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Weardale Railway

Volume 702: debated on Monday 1 November 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mrs Wheeler.)

I am absolutely delighted to kick off this Adjournment debate on the feasibility bid for the Weardale railway. In an announcement last week, the Department for Transport agreed to that bid. I am delighted to see the Rail Minister here today, because he was one of the first people to come to Weardale to see the railway in all its glory at first hand.

The connection is particularly important for the communities that I represent, and for my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), and for Darlington (Peter Gibson). It is not only the Minister himself who has visited. I have also, in the past couple of weeks, had a visit from the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who came up to Frosterley, Stanhope and Eastgate to see the railway and all the potential that it has to deliver transformational change not only for my constituency but other constituencies further down the line. I am particularly glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield and for Darlington are here today. I am also grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, who has just had the excellent news that the Toft Hill bypass is finally going to happen. It was first mentioned in the 1951 Durham county plan and it has now been approved by the Government a mere 70 years later. I beg the Minister to lean on his Front-Bench colleagues also to support my bid for Crook, Willington and Tow Law, which will hopefully be coming down the line in funding rounds 2 or 3.

It is not just hon. Members in this place who have supported the bid for the Weardale railway. The Mayor of Teesside, Ben Houchen, was also involved, along with hundreds of local people who completed my recent surveys on it, my Crook councillors elected last year—Patricia Jopling and Mike Currah—and local candidates who have been campaigning: Robbie Rodiss, Will Wearmouth and Steve Cowie. In particular, there is the group of people who have been keeping the railway going as a heritage line over the past few years—the huge number of volunteers at the Weardale Railway Trust.

The Weardale railway ceased operation as a freight line back in the early 1990s, but it has been operating a heritage service since then. Last year it was bought by the Auckland Project after its previous owner failed. I thank Jonathan Ruffer, who has been doing so much great work down in Bishop Auckland, and the chief exec of the Auckland Project, David Madden, who has been really involved in helping me, and other hon. Members, in the project to help to transform the west of County Durham. One of the most important things that they have done is to give a private sector edge to what is going on. I also thank Durham County Council and Darlington Council for the support that they are giving more broadly to the project and to the bid.

Bishop Auckland was first connected to the rail network back in the 1840s. The extension went further to Crook in 1844, then to Frosterley in 1845, and finally to Stanhope in 1862. In 1887, there was a further bid to extend the line from Stanhope right the way up to the top of Weardale. The budget for the entire line, as I read recently on the excellent Weardale Museum’s website, was a mere £48,627. The bid we have just put in for the feasibility study alone is £50,000 for the whole project. It is one of those interesting quirks of history that Sir Joseph Pease, the then Liberal MP, finally cut the first sod on an extension in 1893. It would be great to see the first Conservative MPs, largely, for County Durham doing exactly the same for the renewed line—if, hopefully, the feasibility study comes through—in the next few years.

Far earlier than the railway line were the wagon ways that we had across County Durham. That is because we were part of the heart of the industrial revolution. Back in the early 19th century, we had horse-drawn wagons going all the way over the moors because we had ironstone that had to be taken to Consett. It is very much in that theme of us being at the heart of the first industrial revolution that Conservative Members now really want to press this project to provide the connectivity to help to transform our communities going into the next industrial revolution that we are currently seeing taking place under this Conservative Government.

Unfortunately, passenger services ended on the line in 1953 and to Crook in 1965, with the freight service finally ending in the 1990s with the closure of the Eastgate cement works site, at which my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield worked. It is great to see him here today, supporting the bid as the Member for Sedgefield and wanting to deliver that transformational change.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mrs Heather Wheeler.)

Since that closure, there has been an irregular heritage service operating locally. The bid now is not for that heritage service to come back; what we want to do is connect the communities I represent to the rest of the north-east and to improve the line further down, as my hon. Friends will mention briefly in their speeches. We have a real opportunity in Weardale, and it looks like we potentially have the second-largest lithium deposits in the country outside of Cornwall. That could provide a real freight anchor for that service. As exploration is going on, it is only right that we start to look at the feasibility of how we would transport some of that lithium, particularly as part of that proper industrial revolution with the next generation of manufacturing jobs that we are seeing up at Blyth or at Sunderland, where Nissan is putting in huge amounts of investment.

