Leamside Line: united support, no money

Reopening of the Leamside rail line linking the Tyne & Wear Metro at Pelaw to Turdsale in County Durham was one of 141 projects in England and Wales put forward for government support, North East MPs were told yesterday.

Thirty-eight of the bids to the Restoring Your Railway Ideas Fund were successful, said Wendy Morton, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State of Transport, during a Westminster Hall debate. The £600m Leamside Line was not one of them.

‘Although our restoring your railway expert panel noted that the Leamside Line proposal had demonstrated potential, it is important to note that the ideas fund has had a very high level of interest’, she said.

‘Some 141 unique bids were received across the three rounds. Of those, 38 were successful and are being supported to develop a strategic outline business case, including three schemes in the North East.’

The three North East schemes being progressed are Ferryhill to Stockton, Consett to Newcastle and Darlington to Weardale.

The Westminister Hall debate demonstrated cross-party support for the Leamside Line after the case for it was presented by Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West.

She said: ‘The North East is taking steps to achieve its ambitions, but it can only take itself so far, because our local authorities continue to be starved of cash. A project as significant and game-changing as the Leamside line will eventually need to be funded by central government.

‘Let us not beat about the bush: this is a very expensive piece of infrastructure, but it is needed and very much wanted.’

One discordant note came from Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, who questioned how realistic it was to expect the government to come up with the large sums needed for the North East projects. He criticised specifically the proposal for a rail line from Consett to Newcastle, costed at £640m:

‘People’s expectations are raised, and we know from some of the examples that they will never be met—it is not achievable.’

Mr Jones also wanted to know why it was necessary for the region to agree to a devolution deal to secure the Leamside Line when everyone regionally was in support of it.

He said: ‘We need a degree of realism and honesty about why we are in the current situation….The only people who do not support the plan are the government, who left it out of their integrated rail plan, announced towards the end of last year.

‘In doing so they said that the project could be part of a city region deal that they hoped to negotiate some time in the future. I suggest that that is part of the government’s wider agenda on devolution – it is jam tomorrow so long as regions agree to tinker around with their governance structures…

‘Why are the government wedded to linking this vital investment to rejigging their arrangements for the region? The minister has heard today that it is supported across all political parties, both here and in the region. Why are the government wedded to that when there is really no need to do it? They should just give Transport North East the money it needs’.

The debate, which can be read in full here, ended without progress. If it completes a new devolution deal, the North East has the opportunity to secure funding from the £5.7bn City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement, which it may or may not spend on the Leamside Line, as discussed here on February 7.

Meanwhile, consultants for the North East Joint Transport Committee will carry on preparing the next phase of the business case at a cost of £100,000.