Chris Heaton-Harris – 2021 Speech on Weardale Railways

The speech made by Chris Heaton-Harris, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport, in the House of Commons on 1 November 2021.

Last evening, there was a terrible train accident near Salisbury. Earlier today, two people were still in hospital, one of whom is a member of the railway family. I thought it would be appropriate for the House to send our best wishes to those who are injured and affected by what happened. I am sure that plenty of lessons will be learnt, but we are at the very early stages of the investigation. I am sure I will get the opportunity to inform the House about that later, but it would have been remiss of me not to say something at this point.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on securing the debate on an issue that I know is of great importance to him and his constituents. When I visited him a few months ago to see the line for myself, I could detect the huge community pride in the railway and what it could be, and just the sense of community itself. I know that his constituents would be proud of him for what he has managed to achieve so far. I also thank for their kind words my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell). I often jest with my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield about his wisdom—I call it age, but he calls it wisdom—but it is not a joke to say that he has done more for Sedgefield in less than two years than many previous incumbents of that seat did in a generation. He is to be commended for that. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) who cannot be here tonight. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for her interest in these matters and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who is omnipresent in these debates when he does not have to be. That shows in a very good light the seriousness with which he takes these matters and I appreciate his scrutiny.

I was pleased that last week the Budget confirmed the importance of this amazing local commitment, which has secured initial funding from the restoring your railway fund to develop the proposal and see if it stacks up for potential future delivery. I have heard the phrase “shy bairns get nowt”—I spent some time in the European Parliament and my then flatmate was Lord Callanan of Low Fell, as he is now, who used the phrase quite a lot. He indoctrinated me into terms that, as a midlander or someone from further south than him, I might not have known. I know that a number of not-so-shy bairns have been doing a huge amount of work to try to get more than nowt out of the Government, and I think it is paying off for them. I look forward to working with all the hon. Members concerned, Durham County Council and the Auckland Project, which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham mentioned, as this proposal develops.

The Government are committed to levelling up the country, and reconnecting communities to the railway is central to that ambition. As part of our levelling up agenda, in January 2020, the Government pledged £500 million for the restoring your railway programme to deliver on our manifesto commitment to start reopening lines and stations. That investment is reconnecting communities across the country, regenerating local economies and improving access to jobs, homes and education—all things that my hon. Friend knows and campaigns on.

More than five decades ago, the Beeching report led to the closure of one third of our railway network, with 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of track identified for closure. Many places lost their railway connection and really have not recovered since. It is sometimes easy to forget, however, that some communities, rather than being cut off as a result of the Beeching axe, were the victims of decisions taken even earlier. Those communities, which include those that are the subject of today’s debate, feel the difficulties of being cut off from the rail network just as keenly as those that lost their lines and stations in Dr Beeching’s infamous “reshaping” of Britain’s railways.

For the towns and villages left isolated, no matter when they were cut off, restoring a railway line or station has the potential to revitalise the community. It breathes new life into high streets, drives investment in businesses and housing, and opens up new opportunities for work and education. That is why we set up the restoring your railway fund, and that is why the Government are investing across the country right now to progress work on restoring those connections. The Dartmoor line will be the first to reopen, later this month.

Part of the restoring your railway programme is the ideas fund, which provides development funding for early-stage proposals to help communities to develop strategic outline business cases. In three rounds of bidding, the fund has received 199 applications, including a successful application in the most recent round for the Weardale railway. Every bid has been sponsored by at least one Member of Parliament, and often several. In fact, 320 Members of Parliament have supported one or more bids to the fund.

I pay tribute to all hon. and right hon. Members from across the House who have sponsored bids to restore rail lines and stations in their constituencies. They have given us an amazing choice. It is a rich mix of choices; a rich tagine, if you will—a proper dish from which I can sample and choose wisely how to spend taxpayers’ money in the best and most appropriate way. I really do appreciate the amount of work that goes into formulating a bid, and I am aware of just how much these proposals mean for local communities. Those Members who have taken the time to work with their local communities and put forward a proposal are great advocates for their constituencies, as demonstrated here this evening.

I was pleased that as part of the Budget last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was able to announce 13 more schemes from the third round of the ideas fund that have been successful in their bids for funding. Of course, one of those schemes was the proposal to reopen the Weardale line to passenger services. That scheme and 12 others from the third round join the 25 projects already being supported to develop their own proposals in order to get a step closer to reopening lines and stations.

During the assessment process, I had the pleasure of reviewing all the proposals and of seeing what a difference reopening those stations and lines could make to those communities. Obviously, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, the Weardale line is no different. Seeking to join the existing 18-mile heritage railway in the Weardale area of outstanding natural beauty, which closed to passenger services in 1953, to the Bishop line and create one continuous travel corridor connecting to the east coast main line, the proposal has the potential to transform the region. An individual in Eastgate would be able to get a direct train into Darlington, accessing all the opportunities available there, and go further to all the places up and down the east coast main line. It would allow isolated communities to access employment and educational opportunities and encourage inward investment and economic regeneration across the area.

I am well aware that, for the past nine years, the Auckland Project, a local regeneration charity, has sought to create opportunities and investment in Bishop Auckland and the surrounding area, and this project has the potential to bring tourists into the area to appreciate the many attractions on offer. If someone wants to know what a difference restoring a lost rail connection will make, and what it will look like, they really do not have to go much further than speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham.

The restoring your railway programme is already connecting communities, and not all that far from Weardale, £34 million for detailed development and early construction activity has already been funded to rapidly progress plans to reopen the Northumberland line between Ashington and Blyth, which closed to passengers in 1964 as part of the Beeching cuts.

Slightly further afield—as I have mentioned—but displaying our commitment to level up communities across the country, the Dartmoor line, between Okehampton and Exeter in the south-west, will officially reopen for year-round services on 20 November this year, thanks to £40 million of investment. This will mark the first reopening under the restoring your railway manifesto commitment. We are getting our manifesto delivered. The route will connect Exeter St Davids, Crediton and Okehampton, providing a hub for visitors to explore Dartmoor and regional links for local commuters. It has been very well received by local people.

Based on what my hon. Friend said, I should take a moment to recognise this country’s heritage railways. The UK is a true pioneer in the history of railway development, nurturing and benefiting from the talents of Brunel and Stephenson, among others. Heritage railways are major contributors to the UK’s visitor economy, attracting about 13 million visitors pre-pandemic and bringing in an estimated £400 million to the economy annually.

There are over 150 operational heritage railways, running trains over 600 miles of track between 460 stations. They perform a variety of important functions across the country, from transportation to leisure and entertainment, tourism, education and community projects, and as symbols of our country’s rich industrial heritage. This Government, led by my colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, are working to ensure the continued success and growth of this important component of the heritage sector.

I can assure the House that a tremendous amount of work is being done in this area—in restoring your railway—to reconnect smaller communities, larger communities, towns with cities and villages with towns, and to regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education. I really look forward to seeing the proposal to reinstate passenger services on the Weardale railway develop through the ideas fund.

Finally, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who took part in the first three rounds. I say to those who were not successful: please keep the faith, because this is a very popular policy, and I expect to see it rear its head again.