The bid is not just about freight, however; it is also about connecting communities. We represent proud villages and towns across County Durham, and the town of Crook needs a bit of a boost at the moment. One of the main aspects of the bid is to look at the feasibility of connecting the towns of Crook and Howden-le-Wear to the line as well. At the moment, the terminus is in Bishop Auckland. We want to ensure we have a proper through-running service so that we can capture all that opportunity further up the dale. The third aspect of the bid is looking at a possible extension further up the dale. If that looks viable and a goer, I will certainly be backing that.

The bid is about employment and ensuring that people up in Weardale can access those great jobs, particularly down in Teesside, where we are seeing massive investment in a freeport. We have the Darlington jobs hub and the Treasury. It is all coming to Teesside. I want my constituents to be able to share in that, whether they are in Crook or any of the towns and villages up in Weardale. I also want to see them able to access the best education opportunities. At the moment, that is just not possible with the transport infrastructure we have.

The bid is also more broadly about providing that opportunity for people in both directions. That means we can help drive the economy of Weardale in heritage and tourism. We are seeing real local efforts going into places such as the Weardale museum, the Weardale Adventure Centre or the fantastic pubs around Stanhope or in the smaller villages further up the line. I want to see those jobs thriving in the long term, but it cannot just be about transport connectivity; it is also about buses, broadband and enabling people to work locally, but also to stay local, and that is part of the real drive from this side of the House on connectivity.

Earlier in the Budget debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington said, “Shy bairns get nowt.” We in County Durham from the Conservative side are always arguing for our communities. The Economist in an article recently said that I was proving expensive, but the truth is that for too long, when the north-east was represented by Mandelson, Blair and co, they took the north-east—in fact, the entire north of England, the midlands, Wales and Scotland—for granted. I do not think we are prepared to do that. We are fighting every step of the way and every day for investment in our communities. I am incredibly proud to do that, and we are going to keep pushing for that. I am delighted to be fighting for it, but as part of a package, because this railway is part of many more bids—I have already referenced what is happening in Teesside—across the north.

I have already put in another bid, also accepted, for a connection from Consett to the Tyne. That is important, because we can do stuff to improve cycling and walking on that route, as well as on the Weardale line, but I also want to look at public transport options, and there will be a report later this year.

I thank Ministers for the extra £10 million provided for Shotley Bridge Hospital, which will help us double beds in that community hospital from eight to 16. That is far higher than the zero beds planned before I was elected. I have also fought on the motorhomes tax, which was particularly helpful for my increasingly tourist-focused community, and on the draught beer duty to help those wet pubs that are still part of thriving communities in the north.

The Government are really delivering for the north, including for my community in North West Durham and for County Durham. I am so glad to see the announcement that the feasibility study will happen and delighted that the Minister can support it. I am proud to represent my constituency and hope to do so for many years to come. However, the Government must deliver on the levelling up that we promised at the election. Therefore, although I am glad about the feasibility study and hopeful for the line’s future, I encourage the Minister to keep thinking of more ways to help us deliver for the people who voted for us in 2019.

Order. Mr Paul Howell and Mr Peter Gibson have sought permission from the mover of the motion, Richard Holden, to make a short contribution in the Adjournment debate. They also requested the same permission from the Minister. It has been agreed to, and I have been informed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) said, I worked for a number of years up at Eastgate at what was the thriving cement works industry. Unfortunately, that was lost as part of the squeeze between Scotland and the midlands. Part of the reason for that was probably the economics of getting trucks of cement out of that valley—it did not help that there was not a railway line.

The Minister will be surprised to see me talking about anything other than the Ferryhill railway station bid, on which I wholeheartedly support our progress. As he knows, a feasibility study has progressed on that. There are many parallels between the necessity of that bid and this one. They would both connect communities, ensuring that people can reach the centres of employment and that those centres can reach back into the countryside and leisure activities that go with that.

Having worked in Weardale, I can say that it is not a flat part of the world, and we do have weather up there, so any additional contributions from rail—as opposed to road—to get down to the metropolis of Darlington, as it is called, would be welcome at certain times of the year. The Weardale line connects to the Bishop line, which is the connection into Darlington. That will be severed when the big works are done at Darlington station to improve the economics of that argument. I am really pleased to see both feasibility studies happening.

