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Great British Railways HQ: Darlington Bid

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2021

[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate, as is the convention for a 30-minute debate. I see that other colleagues are here as well. It is a pleasure and a delight to call Peter Gibson to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Darlington’s bid to become the home of Great British Rail.

Thank you, Sir Gary, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my Tees valley colleagues for attending to show their support, and Darlington Borough Council for its ongoing work to help to bring the headquarters of Great British Railways to Darlington.

Perhaps it was inevitable that our railways should feature heavily in my work as the Member for the great railway town of Darlington. Over the last 24 months during which I have had the privilege to serve in this place, railways have featured extensively, both here in Parliament and at home in Darlington. To quote the father of the railways, Edward Pease,

“thou must think of Darlington; remember it was Darlington sent for thee.”

Those words are as relevant today as when they were spoken two centuries ago, and they led to the route of the railway line from Shildon to Stockton incorporating Darlington. Edward was a visionary who used infrastructure as the basis for levelling up. However, for too long, those words and Darlington’s position as the birthplace of the railways have been overlooked and ignored.

I always enjoyed my little spats with the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, Jenny Chapman, when we both claimed our respective towns were the real home of the railways. The first passenger line went from Stockton to Darlington. We agreed that it started in Stockton, but, she said, with Darlington money. Surely Stockton is the real birthplace of the railways. The hon. Gentleman should set aside his ambition to bring these headquarters to Darlington and work with me and the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) to bring them to Stockton, the real home of the railways. After all, Darlington is getting all those civil service jobs. We need to be levelled up.

The hon. Gentleman grew up and spent a long time in Darlington. I am sure he will back my campaign, rather than a personal campaign.

In the 1970s, the National Railway Museum was tipped to be located in Darlington, but was instead opened in York. In 2004, a new museum was opened at Shildon. Both decisions robbed Darlington of hundreds of thousands of visitors. I am told that, at the time, a councillor is reported to have said, “We want nowt more to do with trains.” However, I am pleased that that attitude has changed, with firm backing from Conservative-led Darlington Borough Council and with cross-party interest in protecting and restoring our railway heritage. Despite those oversights, Darlington’s ingenuity and expertise have not waned, and many of my constituents are already working in the railway industry or in skilled engineering and administrative jobs. Indeed, Darlington is home to Railpen, which administers railway pensions and occupies the stunning baroque revival-style Stooperdale Offices, built as a HQ for the North Eastern Railway Company.

I am delighted to make the case on the record for why Great British Railways should come to Darlington. As we are in the festive season, I want to inform the Minister of the carol of Darlington’s railway past, present and future yet to come, in the hope that by the end of the debate he will embody the spirit of Christmas and be mindful to bestow this gift on Darlington. Fundamentally, Darlington has a unique and unmatched connection to our railways. It all began in 1819, when the novel idea of using a steam-powered locomotive to pull passenger carts was first mulled over. Indeed, although the House legislated in 1821 to allow the creation of the Stockton and Darlington railway, it was in our town that the idea of a modern passenger railway was conceived between Edward Pease, Jonathan Backhouse and the famous George Stephenson. Stephenson’s ingenious Locomotion No.1, built in the north-east thanks to the financial backing of the Pease family, would pull the first passenger carts over Darlington’s Skerne bridge in 1825.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am the Member for the rest of Darlington borough, where the railway line heads to the west. Does my hon. Friend agree that the original railway line started to the west of Darlington and finished to the east of Darlington, at Stockton, and that Darlington is obviously the central part of that historic railway line?

I am grateful for that intervention from my hon. Friend, who makes an excellent point. With its position on the Stockton-to-Darlington railway line, Darlington is actually central to the Stockton and Darlington railway.

