THE first scheduled passenger trains for almost 60 years have begun ferrying passengers on a Durham railway.
Thousands turned out to see the relaunch of the service between Bishop Auckland and Stanhope, a 16-mile journey through rolling County Durham countryside, on Saturday.
Many of the passengers had to be re-directed to a new platform built some 400 yards from the main Bishop Auckland railway station.
A delighted Gerry Mudd, controller of Weardale Railway, paid tribute to the youngsters from a Government job scheme who worked to get the new platform ready in time.
“These lads were so keen they worked all day then came back in the evening to continue in their own time. They were absolutely fantastic.
“We worked on a tight deadline to get ready for the re-opening of the extension but we have finally succeeded.”
Mr Mudd said he hoped “competitive fares” of £5.50 return would encourage passengers from Weardale to use the train into Bishop Auckland instead of their cars.
“Petrol is expensive and people have to pay to park in Bishop Auckland. The platform is right next to the shops here so we hope people will see the advantages of taking the train,” he added.
Volunteers and staff had to build a new platform after failing to reach agreement with Northern Rail and rail regulators to use the station.
The train which left Bishop Auckland at 11.40am on Saturday was blessed by the Dean of Durham, the Rt Rev Michael Sadgrove, a railway enthusiast.
He said: “I believe God cares about the whole of life, and this includes the welfare of local communities for whom the railways mean a great deal, and the many visitors who come to North East England, who we hope will enjoy the best possible experience of our region.
“This railway will enhance the lives of both visitors and the people who live and work in Weardale. Railways also make an important contribution to creating sustainable environments, and this too is a real benefit.”
The Dean added: “County Durham is the cradle of the railway. The heritage of our region is not simply its great buildings and wide landscapes, magnificent though they are. It is our living communities, past and present, who have made it what it is. Heritage in Weardale is about how people have lived and worked for centuries, whether on the land or through the lead mining industry for which the railways were a vital link to the region.
“It is good to know that the Weardale Railway has once more come into its own to connect the communities of Weardale to the rest of the county and help add to its revitalisation.”
The train from Bishop Auckland to Stanhope calls at Wolsingham and Frosterley stations in Weardale, but railway director Steve Raine said it was hoped to build stations at other villages on the route, such as Witton-le-Wear and Witton Park.
“This would be dependent on how much the local community was willing to contribute,” he added.
Five trains per day will run between Bishop Auckland and Stanhope. From Bishop Auckland passengers can catch a train on to Darlington, and the East Coast Main Line.