction and that a timetable which would see the first service running from December 2021 was “not good enough”.

However Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen suggested nothing had changed and said his stewardship of the project had enabled “spades in the ground”.

Required engineering works to include a widening of the platform at Middlesbrough station to accommodate East Coast Mainline trains are due to get under way next spring.

But publicly-owned LNER, which replaced Virgin Trains East Coast, said the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on driver training meant it would be at least a few months after the works’ completion before services could start.

Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston has described the lack of a direct link to London as a “staggering gap in basic infrastructure” and the issue has become a political football in recent months.

Mr McDonald said: “I’ve been pressing this Tory Government for many years on securing funds to upgrade and develop Middlesbrough railway station and also to bring in a direct service to London King’s Cross which will be a massive shot in the arm for the Middlesbrough and Tees Valley economy.

“I successfully secured the commitment for that London service back in 2016 with a promise of it starting in May 2020 with a backstop of May 2021.

“But I’ve been told by LNER that it won’t happen until December 2021 at the earliest.

“This isn’t good enough.

“Network Rail will have all the necessary works done on the East Coast Mainline well before December 2021 so no one can rely on that excuse for delay any more.

“There’s enough time to extend platform two in readiness for a short form London service in 2021, but there’s also been more and more slippage on the promise of a third platform to accommodate the full length train which won’t happen until 2022 or 2023.”

Mr McDonald added: “LNER have got the last of the new [high speed] Azuma trains, but blame slippage on driver training and timetable complexities for delaying our London train.

“It’s excuse after excuse but Middlesbrough is always the last in line.

“So much for ‘levelling up’”.

Plans for the direct rail link were drawn up in 2014 with hopes that services would begin in 2020.

In May 2016 Virgin Trains East Coast proposals were officially approved by rail regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).

However it said it would direct Network Rail to agree firm rights from May 2021 – in effect a green light for an operator to go ahead once certain conditions are met – with contingent rights only from May 2020.

At the time Mr McDonald was quoted in 2016 as saying: “Whilst the start date has gone back a year to 2021, this decision of ORR is hugely important and I will work closely with Virgin East Coast to bring about an acceleration of that start date.”

Conservative Mr Houchen said: “As the person running this project, I have always been assured a new London service from Middlesbrough would start in 2021.

“Network Rail and LNER have confirmed to me that they are still committed to doing that.

“Introducing a direct London service in December 2021 is more likely because upgrade works to the track and platform I’m funding won’t be completed until the middle of 2021 to allow for the service to start.

“For years Labour politicians have promised to make improvements and increase capacity at Middlesbrough station, but nothing has actually happened.

“Thanks to the commitment I made, spades are now in the ground and these improvements are being delivered to provide thousands of passengers in our region the faster, more frequent and better-quality services that they deserve.”

He added: “The £35m re-development of Middlesbrough station is now fully funded following the Government’s final commitment to the project.

“This is on top of the £22.5m I have already committed to the re-development.

“Access to good quality reliable and affordable public transport is key to my plan for local jobs for local workers.

“It’s pointless creating good-quality, well paid jobs if hard working local people cannot easily get around the region to access them.”

A spokesman for LNER said it was committed to adding regular direct services between Middlesbrough and London King’s Cross and was aiming to introduce the first such service from December 2021.

He said: “We are working closely with Network Rail to introduce this service as soon as possible, following Network Rail’s completion of the required engineering works at Middlesbrough, planned for spring 2021.

"Unfortunately, the impact of the pandemic on driver training means that we will need a few months after these track upgrades are delivered before we start our services."

“The safety of our people and customers is our top priority so driver training will always be carried out in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

“We are continuing to work with Network Rail to increase the capacity at Middlesbrough and on the main route to London to enable the introduction of further LNER Middlesbrough services.”

A Network Rail spokeswoman said: “We are working with stakeholders and rail industry partners to secure a direct service from Middlesbrough to London King’s Cross in 2021.”