Skerne bridge commemorated the birth of the railway in 1825 and is immortalised on the former £5 note—a bridge that still carries passenger trains, is a world heritage site and is the world’s oldest continuously used railway bridge. In my maiden speech, I challenged the decision of the National Railway Museum to remove Locomotion No. 1 from our town, where it had been on display for over 160 years and stood as a monument to the father of the railways, Edward Pease, who embodied Darlington’s entrepreneurial spirit. First, it stood on a plinth at Darlington’s North Road station, before being moved to Bank Top station. It then once again returned to North Road to sit in the Head of Steam Museum. The only times it had left our town was to be showcased around the world, and to be protected from harm during the second world war. Thankfully, our battle to protect the engine resulted in some success. Under the agreement, Darlington and Shildon will share the display of the engine, and there will be a guaranteed plinth for a new replica of Locomotion No. 1 at Bank Top station.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and I would be happy for my hon. Friend to play around with Locomotion No. 1 for some time, but everybody would agree that Stockton is the real home of the railway. The first discussions about putting the railway together were had in Stockton, the first railway track for that railway line was laid in Stockton, and the first ticket was sold in Stockton. My hon. Friend can keep Locomotion No. 1, but we want Great British Railways.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a great champion of Stockton. I challenge and question some of his historical perspective, but I know that he is campaigning vigorously, just as I am, to bring Great British Railways to the Tees valley.

The permission to describe Darlington town as the historical home of Locomotion No. 1 was agreed with the National Railway Museum, and we have agreed to the purchase of a working replica for the Head of Steam Museum in Darlington. Through a kind gift from Network Rail and the efforts of Sir Peter Hendy, we also have Darlington’s D6898—the very last diesel railway engine, which was built at Faverdale in 1964.

While my hon. Friend is on the subject, he will be aware that Locomotion No. 1 was the first train to pull into Redcar train station. Does he share my passion to see Redcar train station redeveloped, as I have shared with the Minister previously?

I am grateful for that intervention from my hon. Friend, who is a doughty champion of Redcar. Redcar station is very familiar to me, having travelled through it as a schoolchild, and having previously served on the coastal communities board in Redcar, I know that it is a pivotal piece of infrastructure for the levelling up of Redcar. I would be happy to support him in his endeavours to do just that.

To enhance the discussion around Redcar railway, I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) is aware of the need to put a station at Ferryhill and allow the people of Redcar to come to Sedgefield and the people of Sedgefield to go to Redcar.

My hon. Friend is continuing his campaign for Ferryhill station. I thank Paul Gilbert, Rob Davis, and Rob Morton who did the restoration work as part of Network Rail’s gift of D6898 to Darlington. The culmination of this campaign, and its outcome, will ensure that Darlington’s railway past continues to be the bedrock of our town’s story, while establishing Great British Railway’s headquarters in Darlington will secure its present and future.

In choosing a new home for Great British Railways, the Government have the chance to recognise the essential and pivotal place that Darlington has in the national, and international, story of the railways, and to restore our place in history as the home of the organisation. This is an exciting time in Darlington’s railway present, as our Bank Top station is redeveloped and our railway heritage is protected and restored, ahead of the bicentenary celebrations of the Stockton and Darlington railway in 2025. There has been a massive investment of £20 million from Tees Valley Combined Authority to help establish our rail heritage quarter. I pay tribute to the efforts of Ben Houchen and all he has done for our area.

Darlington is firmly on the up, thanks in large part to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Earlier this year, the Chancellor—a firm friend of our town—announced that the Treasury would create a new northern economic campus in the centre of our town, in close proximity to Darlington’s Bank Top station. Already, civil servants from the Treasury, the Department for International Trade, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Competition and Markets Authority and the Office for National Statistics are benefitting from our excellent transport links.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that levelling up is about spreading opportunity the length and breadth of the country. Darlington has its Treasury jobs, and York has its Cabinet Office jobs. Is it not about time that Great British Railways came home to Stockton?

