Past, present & future: The rail heritage of Tees Valley

Source: RTM Aug/Sept 2018

Two centuries ago, the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives was officially opened at the heart of the north east. Fast-forward to 2018 and the rich transport heritage of the area continues to prosper. Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley mayor and chairman of the Tees Valley Combined Authority, outlines his plans for an equally bright future.

Tees Valley’s pioneering spirit was felt most powerfully almost 200 years ago, thanks to the birth of the Stockton and Darlington Railway – and, with it, the world’s first passenger services.

We are set to mark the bicentenary of our rich transport heritage with a programme of celebrations. There is no better time to take stock, see how much we have achieved, and consider how to honour our innovators by keeping our region moving for years to come.

Darlington railway station will not only be central to these celebrations, but its transformation will also be vital to improving people’s lives and central to growth. It is forecast to deliver almost £1bn of GVA for the regional economy, create more than 3,000 jobs, and facilitate the delivery of up to 1,500 houses.

It will ensure we remain at the forefront of the UK’s Northern Powerhouse project. In the coming years, HS2 will give the country’s Victorian rail network a new lease of life, and we have to position ourselves to take advantage of every opportunity.

Darlington station is the gateway to Tees Valley, serving the East Coast Main Line (ECML) between London and Edinburgh. This, plus its wider catchment from the north east and North Yorkshire, makes it a hugely important station – but it needs to be made fit for purpose.

Our £100m regeneration scheme, ‘Darlington 2025,’ would help us build on what we already have. It would see a reconfiguration of platforms to separate local and more strategic services, with extra platforms ensuring that local services do not have to cross the ECML to enter the station. This will contribute to securing the station’s future by providing extra capacity to ensure the area is ready for new train services provided by HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), as well as welcoming the new Class 800 Azuma trains.

These changes will lead to faster, more frequent and better-quality services to and from, as well as across, the Tees Valley. Times between Birmingham and Darlington could be cut by 52 minutes and trips to London could come in at one hour and 52 minutes. NPR, too, will radically change connectivity between key economic centres of the north.

Regeneration of the station’s surrounding area will give visitors a welcome that matches the region’s aspirations, with new shops, public spaces, and improved connections to key sites around the town.

We’ve made a £3m funding commitment which will help us produce a fully developed business case for submission to government. On top of this, I have earmarked £25m from our £59m Transforming Cities Fund, a product of our devolved status.

This is one transport priority that I have been committed to, but it is not the only rail infrastructure project we are undertaking. We also signed off a £4.5m fund, including £2m from Network Rail, to help bring Middlesbrough station – our region’s second-biggest station – into the 21st century.

It’s not as eye-catching, but Network Rail and I have also recently signed off £1m of funding for a study to improve the region’s rail freight network.

The cash will help to resolve issues between Eaglescliffe to Northallerton branch of the ECML, where low bridges and tunnels currently restrict the size of cargo containers that can be used. The line carries containers between Felixstowe and Teesport, one of the UK’s deepest ports and a vital piece of our business landscape.

My job is to drive economic regeneration in Tees Valley, whether through securing business investment, encouraging visitor numbers to boost the tourist pound, or helping companies based here to grow. The benefits that will come from the transformation of our rail network will be felt across our whole area, the wider north east and, indeed, the whole of the UK.

Rail is deep-rooted in our past and, with these plans, it will certainly be at the heart of our future.


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