Future secured for Weardale’s Heritage Railway

North East charity, The Auckland Project, has launched a campaign to reinstate the western section of the historic Stockton to Darlington Railway, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary as the first passenger service in 2025.

The first phase of this ambitious project has been concluded with the purchase of the Weardale Railway, which stretches from Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham westwards for nearly 20 miles into the heart of Weardale.

David Maddan, CEO of The Auckland Project, said: “The North East’s magnificent industrial heritage offers a unique opportunity for change. By linking with other major transport infrastructure projects and working with partners, including the dedicated team at the Weardale Railway Trust, we can ensure an immediate impact is felt right across the Tees Valley and throughout County Durham.”

The heritage railway, built in 1847, has been bought out of administration, securing its future and unlocking the potential for reinvigorating the regional tourism economy and reinstating connectivity between rural communities and urban economic hubs.

The Auckland Project is a regeneration charity which for the last nine years has sought to create opportunities and drive investment into Bishop Auckland and the surrounding area. It believes that the purchase of Weardale Railway will be a further catalyst for change and consolidate its investment to date of £200m in the region.

The Auckland Project has no experience of running trains and to deliver a full service from Darlington westwards it will require a partnership with a Train Operating Company. This consortium could lead the way in demonstrating that the ‘Beeching Cuts’ in the UK railway service could soon be reversed and potentially be the first of many such enterprises up and down the country.

The Project will work with Durham County Council and will continue to call on the essential expertise provided by the staff of the former Weardale Railway Community Interest Company and volunteers of the Weardale Railway Trust, who operated the Summer heritage service on behalf of its previous US owner.

Together with new potential partners such as, the Science Museum Group’s National Railway Museum in York and Locomotion museum in Shildon, whose history of passenger railways goes back to the pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway, a new era for the railway will be born.

At a time when the Darlington to Bishop Auckland train franchise is about to become available and investment in the North East transport infrastructure has been named as a priority for the current Government, this project is consistent with their declared intent. The Auckland Project has already received warm support from many of the Members of Parliament representing constituencies on the rail route.

This development also follows the recent announcement of proposals to create a Rail Heritage Quarter in Darlington. In 2019, the Tees Valley Combined Authority signed off £20m towards the first phase of these regeneration works. And a bid by the Combined Authority for funding a £100m overhaul and transformation of Darlington Railway Station was approved as part of the Budget.

This will include the creation of 50 new roles within Weardale Railway Ltd, increasing the total number of opportunities across the charity to in excess of 1300.

Jonathan Ruffer, Founder of The Auckland Project added: “This is the latest initiative to restore vibrancy to the region, giving visitors a wide range of experiences around the Castle at Auckland, the Kynren nightshow, the Spanish and Mining Art Galleries – something for everyone. And soon they’ll be able easily to arrive by train.”

Kevin Richardson, Chair of the Weardale Railway Trust, said: “We at Weardale Railway Trust were initially disappointed when the previous owners announced the decision to offer Weardale Railway for sale.

“We had enjoyed a successful relationship, which has been beneficial to both parties. However, the arrangement had not been without its difficulties, particularly given the six-hour time difference between Chicago and the UK.

“We were delighted, therefore, to learn that The Auckland Project had taken over ownership of the railway. To bring the line back into local ownership will, we feel, be a major positive step.

“We believe that doing so will encourage local people to join us in preserving this important part of our local heritage.

“We have followed the progress of The Auckland Project with great interest. Here we have an organisation, which has already proven at Bishop Auckland what commitment and vision can achieve. Their aspirations for the railway going forward are very impressive and we look forward to working with them to take the Weardale Railway into the next chapter of its fascinating history.”

Photo credit: John Askwith, Weardale Railway Trust