I am once again grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. However, my job is to champion all that is great about Darlington, and push for continued investment and new jobs. I will not dissuade him from continuing his campaign, but my job here is to champion Darlington’s cause.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. We are all Tees valley MPs in this Chamber this afternoon. I would like to send a message to the Minister. I am old enough to have been there in Darlington as a schoolboy when we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Stockton to Darlington railway. I hope to still be around when we celebrate the 200th anniversary. Our message from Tees valley is that we want it in the Tees valley. We might fight among ourselves over it, but we want the headquarters of Great British Railways in the Tees valley.

The hon. Gentleman should know that we can work together, just as he has worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on the campaign for a hospital in his constituency, and just as all the Tees valley MPs have worked hard to secure the Darlington economic campus. However, at this stage in the discussions about the home for Great British Railways, there is nothing wrong with a little bit of friendly competition between me, the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already been working in Darlington and was recently spotted in its redeveloped market hall. That redevelopment complements the rejuvenation of the town centre, with £23.5 million secured from the towns fund, allowing our town to reverse the disastrous changes of the past and making Darlington a thriving market town once again.

Only a few weeks ago, the Chancellor announced millions more in his autumn Budget to revolutionise transport in the Tees valley—vastly improving regional connectivity. At its centre will be the redeveloped, modern Bank Top station, which will help the thousands of civil servants, along with Ministers, to move freely up to the town from London and make journeys locally, connecting the northern economic campus with the new freeport along the Tees. This £105 million transformation will revolutionise rail capacity north of York, increasing the frequency and reliability of services. The redevelopment of Bank Top will increase capacity with three new platforms, a new station building, car park and improved public access, adding to and enhancing the splendour of our grade II* listed station. This will turn Bank Top into a regional hub that is fit to serve not only Darlington and the Tees valley but large parts of south Durham and North Yorkshire. I also warmly welcome the recent award of £50,000 for a feasibility study on the reopening of the Darlington to Weardale railway, which will further enhance connectivity and opportunity.

In addition, we are restoring our rail heritage. I pay tribute to Network Rail, Darlington Borough Council and the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, which have worked hard locally to maintain Darlington’s Skerne bridge and to brighten up three other historic railway bridges in Darlington. With reeds and weeds already cleared from Skerne bridge and the continuation of the £60,000 project to restore three of the bridges, two having already been repainted, our town centre is already looking like the natural place to find the headquarters of a national railway, with green livery aplenty and the restoration of the town’s proud crest, replete with Locomotion No. 1 at its heart.

There is, of course, more to be done, and I will continue to push Network Rail to ensure that the restoration of North Road bridge is completed and, most importantly, that our Bank Top station has tactile paving installed, something that has been called for by the excellent Darlington Action on Disability group.

We may have lost our huge carriage works many years ago, but sleek new Azuma trains roll off the production line just a few miles up the road at Hitachi Newton Aycliffe, where many of my constituents work. The Minister will also be aware of the wonderful work of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, which hand-built Tornado, the new steam train licensed to operate on the mainline, and I look forward to the Prince of Wales engine, again hand-built in Darlington, joining its sister on the network very soon. With thousands of civil servants moving north, the redevelopment of Bank Top and the restoring of our railway heritage at this pivotal moment in our town’s railway story, bringing the HQ of Great British Railways to Darlington just makes sense.

As I have already set out, we have secured Darlington’s future prosperity and growth through the movement of civil servants north, the creation of a new freeport on the River Tees and the investment in our town centre. However, as my hon. Friend the Minister will know, Darlington’s railway connections are under threat once again from London North Eastern Railway. Our greatest worry is that, even though we recently saw off the proposed changes to next year’s timetable on the east coast main line, the proposals are back, and I am worried that they will lead to a further act of betrayal of Darlington, robbing us of vital connectivity.

