The Bishop Line Community Rail Partnership was the sponsor of the Community Voluntary Group category at the inaugural County Durham Together Awards. PETER BARRON tracks the line’s history and its hopes for the future

Good connections are at the heart of any successful railway – and they come thick and fast on The Bishop Line.

Connected to a fascinating heritage; connected to a beautiful landscape; and connected to the proud communities it passes through, it is a railway heading in the right direction.

The Bishop Line may be a small railway, but it has big ambitions – to develop those links and become increasingly relevant to the lives of local people.

“We want to connect with as many community groups along the line as possible,” says Felicity Machnicki, The Bishop Line’s community rail officer. “We want to find out what their goals are, and how we can work together.”

The chance to sponsor the Community Voluntary Group category at the first County Durham Together Awards – organised by The Northern Echo in partnership with Durham County Council -was, therefore, a perfect fit.

“There are so many wonderful community organisations out there, making a huge difference, and it was an opportunity to discover more about them,” adds Felicity.

The Bishop Line runs between Bishop Auckland and Darlington; calling at Shildon, Newton Aycliffe, Heighington, and North Road along the way. The route has a momentous place in history, forming part of the original Stockton and Darlington Railway – the world’s first passenger railway – which opened on September 27, 1825.

Starting in Bishop Auckland, home of Auckland Castle, landmarks en route include Locomotion: The National Railway Museum, at Shildon; the Hitachi Rail plant at Aycliffe Business Park; the Head of Steam Railway Museum at Darlington; and the famous Skerne Bridge.

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And though history is undoubtedly part of its appeal, the importance of The Bishop Line’s present day role should not be underestimated, for it provides a vital transport link, through to the East Coast Main Line at Darlington’s main Bank Top station.

Beyond Darlington, it continues as the Tees Valley Line to Saltburn, via Teesside International Airport, Eaglescliffe, Middlesbrough and Redcar, while connecting to the Weardale Railway from Bishop Auckland.

“It is a busy, useful line, and some people rely on it to get to work, do their shopping, or just to go on day trips, but we want its profile and usage to grow,” explains Felicity.

The Bishop Line Community Rail Partnership was launched 15 years ago to enhance those connections of past, present and future, and it is supported by a host of organisations: Northern Rail, London North Eastern Railway, TransPennine Express, Cross Country Trains, Darlington Borough Council, Durham County Council. Other stakeholders include Network Rail and the Community Rail Network (CRN).

Stations along the line have been adopted by grass roots organisations: Bishop Auckland and North Road by Bishop Trains; Shildon by the New Shildon Residents’ Association; while Newton Aycliffe and Heighington have been co-adopted by Greenfield Community College and the Xcel Centre.

“Our biggest aim is to grow the number of active members of the partnership, as well as the station adopters. We want people to be more aware of what the partnership does, and how they can play a part in bringing stations back to life,” says Felicity.

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The Bishop Line’s clear message is that it is open to forging relationships with community organisations and wants to enrich local lives.

For example, at the start of the year, it supported a “Women In STEM” project by transporting a group of girls from Darlington College for a careers visit to Hitachi Rail. Female students from Bradford had the same experience thanks to The Bishop Line liaising with Community Rail Lancashire (CRL).

Bishop Line Community Rail Partnership also teamed up with Greenfield Arts to secure Northern Heartlands funding to work with the local community to develop Shildon Station as an artistic gateway to the birthplace of the railways.

The ‘Shildon in Motion’ programme enabled designers, Nicola Golightly and Sally Pilkington, and creative director, Katy Milne, to work with the local community to deliver a range of cultural activities, including the creation of some uplifting art installations at the station.

“Shildon Station was lacking a welcome for those arriving but, through this project, local people have been able to put their stamp on it, and it has been so exciting to see it come to fruition,” says Felicity.

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Meanwhile, another project has seen Luxi Ltd – the company behind the Jabberwocky markets – being commissioned to develop an app-based audio play, called “Our Line”, which can be listened to during train journeys and more importantly now, it can be listened to in the comfort of your own home.

Covid-19 has inevitably had an impact on other planned activities, but Felicity is looking forward to being able to return to face-to-face meetings with stakeholders, community groups, and schools as soon as Government regulations allow.

“We can’t wait to reinvigorate those relationships, and find out what we can all achieve together,” she says.

As far as The Bishop Line goes, you can guarantee that every effort will be made to avoid missing every important connection.

The Bishop Line Needs You!

Do you represent a group, run a business, work in a school, or know an isolated resident living near one of the Bishop Line stations?

Could your members, staff, colleagues or family benefit from being able to travel between Darlington and Bishop Auckland more easily?

Are there difficulties which you face when travelling?

The Bishop Line Community Rail Partnership would like to talk to you to understand your needs and see if they can help.

Find out more at www.bishopline.org