Skip to content

Business & Economy

Opinion: Getting Leamside on track is key to region’s growth goals

With a campaign to revive the 21-mile Leamside Line gathering steam, hopes are high of a wider regional rail renaissance. Here, Steven Hugill looks at the economic potential of the cross-County Durham and Gateshead route’s second coming and its broader significance in the ‘levelling-up’ world.


Among the avalanche of parliamentary platitudes, there’s one phrase that always sticks out pointedly from the slide.

I’m talking about ‘political football’.

It’s an expression that will never not conjure images of MPs, hopelessly incongruous in Commons finery, engaging in corridor keepy-uppies and penalty shootouts beneath Westminster’s intricate archways.

The reality, alas, has never been quite so fun.

Amid the many awkward football-based photocalls down the years, we’ve had David Cameron forgetting his loyalties and switching allegiance from Aston Villa to West Ham United.

We’ve had Tony Blair and Kevin Keegan, bedecked like twins in matching black trousers and white shirts, playing head tennis in a school playground (which Blair lost).

We’ve had Jeremy Corbyn mirroring his sieve-like polling popularity with an equally porous goalkeeping performance when facing youngsters’ shots on Hackney Marshes.

And, perhaps most excruciatingly, we’ve had Boris Johnson, way before his Prime Ministerial period ended in a pile, leaving an opponent in a similarly crumpled heap following a rugby-style tackle during a live TV charity kickabout. 

I thought of the expression recently, when it was whipped off the shelf by Conservative MP Paul Howell – he of the Sedgefield constituency seat once held by Blair – in reference to the Leamside Line.

Having fallen victim to the sharp edges of Dr Richard Beeching’s famous axe in the 1960s, the mothballed 21-mile stretch of rail track between Tursdale, in County Durham, and Pelaw, in Gateshead, is undergoing something of a renaissance.

Where once abandoned, the line has been given new life and meaning, a campaign for its comeback turning it into shorthand for economic revitalisation in the ‘levelling-up’ world.

Labour told a recent Transport for the North conference it would revive the route – which stopped serving passengers in 1964 and carried its last coal delivery in the early 1990s – if handed the keys to Downing Street at the next general election.

And that’s when the old cliché made its latest return.

Arguing the red rose party’s pledge represents an unashamed vote-grabbing ploy, Sedgefield’s MP also warned of little, if any, financial detail, which he said ran risk of damaging an ongoing business case for the track, adding “the last thing” he wants “is the Leamside Line to become a political football”.

Of course, such back and forth is standard fare in the political landscape.

But as a region, we haven’t the time, nor the economic buffer, to let our rail connections be kicked about.

Restoring the Leamside Line would revive passenger links across the east of Newcastle, while helping ease congestion on the East Coast Main Line by diverting a chunk of freight services away from the flagship London-to-Edinburgh connection.

And in an environment where the North East has been shunted out of HS2, it would make for some meaningful progress.

Because the Leamside Line isn’t just about the 120,000-plus people living along its corridor.

It’s about the 70,000 residents of Washington, who would benefit from a Metro extension to create a so-called Wearside loop as part of its wider reopening.

And it’s about the connectivity the line would bring to the entire North East, thanks to the route’s links into existing tracks from Northumberland to Teesside, the latter particularly significant given its freeport status.

We need positive change, and with the Government having handed the region two investment zone deals in its Spring Budget – which it says will help entice firms to the region in newly created business clusters – ensuring we have a rail network capable of matching companies’ expectations is therefore even more imperative.

We’re due to see the Northumberland Line – another passenger route cut in the 1960s – reintroduced next year, restoring links between Newcastle and Ashington.

And Darlington, Middlesbrough and Sunderland stations are undergoing huge transformations, at no little cost, which bosses say will significantly bolster capacity.

But if the UK is serious about boosting the economies of places within the so-called ‘levelling-up’ geographies, it needs to ensure further connections are fashioned to make it happen.

And bringing back the Leamside Line represents a key stop on that journey.