If Coach B on East Coast Trains is the Quiet Coach, then Coach C must be the annoying children coach.
The fun began when I boarded at Newcastle and found a toddler in my reserved seat. His mother eventually managed to persuade him to move, but he then proceeded to climb all over other seats, lie down in the aisle and run around pulling the reservation tickets out of the seat backs (which caused enormous fun at Durham when several people boarded and found their reserved seats occupied). His mother managed a half-hearted “don’t do that, darling” before returning to her paperback.
I’m not (honest) a “children should be seen and not heard” type, but really, there are limits. As Humphrey Lyttelton was fond of saying on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue: Come back Herod, all is forgiven!
Worse was the family at a nearby table seat who produced a portable DVD player and started to watch Doctor Who. WITHOUT HEADPHONES. Honestly, I’m not in favour of capital punishment, but I would make an exception for people who do that.
Of course, I didn’t object publicly to any of this, instead preferring to passive-aggressively whine on Twitter. I’m British through and through.
I alighted, thankfully, at Darlington, which can justifiably claim to have a place in railway history. It was the terminus for the first steam-operated public railway line in the world, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in September 1825.
A frieze on the platforms at Darlington station commemorates the history of the line. Of course, back in those days, passengers had to endure slow, arduous journeys in uncomfortable, four-wheeled vehicles with only basic facilities.
We’ve come a long way since then.
I shouldn’t complain too much. This Pacer, much like the USS Enterprise from your Star Trek programme, was about to boldly go where (almost) no trains have gone before; to a platform where few trains stop and even fewer people alight. Yes, this was the once a week train to Teesside Airport.
A couple of years ago Teesside Airport overtook Coombe Junction to gain the dubious honour of least-used station in Britain. In the financial year 2012-13 (the most recent for which stats are available), just eight people are recorded as buying a ticket to or from here.
Every year, when the Office of Rail Regulation publishes its station usage estimates, an enterprising journalist investigates the figures and discovers the station. This means there’s a whole series of articles online: “Welcome to the North’s forgotten railway station” (Guardian), “Teesside Airport is least-used railway station in the country” (Middlesbrough Evening Gazette), “Airport rail station ‘had only 14 passengers in year'” (BBC), “Teesside Airport railway station serves only EIGHT passengers in one year” (Mirror). All the reports are near-identical: same sense of incredulity, same cut and pasted statements from Northern Rail, same picture cribbed from Wikipedia, same everything.
With all that hype, I was rather disappointed when I showed my ticket to the guard and he clipped it and handed it back without any comment at all.
At this point, a bit of backstory is needed. The airport started handling passenger flights in 1964. With the Darlington to Middlesbrough line passing close by, building a station must have seemed like a no-brainer, and a basic halt was constructed, opening in 1971.
Initially, Teesside Airport was served by a regular service, but then a new airport terminal building was built, further away from the station. A minibus service was provided to shuttle passengers between the station and the airport, but this proved unpopular and was withdrawn, leaving passengers facing a long walk. With passengers deserting the station, British Rail gradually reduced the service until we arrived at the Parliamentary bare minimum of two trains a week, which has now been enshrined into the service which Northern Rail is contractually obliged to deliver. The airport’s web site fails to even mention the station.
In the current timetable, on Sundays only, a train from Darlington calls at the station at 10.29, with a return journey at 12.16. And that’s it.
At this point we need to address “the hyphen question”. No-one seems to know whether the station’s name should be hyphenated or not. I bought my ticket in advance from East Midlands Trains (curiously, several online sites don’t even acknowledge that the station exists), and my booking confirmation clearly included a hyphen. My ticket, however, when I collected it, read “TEESSIDE AIRPORT”.
National Rail, meanwhile, believe it does have a hyphen. The customer information screens at Darlington station agree, as does the Northern Rail timetable poster.
The station signs themselves do not have a hyphen, although the previous ones, prior to Northern Rail’s rebranding (yes, they spent money rebranding the station in corporate colours) did have a hyphen. Gahhh, inconsistency!
The airport solved this question a decade ago by changing its name to Durham Tees Valley, but the station hasn’t caught up with that yet.
