Leamside Line and East Coast Main Line Railway

1. A brief history

The first ever East Coast Main Line ran past Bowburn, between Ferryhill and Shincliffe. What is now generally known as the Leamside Line, but was for many years referred to as the Old Main Line, includes the section that passes through our local landscape. The line is currently mothballed.

The line’s early history is part of a complex story of railway companies; of the Acts of Parliament that incorporated them and authorised the construction of their various lines, and of their rivalries, amalgamations and take-overs. Only a few salient points from that history are listed here. The aim is simply to set “our” railway in its wider context, not to tell the whole story.

On 30th May 1841, the main line of the Great North of England Railway (GNER) opened to passengers between York and Darlington. It was originally planned to extend this to Newcastle but the company had by then used all its capital. For the time being, to travel by railway between Darlington and Newcastle involved a 56-mile journey (compared with 34 by road), which included two omnibus connections between stations – one at Stockton and one at Sunderland.

On 18th June 1842, the Newcastle & Darlington Junction Railway (N&DJR) Company was incorporated by Act of Parliament, with George Hudson, the “Railway King”, as its chairman. Aiming to complete the link that had been left unachieved by the GNER, work started on a line between Ferryhill and Belmont on 25th Jan 1843. It was to include three impressive timber viaducts at Shincliffe and Sherburn.

The Durham Junction Railway (DJR), connecting Washington and Rainton Meadow, had opened to passenger traffic on 9th March 1840. This was now bought by the new (N&DJR) company. The following year, on 14th Apr 1844, the company opened its line between Rainton Crossing and Belmont Junction – with the Durham City branch extending to Gilesgate station.

The Durham Junction Railway (pink) connected Washington to Rainton Meadow,

where it joined the Newcastle and Darlington Junction Railway.

(Map thanks to wikipedia.)

On 24th May 1844, a special train carried company directors from York to Gateshead. And on 16th Jun 1844, the public opening of the line was signalled by a special train carrying directors the whole way from Euston to Gateshead. In doing so, it was said, they travelled the fastest 303 miles ever – despite stopping on the way to admire the Sherburn viaduct! (There is a description of this in Tomlinson*, pages 449-450.)

(*“Tomlinson’s North Eastern Railway: Its Rise and Development”, edited by Ken Hoole, 1967 [second edition, 1987], published by David & Charles. The book was originally published in 1914.)

In 1846, the GNER was absorbed by the Newcastle & Darlington Junction Railway (N&DJR) and, soon afterwards, the combined company was renamed the York & Newcastle Railway (Y&NR). In the following year, 1847, that, in turn, was amalgamated with the Newcastle & Berwick Railway (N&BR) to form the York, Newcastle & Berwick Railway (YN&BR).

On 30th June 1848, Parliament authorised the YN&BR to construct a new Team Valley line, from Gateshead to Newton Hall. This would connect (a) with a line going south-west, from Durham to Bishop Auckland, and (b) with the main line near Belmont Junction, going south towards Darlington. However George Hudson’s downfall in 1849 delayed the implementation of these plans.

On 31st July 1854, the YN&BR amalgamated with other railways to form the North Eastern Railway (NER).

In April 1857, Durham Station opened, on the Leamside to Bishop Auckland branch of the NER, and the use of Gilesgate station for passengers ceased.

The 1865 North Eastern Railway Bill included a new two-mile connection between Ferryhill and Relly Mill. Relly Mill was just south of Neville’s Cross, where the new line would join the Bishop Auckland branch, en route for Durham station. The new junction just north of Ferryhill would be at Hoggersgate, near the recently-sunk Tursdale colliery.

In 1871, this Ferryhill to Relly Mill extension opened for goods traffic. It included a deep cutting through a bed of sand at Croxdale Bank and removed at least some of the buildings at Hett Paper Mill. (It is not at present clear whether the mill closed at that time, or later. See “Paper Mills near Bowburn”.) East Coast express trains began to run by way of Durham instead of Leamside on 15th January 1872, though further works were required before it opened for general passenger traffic on 1st March, completing the new main line.

From then on, the East Coast Main Line went through Croxdale and Durham City, instead of along the Leamside line through Shincliffe.

