Weardale Railway

Weardale Railway

The Weardale Railway is a single track branch line which originally extended from Bishop Auckland to Wearhead in County Durham, a distance of about 25 miles. It was built in the nineteenth century to carry passenger and freight traffic. As late as 1992 the line remained in use as part of the national network, serving a large cement works at Eastgate (latterly owned by the Lafarge group) and providing a summer Sundays-only passenger service between Bishop Auckland and Stanhope.

As at 2008, the track remains in place between Bishop Auckland and Eastgate, although only the 5 mile section between Wolsingham and Stanhope is in regular use. The rails were lifted in the 1960s from the extreme western section of the line between Eastgate and Wearhead (passing through Westgate and St John's Chapel). The trackbed itself has been removed in at least one place on this last section.

The Weardale Railway preservation project

In 1993 British Rail announced its intention to close the line following the loss of the line's last significant commercial customer. In March of that year, Lafarge decided to service the Eastgate cement works by road and end its use of rail. Local authorities sought to find some alternative use for the line and it was considered that the only immediate possibility was a steam-hauled tourist service.

The Weardale Railway preservation project was started in 1993 at the time that British Rail ended freight and passenger services on the line. The intention was that a private company should take ownership of the line and start a steam service for tourists on the scenic western end of the line.

The operating company was known as the Weardale Railways Ltd (WRL), a company limited by guarantee. Its early Directors included well known individuals such as Sir William McAlpine, Pete Waterman, Ian Allan and David Bellamy, although most of these individuals withdrew from the project before it was able to start services.

The Weardale Railway Trust (WRT) is a voluntary group whose members are supporters of the project. WRT was initially just a "supporters' club" but it assumed a more prominent role as WRL got into difficulties. In 2006 WRT took a 12.5% minority stake in the ownership of WRL.

Large amounts of public sector grant finance were obtained or conditionally pledged from various donors including local regional development agency One North East. Durham County Council and the Wear Valley District Council also actively supported the project. The Manpower Services Commission contributed to the wages of paid staff in what had become an area of high unemployment. This allowed a 40 strong workforce to be recruited, a depot and base of operations to be established at Wolsingham, the station at Stanhope to be restored and services started in July 2004.

Initially, services ran from Wolsingham to Stanhope but there were plans to start services along the full length of the remaining line. There were even plans to rebuild the Eastgate to Wearhead section which had been lifted.

Collapse and administration

The project was characterised by a capital intensive, 'top down' approach. The project was run by a private company and relied heavily on paid staff. This could not be sustained by the available revenue base. Most railway preservation projects in the UK have been run by voluntary groups, relying on supporters to provide funding and volunteer labour. This is an entirely different approach to that adopted at Weardale.

Within a few months, trading losses of around £500,000 were incurred and debts of over £1m were accumulated. WRL went into administration on 2 January 2005. ["The Journal": [http://icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk/0100news/thejournal/thejournal/tm_method=full%26objectid=15044981%26siteid=50081-name_page.html January 2005, railway goes bust] ] The promoters of the project claimed that its financial difficulties were the result of bureaucratic problems associated with the bodies that had awarded grants to the project. These bodies would not actually pay over the money until certain matters had been attended to. The most notable of these was that WRL should acquire actual ownership of the line - something it failed to achieve. However, critics maintained that the management of the project had been reckless in entering into financial commitments without secure funding being available. [The Journal : [http://icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk/0100news/thejournal/tm_method=full%26objectid=15303526%26siteid=50081-name_page.html March 2005, Railway was naive] ] Creditors included other heritage railway companies such as the Llangollen Railway and the Caledonian Railway.

Throughout 2005, attempts were made to get WRL out of administration and allow it to resume services. However, this proved difficult because of various structural problems within the project and matters arising out of the administration.

One particular area of difficulty related to the construction in 2004 of a new running shed at the Wolsingham depot site. It was intended that the cost of this shed should be largely funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but this grant never materialised. Further complications were that the shed had been partly built on property that did not belong to WRL and road access to the whole depot site was only available through a neighbouring factory site. This access was withdrawn after an incident when volunteer workers in the depot accidentally cut off the electricity supply to the factory. The owners of that factory, Weardale Castings Ltd, demanded substantial compensation from WRL. That compensation was estimated at around £100,000 for repairs to equipment, lost production and legal costs. Weardale Castings joined the list of WRL creditors, and was demanding payment in full.

It proved difficult to obtain the funding needed to get the company out of administration until these matters were resolved.

In spite of this, the railway preservation community continued to support the project. For example, during 2006 the "Class 37 Locomotive Group" moved a number of its diesel locomotives to the depot. The Group's main asset at Weardale was diesel 37003 which was given some service use. However, the Group's access to these locomotives for restoration and maintenance became increasingly restricted. In September 2007, after a failure to settle outstanding rental charges for its use of depot facilities, the Group indicated its intention to withdraw from Weardale.