We know that there will be a growth in the number of journeys made from Darlington’s Bank Top station. Indeed, estimates show that within a decade an additional 340,000 passengers will be using the station every year, yet proposals for May 2022 risk leaving the town poorly connected, with regular services to London and Edinburgh slashed. Locating the Great British Railways HQ in Darlington would undoubtedly soothe the worries of my constituents as we bounce back from the damage done in the past, and it would further restore our town’s pride in its historical connections with the railways.

I need not repeat the myriad Government Departments coming to our proud town. The reasons are manifold: our proud history, local talent, connectivity, levelling-up opportunities and reversing the brain drain from the north-east. There are, of course, many other notable towns bidding for the HQ—Crewe, York, Derby and, as we have already heard, Stockton—but ours is the only bid backed by the people of Darlington, whose forebears created and built the railways, and I am proud to work closely with Darlington Borough Council to unite the town behind the bid. I trust I have conveyed to the Minister the desire and the need to put the HQ of Great British Railways in Darlington. We have the heritage, the history, the connectivity, the ingenuity and the people. I will conclude by imploring the Minister to choose Darlington as we build on a legacy of the past, secure our present railway and deliver for the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am not sure I have served under your chairmanship before. You might recall that I am a football referee in my spare time, and it feels as though we have had a bit of a derby between Stockton and Darlington this afternoon. Before I respond to the various points made by hon. Members, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for securing this debate and putting across his points so forcefully and politely, and also for allowing his colleagues from across the Chamber to contribute. He is a very good parliamentarian and conducted this debate excellently.

Only a couple of weeks ago I was in this Chamber debating the merits of York as a potential headquarters. It is genuinely heartening to see right hon. and hon. Members doing outstanding work up and down the country, preparing bids for their cities and celebrating the rich railway heritage of this country, no matter where it may be. It is equally heartening to see all the Tees valley MPs working together—and a bit apart, but mainly together—to put forward the case for the Tees valley, and I thank the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for his contributions. He has announced that he might be leaving this place at the next election, which would be a tremendous loss, but the way he has conducted himself in this debate shows that he is doing the best for Tees valley, and should be commended for it.

We are all aware of the important role that Darlington and County Durham played in the formation of the railways, with that county deserving the name of “the cradle of the railways”. It was the home of the world’s first public railway to run steam locomotives, as we have heard: the famous Stockton and Darlington Railway—I am quite sure that is the right way around, but I am very careful about what I am saying now—which opened in 1825. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington said, when designing the route for that railway George Stephenson at one point suggested that it bypass Darlington altogether. That was when Edward Pease, a local Darlington manufacturer and main promoter of the railway, replied,

“George, thou must think of Darlington; remember it was Darlington that sent for thee”,

securing its position in the rich railway heritage of this country.

Today, Darlington houses the Head of Steam railway museum in the historic North Road station building, which opened in 1842. That museum is home to several locomotives, including the replica of Locomotion No. 1, which appropriately was the train that connected the two great towns that have been the subject of a minor debate here today. I am sure it went from both Stockton to Darlington and Darlington to Stockton with equal gusto.

A place as steeped in the history of this country’s railways and, indeed, the world’s railways as Darlington and County Durham will always have an important role to play. As evidenced by my mailbox, there are a few other places across the country that have played an important part in our proud railway heritage, and which right hon. and hon. Members are proud to represent. I look forward to the next debate in this Chamber in which I get to learn about the railway history of another place, but it has been a delight to hear celebrated all that is good about Darlington’s rail past, rail present and, as my hon. Friend said, rail future.

I do not want to bore Members with a repeat of the speech I gave in the York debate—although I am very good at doing choruses and am available for karaoke at Christmas parties if they are allowed. However, I think it is important that we remind ourselves of the Government’s aim, which is a world-class railway that works seamlessly as part of a wider transport network, delivering opportunities across the nations and regions of Great Britain. In the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, published in May this year, we set out the path towards a truly passenger-focused railway underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services, the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution with new flexible and convenient tickets, and long-term proposals to build a modern, greener, and accessible network.