That section of the Bishop line is part of the old Stockton to Darlington line. That is where things started back on 27 September 1825—before me, even—when the locomotion engine was reassembled and steamed prior to the opening of the railway on the Aycliffe levels in the Sedgefield constituency at Newton Aycliffe. The whole thrust of the 2025 celebrations come from that. At that site is a pub called, of all things, Locomotion No. 1, although sadly it is decrepit and in real need of repair and rebuilding. I hope that as part of the reimagining of the line and these connections, we can rebuild with reference to places such as the Locomotion No. 1 pub, with their historical significance. I will touch briefly on Ferryhill again and the connection to Newton Aycliffe, which had the munitions factory. Munitions in the war drove Ferryhill station, which was at that time the busiest station in Europe—bizarre, but it was. I would like to see that reconnection to history and the reconnection of our communities. It is why I am here to support our efforts with the Darlington to Dales railway line.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on securing the debate and on his tireless campaigning on the issue.

The potential restoration of the Darlington to Weardale line was a very welcome announcement last week as we reopen connectivity in the north-east, levelling up and unlocking its potential. I look forward to the Government’s feasibility study, which will examine the scheme’s potential for improving local connections and boosting business, employment, educational and leisure opportunities for my constituents as we look at expanding services from Darlington to Stanhope.

Ahead of the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington railway, we know that the Weardale line, which is steeped in local history, is an important step in our levelling-up agenda. I am proud of my regional colleagues—my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), whom we have heard from this evening, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham—for their collective dedication to the work. I thank Ministers for being receptive and supporting the project into its next phase.

Last evening, there was a terrible train accident near Salisbury. Earlier today, two people were still in hospital, one of whom is a member of the railway family. I thought it would be appropriate for the House to send our best wishes to those who are injured and affected by what happened. I am sure that plenty of lessons will be learnt, but we are at the very early stages of the investigation. I am sure I will get the opportunity to inform the House about that later, but it would have been remiss of me not to say something at this point.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on securing the debate on an issue that I know is of great importance to him and his constituents. When I visited him a few months ago to see the line for myself, I could detect the huge community pride in the railway and what it could be, and just the sense of community itself. I know that his constituents would be proud of him for what he has managed to achieve so far. I also thank for their kind words my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell). I often jest with my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield about his wisdom—I call it age, but he calls it wisdom—but it is not a joke to say that he has done more for Sedgefield in less than two years than many previous incumbents of that seat did in a generation. He is to be commended for that. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) who cannot be here tonight. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for her interest in these matters and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who is omnipresent in these debates when he does not have to be. That shows in a very good light the seriousness with which he takes these matters and I appreciate his scrutiny.

I was pleased that last week the Budget confirmed the importance of this amazing local commitment, which has secured initial funding from the restoring your railway fund to develop the proposal and see if it stacks up for potential future delivery. I have heard the phrase “shy bairns get nowt”—I spent some time in the European Parliament and my then flatmate was Lord Callanan of Low Fell, as he is now, who used the phrase quite a lot. He indoctrinated me into terms that, as a midlander or someone from further south than him, I might not have known. I know that a number of not-so-shy bairns have been doing a huge amount of work to try to get more than nowt out of the Government, and I think it is paying off for them. I look forward to working with all the hon. Members concerned, Durham County Council and the Auckland Project, which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham mentioned, as this proposal develops.

The Government are committed to levelling up the country, and reconnecting communities to the railway is central to that ambition. As part of our levelling up agenda, in January 2020, the Government pledged £500 million for the restoring your railway programme to deliver on our manifesto commitment to start reopening lines and stations. That investment is reconnecting communities across the country, regenerating local economies and improving access to jobs, homes and education—all things that my hon. Friend knows and campaigns on.

More than five decades ago, the Beeching report led to the closure of one third of our railway network, with 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of track identified for closure. Many places lost their railway connection and really have not recovered since. It is sometimes easy to forget, however, that some communities, rather than being cut off as a result of the Beeching axe, were the victims of decisions taken even earlier. Those communities, which include those that are the subject of today’s debate, feel the difficulties of being cut off from the rail network just as keenly as those that lost their lines and stations in Dr Beeching’s infamous “reshaping” of Britain’s railways.

