Ghost rail stations, such as Teeside, have people in Britain asking for nationalization of the rail system instead of the current piecemeal approach under private ownership.
TEESSIDE, England —
As an aging train pulls into view, two men wait patiently in the biting cold, taking photos as the diesel-driven carriages grind slowly to a halt, before jumping quickly aboard.
It is not a good idea to miss the 2:56 p.m. service to Darlington: The next train will call here in precisely one week.
At England’s least-popular railway station, here in Teesside, the only travelers these days are those attracted by the novelty and rarity of their journey, which lasts a maximum of 14 minutes.
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“The more obscure it is, the more interesting it is for rail enthusiasts,” said one of the men, Henry Kennedy, from Southampton. Along with Murray Colpman, he had traveled hundreds of miles by train, then walked for 45 minutes, to reach this obscure transportation outpost in northeastern England.
It was not meant to be like this.
Teesside Airport rail station, about an hour’s drive north of Leeds, was built in 1971 along an existing line to bring thousands of passengers to and from a regional airport, now called Durham Tees Valley Airport, whose terminal building lies less than a mile away.
There is no longer a bus service from the rail station to the airport terminal, and the numbers flying from Durham Tees Valley are greatly reduced; it once attracted around 900,000 passengers a year, but now serves around 125,000, connecting to just a few destinations. So rail bosses have sidelined the stop for years, halting just two trains here a week, one in each direction.
Then, in December, the service was cut again — to one train a week.
Yet the various rail authorities cannot agree to close Teesside Airport rail, preferring to retain a zombie station that has come to symbolize some of the dysfunctions of Britain’s transport network.
Under private ownership, a fragmented rail transport system has evolved in Britain, where a historic aversion to central planning sometimes comes at a price for passengers. British railways may have a good safety record, but the network is expensive and overcrowded, and opinion polls show that a majority of voters support rail nationalization.
“This is a good example of the sort of disconnected nature of British transport policy,” said Stephen Joseph, the executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport, an advocacy group, referring to Teesside Airport. He contrasted Britain’s piecemeal approach with “other countries where rail, aviation and economic development are planned together at a national level.”
Joseph also noted that when other little-used routes have been expanded with increased train frequencies, commuters have responded. “When you do put on a decent service, they tend to get used,” he said.
Hidden away at the back of the airfield, Teesside Airport station is not even easy to find, and the facilities are minimal — two platforms, linked by a footbridge supported by scaffolding; a shelter; and a pay phone, a relic of the era when this station was used regularly. When the airport changed its name, the signs at the rail station were not even updated.
For the few locals who know of its existence, this ghost station has become a “laughingstock,” in the words of one transport campaigner, Suzanne Foster, who for three years, has run a Facebook page, “SAVE Teesside Airport.” Alex Nelson, the station master of nearby Chester-le-Track station, calls the situation “perfectly absurd.”
Ironically, it was this part of the world that pioneered rail transportation. Along tracks not far from here ran the first railway to operate freight and passenger service with steam traction. On that journey, from Stockton to Darlington in September 1825, the train was initially preceded by a man on horseback who carried a flag reading Periculum privatum utilitas publica (“The private danger is the public good”).
But even in the land where rail travel was born, closing a station can be a complex, sometimes costly process. And in Britain a plethora of bodies are involved — including in this case the train franchise operator, Northern Rail; Network Rail, which is responsible for the track; the airport; and Rail North, which brings together local transport authorities across the north of England.
Keeping a skeleton operation — or “parliamentary service” in the jargon that refers to legislators’ role in deciding on closings — keeps things simple, if surreal.
Behind this particular impasse lies a fight over the future of Durham Tees Valley Airport, which has suffered declining fortunes recently even though its runway is large enough to accommodate big planes, including Air Force One during a 2003 visit by President George W. Bush.
The airport is responsible for the rail station’s maintenance under an agreement made when its majority owner, Peel Airports, took over operations in 2003.
When the airport said last month that instead of operating two services a week, there would be only one from Teesside Airport, it blamed the aging infrastructure, including the footbridge, and argued that the cost of maintaining it “could be as high as 6 million pounds over the next five years” — a figure disputed by Foster, the campaigner.
Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, which covers five boroughs, wants a revamp of the airport and its rail link. He said that Peel Airports had wanted to close the Teesside Airport station, but that he had objected.
“If you now decided to close the rail station at the airport, it would be significantly more difficult again to reopen it,” Houchen said, adding that “there are airports, regional airports especially, that would die for the connectivity that Teesside Airport has got, actually having a station.”
Houchen wants to create a consortium to take over the airport, and fears that Peel’s “ultimate long-term goal is to close the airport and turn it into a housing estate,” because that would turn an easier profit.
Peel said that it had discussed closing the rail station, but that it had also considered moving it to a new site closer to the terminal. It rejected the claim that it wanted to run down the airport and sell it off for housing.
In a statement, the airport said that, “as our chairman has stated previously, we are not looking to sell the airport and remain committed to delivering our business plan to secure its future and deliver growth.”
That plan involved “a range of developments on land not required to aviation operations,” including some housing, though “the proceeds of the residential development will all be reinvested into airport operations,” the statement added.
As the fate of the airport remains unclear, its rail station stays on life support, though it seems to be getting some attention, although for the wrong reasons.
Onboard the 2:56 on a recent Sunday, the conductor, Sally Holtham, said that in five years of doing her job, she had worked on only three services that stopped at this station.
“It’s the first time I’ve sold any tickets from Teesside Airport,” she said before asking, with a long laugh, a deliberately pointless question: “Would you like a single or a return ticket?”