There is a bypass around Darlington at the moment, all the way to Stockton, which the Minister may like to bear in mind. He might have enjoyed the small spat between the Tees valley MPs as we bid for the headquarters, but I wanted to tease him a little and ask him how he is going to ensure that Great British Railways is in fact British, particularly given that much of our railway sector is run by foreign companies, the latest example being that Chiltern Railways is now run by a company owned by German state railways.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that those private operators are great innovators in our rail market. Rail privatisation has doubled the number of passengers being carried on our railways over the course of the past decade or so. That is something to be celebrated, because it took place at a time when the view that we need to decarbonise our transport network—which all parties now share—was not quite so widely held. Innovation that has been brought in by private operators should be celebrated, no matter where in the world they come from.

Just to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), the bypass at Darlington needs a bit on the top as well. Perhaps we could make that point to the Roads Minister. In terms of rail, where better to put the home of Great British Railways—[Interruption.] I shall ignore the barracking from Members in a sedentary position. Where better to put it than right next to Hitachi, one of the foremost railway manufacturing companies in the UK and which is based just along the road in Newton Aycliffe?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Hitachi is a Japanese company, but the intellectual property, huge number of jobs and innovation that it brings to our rail market are fantastic. Those are British jobs, in Britain, and we should welcome that. We should not be afraid of what international investment can bring to our rail market, or indeed any other market, and to the supply chain, as my hon. Friend quite rightly says.

Central to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail is the establishment of a new rail body, Great British Railways, which will provide a single, familiar brand and strong, unified leadership across the rail sector—something for which the rail sector has been calling for a decent time now. GBR will be responsible for delivering better value, flexible fares and the punctual and reliable services that passengers deserve, but it will also bring the ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and planning of the network all under one roof. It will bring today’s very fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability, ensuring that the focus is on delivering for passengers and freight customers.

GBR will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and strong customer focus, and it will have a different culture from the current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, and very different incentives from the beginning. This new body obviously needs a new headquarters. GBR will have responsibility for the whole rail system, and needs a national headquarters as well as regional divisions. I am very happy to confirm that the national headquarters will be based outside of London, bringing the railway closer to the people and places that it serves and ensuring that skilled jobs and economic benefits are focused beyond the capital, in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up.

My hon. Friend the Minister has confirmed that he is aware of Stockton’s amazing historic links to the railway—it is the home of the railway—and of the incredible and improving transport links from Stockton. However, is he aware of the incredible, committed, hard-working, high-skilled, dedicated, dynamic workforce that the Department for Transport could be lucky enough to employ should it bring Great British Railways to Stockton?

The honest answer to that is yes. The competition to find the national headquarters will recognise that. Indeed, it will recognise the towns and cities with rich railways histories that are strongly linked to the network, ensuring that the headquarters will take pride of place at the heart of a new era for British railways.

Sir Gary, thank you very much for the reminder about time. I shall wind up by saying that the reforms proposed under the Williams-Shapps plan for rail will transform our railways for the better, strengthening and securing them for the next generation. The reforms will make the sector more accountable to taxpayers and to Government, and will provide a bold new offer to passengers: punctual and reliable services, simpler tickets and a modern, green and innovative railway that meets the needs of our nation. Although transformation on this scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring that benefits for passengers and customers are brought forward as quickly as possible. We have done this with flexible season tickets, and the transition from emergency recovery measures agreements to the new national rail contracts is under way, with the first tranche delivered in July 2020. GBR will be in a place to continue to move fast in delivering reform.

The Government and the GBR transition team welcome everybody’s interest in the competition and their advocacy for their respective cities and towns, and we invite participation in the forthcoming competition, which I have yet even to announce but which has engendered great initiatives of debate in this place. I look forward to seeing the visions put forward by Stockton and especially Darlington, which I am sure will be heard by those who will make a judgment on this competition.

Question put and agreed to.