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Heritage railway transformation offers economic benefits

Published September 08, 2020 3.45pm

Councillors will consider plans to support the transformation of a heritage railway line into a major visitor attraction next week, as part of wider efforts to regenerate County Durham's economy following the coronavirus pandemic.

Weardale Railway

Developing and expanding the Weardale Railway is anticipated to attract thousands of extra visitors to County Durham and boost the economy Credit: The Northern Echo

Our Cabinet will hear that investing in Weardale Railway would not only support the connectivity of the county through investment in rail but would, in securing its future, significantly boost the region's visitor economy at a crucial time.

A newly established subsidiary of The Auckland Project, Weardale Railway, took over the line last year and is seeking financial support to develop and expand, building on work already undertaken by the railway to create an exemplary tourist attraction. It is anticipated this would draw thousands of additional visitors to the Durham Dales each year. This would not just provide a welcome boost to shops and hospitality businesses in Weardale, but further a-field, as visitors go on to explore other parts of the county.

The venture would also create employment and training opportunities for residents, including apprenticeships for young people, and sustainable transport options.

In order to make the project viable, we have been asked to contribute £2.1 million as match funding towards the cost of vital infrastructure improvements. The partnership with the council has been described as critical to support the successful delivery of the project.

Supporting economic recovery

If Cabinet approves the proposal, the investment would complement other projects we are leading and supporting to safeguard and create jobs and enrich residents' lives; from helping to ensure the development of strategic employment sites such as Integra 61, near Durham, Forrest Park, near Newton Aycliffe, and Jade Business Park, near Seaham, remain on track, to pressing ahead with plans to transform leisure centres and cultural venues; from launching campaigns to encourage people to enjoy day trips and short breaks in the county, to putting the safety measures in place to allow town centre businesses to reopen safely.

Crucial investment

Cllr Carl Marshall, our Cabinet member for economic regeneration, said: "The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on our visitor and leisure economy. By investing in Weardale Railway, we can support this important sector when it needs us most, as well as preserve a valuable part of our region's heritage for future generations.

"This type of investment is crucial to the regeneration of the county and is something we are focusing on as we recover from the impact of the pandemic. Showing we have confidence in our county's future, will encourage other investors to open their businesses here, creating and safeguarding even more jobs."

Dating back to 1847, Weardale Railway stretches a total of 19 miles from Bishop Auckland to Eastgate and connects a number of towns and villages. It has open stations at Witton-le-Wear, Wolsingham, Frosterley and Stanhope and offers a romantic way for people to travel through the picturesque Durham Dales.

Encouraging exploration

Cllr Joy Allen, our Cabinet member for transformation, culture and tourism, said: "The Auckland Project estimates that these plans would attract thousands of additional visitors to Bishop Auckland and the surrounding areas, which is excellent news for the whole county.

"With a calendar of events planned to attract people to the Weardale Railway, it would also encourage people to visit other parts of the county - from Durham City to our stunning heritage coastline. It also has the potential to increase passenger journeys via the Bishop Auckland Line and East Coast Main Line, helping us to attract regional and national visitors and further boosting our economy."

Exciting future

David Maddan, chief executive of The Auckland Project, said: "After a very difficult year for tourism, the future promises to be an exciting one for Weardale Railway as we work with everyone involved to bring this unique heritage line back into operation. Along with Auckland Castle and its grounds, Kynren, the Mining Art Gallery and other galleries in development, our hope is that there will be something for everyone to enjoy in Bishop Auckland. Significant repairs are needed on the line, and our team is working hard behind the scenes to make sure that the next chapter of Weardale Railway's story will be a success."

Cabinet will be asked to consider investing in the project when it meets on Wednesday 16 September.