The map below shows the various connections around Durham City in a form that summarises, far better than words, how they related to each other. With thanks to <http://www.railwayarchitecture.org.uk> for this excellent map.

Railways round and through Durham City (with thanks to www.railwayarchitecture.org.uk.)

2. Bowburn Colliery and Bowburn Junction

When Bowburn Colliery began producing coal, in 1908, it was carried to the railway network via a junction with the old main line. The connection crossed the bridleway about 100 metres east of the level crossing – roughly where the Fire & Rescue Service’s smoke training equipment was being erected in 2015. It joined the railway about 150 metres south of the crossing, where a few remains of a signal box can still be seen on the west side of the track.

Bowburn signal box

The map below shows a section of the 3rd edition of the Ordnance Survey map (surveyed in 1915), in dark blue, overlaid on the same area of the 4th edition (surveyed in 1939), in red. Both are overlaid over a modern satellite view (thanks to Google maps). It can be seen that there were only about five sidings in 1915 but thirteen, from the screening chambers alone (and many more within the site), in 1939.

Bowburn colliery

At its peak in the 1950s, when the colliery employed nearly 3,000 mine workers, it was working six seams at once and producing over 3,000 tons of coal a day*. By that time, most coal wagons carried 21 tons, so this would have meant over 140 of them joining the railway network every day. The photograph below, probably taken in the late 1950s, shows most but not all Bowburn’s wagons to be 21-ton ones at that time. (Apart from the rolling stock, the photograph also shows one of the slurry ponds / pit heaps, far right; Peat Edge farm is in the distance behind it, far left, and, across the middle of the picture, in the near foreground, you can see the aerial ropeway.)

(*The highest ever output for a single day at Bowburn Colliery was recorded on 12th April 1957, when 3,327.35 tons were produced. A record-breaking 16,387.8 tons was produced in the week ending 13th April 1957.)

Sidings at Bowburn Colliery

3. Shincliffe Station

There were two railway stations at Shincliffe but only one was directly relevant to Bowburn. The other one was the “Town” station, on the Durham & Sunderland Railway, at the north end of what is today Shincliffe Village. This closed in 1893, when a new terminus was opened at Elvet Station.

Bank Top station (also known as Shincliffe York British Station), on the other hand, was still in use in living memory. It was built in 1844, to serve what was then the new Newcastle & Darlington Junction Railway main line. It is a grade II listed building, having been designed by the noted railway architect, G. T. Andrews. (Its official listing states that it is a “rare complete survival of a small station by Andrews [who is] better known for larger stations like Scarborough and Hull Paragon”.) It is today a private dwelling.

Shincliffe Station (photograph by the late Don Wilcock, taken in 1978)

The station finally closed for goods traffic as part of the Beeching cuts, in 1963. It had officially been closed to passenger traffic in 1941. However it was still occasionally used for many years after that, for trips and holiday outings.

4. The Leamside Line

The Leamside line was closed to freight traffic in 1990.

It continued to be used occasionally as a by-pass, when major weekend repairs were being carried out on the “New” East Coast Main Line through Durham City. It was also used when that section was being electrified.

It may have been in 1990 that the royal train was shunted on to the line, near Tursdale, for an overnight stop, before Queen Elizabeth II continued to Newcastle the following day and formally switched on the new electric service. Or that overnight stay may have been in 1981, when she opened the Queen Elizabeth II Metro bridge.

The line between Tursdale junction and Bowburn was last used for testing Railtrack’s 1/4-mile-long track-laying machine, in the early 2000s. It was subsequently used to relay the West Coast main line.

After much of the rail track near Bowburn had been stolen for scrap, over a number years, Network Rail lifted all that was left, from Tursdale junction to beyond Fencehouses, in late 2012 and early 2013. To do this, as everything was driven down the line (by motor vehicles!) to load on to a train at Tursdale, they had to strengthen the embankment – formerly one of the spectacular wooden viaducts of 1844 – over Whitwell Beck, near Shincliffe. Much of the track was purchased by the Weardale Railway.

It remains an aspiration that the Leamside Line will re-open and become an important transport route through the North East. This is included in the emerging Local Plan for County Durham and, despite strong reservations on other matters, this was supported by H. M. Planning Inspectorate’s Interim Report after the 2014 Examination in Public.