For the towns and villages left isolated, no matter when they were cut off, restoring a railway line or station has the potential to revitalise the community. It breathes new life into high streets, drives investment in businesses and housing, and opens up new opportunities for work and education. That is why we set up the restoring your railway fund, and that is why the Government are investing across the country right now to progress work on restoring those connections. The Dartmoor line will be the first to reopen, later this month.

Part of the restoring your railway programme is the ideas fund, which provides development funding for early-stage proposals to help communities to develop strategic outline business cases. In three rounds of bidding, the fund has received 199 applications, including a successful application in the most recent round for the Weardale railway. Every bid has been sponsored by at least one Member of Parliament, and often several. In fact, 320 Members of Parliament have supported one or more bids to the fund.

I pay tribute to all hon. and right hon. Members from across the House who have sponsored bids to restore rail lines and stations in their constituencies. They have given us an amazing choice. It is a rich mix of choices; a rich tagine, if you will—a proper dish from which I can sample and choose wisely how to spend taxpayers’ money in the best and most appropriate way. I really do appreciate the amount of work that goes into formulating a bid, and I am aware of just how much these proposals mean for local communities. Those Members who have taken the time to work with their local communities and put forward a proposal are great advocates for their constituencies, as demonstrated here this evening.

I was pleased that as part of the Budget last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was able to announce 13 more schemes from the third round of the ideas fund that have been successful in their bids for funding. Of course, one of those schemes was the proposal to reopen the Weardale line to passenger services. That scheme and 12 others from the third round join the 25 projects already being supported to develop their own proposals in order to get a step closer to reopening lines and stations.

During the assessment process, I had the pleasure of reviewing all the proposals and of seeing what a difference reopening those stations and lines could make to those communities. Obviously, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, the Weardale line is no different. Seeking to join the existing 18-mile heritage railway in the Weardale area of outstanding natural beauty, which closed to passenger services in 1953, to the Bishop line and create one continuous travel corridor connecting to the east coast main line, the proposal has the potential to transform the region. An individual in Eastgate would be able to get a direct train into Darlington, accessing all the opportunities available there, and go further to all the places up and down the east coast main line. It would allow isolated communities to access employment and educational opportunities and encourage inward investment and economic regeneration across the area.

I am well aware that, for the past nine years, the Auckland Project, a local regeneration charity, has sought to create opportunities and investment in Bishop Auckland and the surrounding area, and this project has the potential to bring tourists into the area to appreciate the many attractions on offer. If someone wants to know what a difference restoring a lost rail connection will make, and what it will look like, they really do not have to go much further than speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham.

The restoring your railway programme is already connecting communities, and not all that far from Weardale, £34 million for detailed development and early construction activity has already been funded to rapidly progress plans to reopen the Northumberland line between Ashington and Blyth, which closed to passengers in 1964 as part of the Beeching cuts.

Slightly further afield—as I have mentioned—but displaying our commitment to level up communities across the country, the Dartmoor line, between Okehampton and Exeter in the south-west, will officially reopen for year-round services on 20 November this year, thanks to £40 million of investment. This will mark the first reopening under the restoring your railway manifesto commitment. We are getting our manifesto delivered. The route will connect Exeter St Davids, Crediton and Okehampton, providing a hub for visitors to explore Dartmoor and regional links for local commuters. It has been very well received by local people.

Based on what my hon. Friend said, I should take a moment to recognise this country’s heritage railways. The UK is a true pioneer in the history of railway development, nurturing and benefiting from the talents of Brunel and Stephenson, among others. Heritage railways are major contributors to the UK’s visitor economy, attracting about 13 million visitors pre-pandemic and bringing in an estimated £400 million to the economy annually.

There are over 150 operational heritage railways, running trains over 600 miles of track between 460 stations. They perform a variety of important functions across the country, from transportation to leisure and entertainment, tourism, education and community projects, and as symbols of our country’s rich industrial heritage. This Government, led by my colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, are working to ensure the continued success and growth of this important component of the heritage sector.

I can assure the House that a tremendous amount of work is being done in this area—in restoring your railway—to reconnect smaller communities, larger communities, towns with cities and villages with towns, and to regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education. I really look forward to seeing the proposal to reinstate passenger services on the Weardale railway develop through the ideas fund.

Finally, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who took part in the first three rounds. I say to those who were not successful: please keep the faith, because this is a very popular policy, and I expect to see it rear its head again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.