Some specific projects on the Weardale railway continued in spite of the Administration. In December 2006, the railway received the prestigious Ian Allan award for "best station restoration project of 2006" for its restoration of Stanhope Station. [The Journal : [http://icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk/journallive/thejournal/thejournal/tm_method=full%26objectid=18230050%26siteid=50081-name_page.html 8 December 2006, 'whistles of admiration'] ]

2006 Revival

Eventually, a community interest company known as Ealing Community Transport (ECT) agreed to pay £100,000 for a 75% stake in WRL and provide management support to the project. [BBC report : [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/4655102.stm January 2006, rescue plan announced] ] ECT also agreed to underwrite any further operating losses incurred by WRL. This undertaking was sufficient to allow the creditors of WRL to permit the resumption of limited services on the line in August 2006. [The Journal : [http://icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk/journallive/thejournal/thejournal/tm_method=full%26objectid=17577312%26siteid=50081-name_page.html#story_continue 17 August 2006, Railway re-opens] ] The creditors agreed to a "company voluntary arrangement" (CVA) whereby they would receive 22p for every £1 they were owed. However, WRL would remain in administration until this money was paid over. [The Journal : [http://icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk/eveningchronicle/eveningchronicle/news/tm_method=full%26objectid=17304286%26siteid=50081-name_page.html July 2006, CVA agreed] ] A financial package had been assembled by which WRL's backers would pay off its creditors through the CVA but this was conditional upon resolution of various matters relating to the ownership of the line and the disputes concerning property boundaries and compensation. By 1 August 2007 sufficient progress was judged to have been made and WRL's creditors were paid off in accordance with the terms of the CVA. [PWC press release : [http://www.weardale-railway.org.uk/documents/Weardale%20Railway%20Dividend%20paid%20-%2023%20July%2007%20APPROVED.pdf 26 July 2007] ]

WRL was restructured and renamed. It became the Weardale Railways Community Interest Company (WRC) with a board of 8 Directors. 4 Directors were appointed by ECT, 2 by WRT, 1 by Durham County Council and 1 by Wear Valley District Council. WRC's minority shareholders were WRT (12.5%), DCC (6.25%) and WVDC (6.25%). ECT included WRC within its "Railway Division" which consisted of the Weardale Railway, the Dartmoor Railway, RMS Locotec (a small railway service business) and ECT Mainline (a railway charter business).

However, the situation was thrown back into flux at the end of 2007 when ECT announced that it had decided to dispose of its interest in the Weardale Railway. [ECT press release : [http://www.weardale-railway.org.uk/documents/Rail%20Bus%20Update%201%20April%20FINAL%20SAS.pdf 1 April 2008] ] ECT's involvement in Weardale had been part of a wider venture into the area of railway operations and the whole venture was closed on financial grounds. [Northern Echo, 4 March 2008 : [http://archive.thenorthernecho.co.uk/2008/3/4/242135.html new fears over future of railway] ] Although a number of WRC's paid staff had been made redundant, the railway continued to operate on a limited basis. In March 2008 ECT disclosed that during 2007, a full year of normal operations which had included some use of steam haulage, WRC had attracted only 10,000 visitors compared to a break-even visitor requirement of 35,000. It had experienced trading losses at an average rate of around £10,000 per month. [WRT committee : [http://www.weardale-railway.org.uk/documents/Minutes%2011%20March%202008.pdf minutes of March 2008 meeting] ]

In September 2008, ECT's 75% interest in WRC was transferred to British American Railway Services Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of US private company Iowa Pacific Holdings. [IPH : [http://www.iowapacific.net/ website] ] [The Journal : [http://www.journallive.co.uk/north-east-news/todays-news/2008/09/06/pacific-railroad-takes-a-major-share-in-weardale-61634-21685226/ 6 September 2008] ]

Locomotives

*Steam Locomotives
**Robert Stephenson & Hawthorn 0-6-0ST no. 40. Undergoing firebox repairs, is also planned to get a new ten year ticket, planned to be finished in the summer of 2008
**Robert Stephenson & Hawthorn 0-6-0ST no. 77 (Norwood). Fundraising underway to finance restoration.

*Diesel Locomotives
**BR Bo-Bo Class 20 no. 20107 (not operational)
**BR Bo-Bo Class 25 no. 25067 (operational)
**BR Class 73 no. 73134. (operational)

*Diesel Multiple Units
**BR Class 141 units 141103 (operational) and 141110 (not operational).

Trivia

A 2006 Virgin Trains commercial featuring a train being attacked by Indians (Native Americans) on horseback was partly filmed on the Weardale line.

References

External links

* [http://www.weardale-railway.org.uk/homeframe.htm The Weardale Railway project website]
* [http://www.wrlpg.com/ The Weardale Railway Locomotive Preservation Group]
* [http://www.ectgroup.co.uk/ ECT Group website]
* [http://www.subbrit.org.uk/sb-sites/stations/w/westgate/index.shtml Westgate station with links to articles on other Weardale stations]


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