Politics: Rail reversal far from a funny joke
November 10, 2023
The recent Conservative and Labour party conferences were speckled with typical political put-downs. The biggest joke, though, was the Government’s astonishing volte-face on a commitment to restoring the County Durham-to-Gateshead Leamside Line. Here, Steven Hugill looks at a region, and its connectivity needs, being left at the station once again.
Ah, party conference season.
A time for specious speeches and stick-on smiles. And naff one-liners.
And didn’t we get some belters this year!?
Rishi taking a swipe at Nicola Sturgeon; boom.
Sir Keir dredging up Liz Truss and the lettuce; mic-drop.
The biggest joke, though, came during the announcement of the Government’s £36 billion Network North programme.
The shiny package committed to resuscitating the 21-mile Leamside Line – the former County Durham-to-Gateshead passenger and freight route mothballed in the early 1990s – only for Downing Street to yank away the defibrillator hours later, with officials instead promising to “look into” the project as it was literally being airbrushed from sight.
In the aftermath, the Department for Transport distanced itself further, saying local leaders could fund the track if they so wished, using a portion of a £1.8 billion pot set aside for the North East.
Only this Government, with its litany of gold-plated blunders, could perform such a catastrophically comical U-turn on a piece of transport designed to run in a straight line.
But for a region that has struggled for years when it comes to connectivity, with a constrained East Coast Main Line matched by difficult cross-country links, it really wasn’t funny.
Sedgefield Conservative MP Paul Howell (inadvertently) helped raise some spirits, coming across all Monty Python Black Knight during social media squabbles as the Government lopped limbs off its plans.
His point was that while all the focus had fallen on the Leamside Line – whose track bed still weaves through greenery and former mining settlements between Tursdale, near Ferryhill, County Durham, and Pelaw, Gateshead – Network North was committing itself to re-opening Ferryhill’s long since departed rail halt.
All well and good.
Except the 36-page document makes no further reference to Ferryhill thereafter, including how the proposed station would, say, fit into everyday services, like on the East Coast Main Line or, more likely – certainly as supporters have long called for – help found a new direct Tyne-Tees route using, you’ve guessed it, the Leamside Line (as well as the adjacent, freight-based Stillington Line that runs past Sedgefield’s former terminus).
The Leamside Line, of course, by its limited geographical scale, wouldn’t be a panacea for all the area’s rail ills.
But given its proximity to the region’s flagship Edinburgh to London corridor, and the winding route it takes thereafter, its revival would nonetheless provide fresh – and hugely vital – freight and passenger capacity.
Indeed, campaigners say part of the Leamside Line could be used to close the circle on a proposed Washington Metro Loop.
Creating new connections at the Wearside town, as well as Follingsby, via existing lines on the Nexus-run light railway system between Pelaw and South Hylton, supporters say the move would bolster travel for more than 100,000 residents and nearly 40,000 workers to places including Amazon’s Follingsby Park and Bowburn warehouses, and the planned Gateshead Quayside events arena.
But the Government’s retreat leaves them stuck behind a buffer stop.
All incredibly frustrating but, let’s be honest, not too surprising either.
After all, Network North, and the funds it will apparently lavish on regional transport projects, only really exists because of the chaotic attempts to build HS2.
Sold as world-leading transport innovation, it has instead trundled along like a pump trolley, upon which the North East has had little to no standing room.
From the very outset, the region has watched the high-speed rail link take shape from the sidings and made to feel like a supporting artist told it should be appreciative of its inclusion in such a blockbuster endeavour.
It’s why we gave a knowing sigh when the East Midlands to Leeds arm of HS2 was cancelled, and then an equally knowing half-smile when the Manchester to Birmingham leg was removed.
This region was a forgotten zone, and with the Leamside Line set to seemingly retain its inertia, you can’t help but feel a whole heap of déjà vu.
We desperately need transport policy change, and if Labour’s staggering by-election victories in Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth are anything to go by, the work to usher in such revolution will be squarely the responsibility of Sir Keir and co.
The party’s leader has already distanced himself from reviving HS2’s northern leg, citing the costs and bureaucracy that have become so synonymous with the project’s swamping.
But he’ll need to do something.
Conversations, apparently, have already been had with regional mayors about improving transport links between northern cities, with the party setting a benchmark for better connectivity should it assume power at the next ballot.
Talking, though, is one thing. Action is another.
Because if the North East still finds itself mired in transport woes beyond the next spin of the election cycle, then we’ll be left in another joke of a situation.
And nobody will be laughing.