Skip to main content

Stockton to Darlington Railway Anniversary

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how they plan to celebrate in 2025 the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton to Darlington railway, the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and refer to my railway interests as declared in the register.

My Lords, railways are a product of Britain’s rich history of engineering innovation and the 200-year anniversary is a nationally important moment to mark and to celebrate. The DfT will work with DCMS, other government departments and the whole industry to make this event very special for workers and passengers.

My Lords, I welcome that splendid Answer. What response will the Government give to the submission from Sir Peter Hendy, on behalf of industry, local and national museums, the supply chain, Heritage Railway and education, for government funds to ensure that there will be a memorable series of events in 2025, including the recreation of the opening day journey of Locomotion No. 1 and the creation of a walking and cycling route along the 26 miles of the original line as a permanent legacy?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for highlighting some of the tremendous things that we can achieve to celebrate this 200-year anniversary. I am also aware that Sir Peter Hendy is out there with his begging bowl and working his magic. I am sure he is doing exactly what we want him to do, which is bringing together all the interested parties to work with government. This is a huge opportunity to not only celebrate the heritage of our railway network but promote the wider, modern system across the country.

My Lords, if we are to celebrate the 200th anniversary properly, do we not need ticket offices up and down the country? Although only 12% of tickets may be sold there at the moment, nevertheless, is my noble friend not aware that a ticket office does far more than sell tickets? They give advice, not least to parents who are going on holiday or with children, and are of course very important to the tourism industry.

My noble friend has sort of answered the question for me. I completely agree that railway staff do far more than sell just tickets, which is why in some circumstances they need to be out and about helping people where they need the help, rather than sitting in a glass box. My noble friend is right that one in eight tickets are currently sold by a ticket office. We know that passenger needs have changed and most people nowadays use the digital system, but we recognise that, in some areas, people want the option to buy a ticket at a ticket office. No final decisions have been taken. We are listening, but we must recognise that passenger needs have changed.

My Lords, having been born in Stockton—a little after 1825—and like my noble friend Lord Rodgers having represented Stockton in the other place for quite a number of years, I have a keen interest, as he has, in the success of these celebrations. I am therefore delighted to hear what the Minister has to say about the support that is being given to all the organisations already involved in preparing for them. However, would not the best and most appropriate way to recognise the wonderful achievements of railways since 1825 be to support the proposals of Northern Powerhouse Rail to upgrade and massively improve connections between the east and the west of the country and thereby achieve the levelling up and economic growth that the Government seek to achieve?

The noble Lord will have seen the recent comments from the Prime Minister about Northern Powerhouse Rail. The Department for Transport has taken those comments very seriously indeed and is now doing an enormous amount of work.

As we celebrate our heritage railways and the tremendous achievements of British engineering across the world, does the Minister also acknowledge the importance of the heritage railway sector? There are more than 100 heritage railways in the country and 400 stations, attracting millions of visitors each year. Can I be assured that the Government recognise the importance of this sector to the local economies in which the railways operate and the special needs of the sector, not least in relation to the supply of coal? I should declare an interest as honorary president of the Telford Steam Railway.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for reminding us of the coal issue. We will have it at the top of our minds because it is absolutely critical. Heritage railways are a key part of local tourism. They attract people not only locally but internationally. We absolutely recognise the importance of the heritage rail sector; alongside DCMS, DfT works closely to make sure that it is properly promoted.

My Lords, the National Railway Museum in York was founded in the year we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Stockton to Darlington railway. Since 2008, it has included the excellent Locomotion museum at Shildon, which formed a key part of County Durham’s bid to be the UK City of Culture for 2025. As the Government consider the recommendations from Sir Peter Hendy and others, will my noble friend ensure that this museum is supported to play its full role in the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of this great gift to the world from the north-east of England?

I thank my noble friend for his question. I pay tribute to his outstanding service as DCMS Minister—he therefore knows an awful lot about the topic of heritage rail. He is right that we are not going to have a full celebration without making sure that all of our railway museums are fully engaged in the process. I completely agree with him that we absolutely need to ensure that railway museums across the country, including the fantastic National Railway Museum in York, are involved in the celebrations.

My Lords, I am afraid that I agree with the Minister—it is a bad habit these days. That day in 1825 was an historic one. It gave the United Kingdom first-mover advantage in this extremely important industry. It is one of the most important dates in the whole development of the Industrial Revolution, from which we as a society still benefit. I am delighted that the Minister supports the celebration of it. Will she allow in her answer that that support may involve some financial support?

My Lords, I hope I can persuade the Minister to go further than that gentle reply. It appears that the Government funded the Unboxed festival—something visited by only around 250,000 people and designated a “festival of Brexit” by Jacob Rees-Mogg—to the tune of £126 million. I think that the festival we are talking about today will be a lot more popular and resonate a great deal more with the public. So can the Minister give us a clearer indication of the size of the Government’s intended financial support?

Unfortunately, I am unable to give a clearer indication of the size of any government financial support, principally because the plans are still in development. We know that Sir Peter Hendy is working some up, but of course there will be other plans coming through from DCMS and DfT. As those plans come together, of course the Government will consider financial support.

The Minister has articulated very clearly how important the whole heritage scene is, particularly in the railway endeavour. Can I ask her—in her hat as Transport Minister—who is responsible for heritage and historic ships, which are crucially important for our coastal communities?

The interesting thing is that heritage railways actually fall under DCMS. The noble Lord asked me about heritage ships. I am afraid I do not know, so I will write.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. In working on transport infrastructure and investment, would my noble friend care to take us to 2025, when we will see the completion of the £100 million currently being invested in Darlington railway station. Would she like to pay tribute at this point to Ben Houchen, who managed to bring this project forward and is seeing a significant investment in Darlington railway station now?

I completely agree with my noble friend that this Government have been reopening abandoned routes, electrifying lines, investing in high-tech, refurbishing stations and building new tracks and trains, such as the Elizabeth line. That is what we intend to continue to do.

My Lords, would the Minister like to celebrate 2025 by telling us that we will have Royal Assent for the Great British railway legislation that we are still waiting for? It started as the Williams plan. It then became the Williams/Shapps plan, and presumably now it is going to be the Williams/Trevelyan plan. Might it ever be the Williams/Vere plan if we wait long enough?

I do not know—perhaps in my dreams. The Secretary of State is clear that the Government’s commitment to modernising rail and transforming the industry remains. We will of course legislate when parliamentary time allows.