Incidentally, isn’t “Teesside” an awkward word? I know it’s derived from the River Tees, so it’s consistent with “Merseyside”, “Tyneside”, etc. To my eyes, it looks misspelt.
In summary: this is not a station to visit if you have OCD.
The ride to Teesside Airport is a short one, just nine minutes from Darlington. My fellow passengers seemed oblivious to the fact that they were on a famous train. One chap, sitting across the aisle from me, was fiddling with an SLR camera, but I didn’t really pay much attention.
I felt the train slowing down for the station. My heart started pounding, and I started to tremble with excitement. This is the closest I will ever get to an adrenaline rush.
“We are now arriving at Teesside Airport.”
I stood up to get off the train. This is it, I thought, the whole Station Master blog has been building up to this point. The least-used station in the country. I am going to get off a train here, and spend the next 90 minutes or so in splendid isolation.
I then became aware that two other people where standing behind me. SLR camera man, and his female companion, were also waiting to get off.
“You’ve just trebled the passenger numbers at this station,” remarked the guard, as he closed the doors. The train disappeared into the distance, and the station fell silent, with just the three of us on the platform.
We stared at each other for a moment. The man with the camera (and a quite incredible hat) spoke.
“I think I know who you are,” he said.
“I’m Robert,” I replied, “Hampton… The Station Master blog?”
“Yes, I thought so.”
Turns out he’d read my blog, and had been inspired to visit Teesside Airport because of it. It was pure coincidence that he decided to do it this week, the same weekend I visited. He had noticed me on the train, but it was only when I got off at Teesside Airport that he knew for sure who I was.
Anyway, allow me to introduce Timothy Young, railway photographer, and Emma Young, along for the ride. This special occasion called for a special sign pic:
SO THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE WHEN DOVES CRY.
As I mentioned previously, putting this blog together can be quite a lonely task. To meet some fellow railway enthusiasts, here of all places, thrilled me to bits, and I told Tim and Emma this.
“Technically, I’m a railway photographer,” said Tim.
“I’m just bonkers,” added Emma.
Aren’t we all a little bit bonkers? Considering that we were spending our Sunday in a desolate station on the edge of Darlington, I think “bonkers” is an understatement.
Tim, at least, had an ulterior motive for being here. This being a Sunday, engineering work was taking place on the railway, and this line was busy with a steady procession of diverted trains. No sooner had we got off then a bright red DB Schenker loco roared through the station with a long freight train.
A few minutes later, a Transpennine Express service passed through, travelling at full speed, but just slowly enough that we could make out the driver looking at us quizzically.
Teesside Airport station is rudimentary to say the least. There is a footbridge, a small shelter on the Middlesbrough-bound platform, and that’s it. There is a timetable poster, but it fails to mention Teesside Airport station at all.
The A67 road runs right alongside the eastbound platform, but there is no exit on this side; the only way out is to the airport.
The station does, at least, have a working payphone, although it only accepts credit cards or Phonecards (remember them?) – the number is 01325 335406 if anyone fancies giving it a call.
I decided to explore the surrounding area and head out to the airport itself. Leaving Tim and Emma behind, I ventured outside.
A turning circle has been provided for vehicles to pick up and drop off, but it appeared not to have been used for some time. It was overgrown with weeds and the one way sign was chipped and faded. Under the threatening overcast sky, it all looked ever so slightly post-apocalyptic.
I followed the narrow, potholed access road. The airport runway was to my left, demarcated by an unfriendly barbed wire fence and aggressive security signs. A few small planes sat on the tarmac waiting for their next duty.
This was the part of the airport that normal passengers never see. I passed a flying school, the fire service training centre and the DHL cargo depot. A notice advertised skydiving flights. Although I stuck resolutely to the road, I started to feel like I was wandering in places that I shouldn’t be, and worried that a security guard would appear out of nowhere and harass me and make me delete my photos, because terrorism.
In the event, nobody stopped me at all. What did stop me in my tracks for a moment was this giant fence erected right across the access road. The airport terminal building was just beyond it, yet seemingly out of reach.
It’s not hard to see why air passengers abandoned the station. Even without the fence in the way, it’s a decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly walk from the station to the airport, along service roads with no pavements and poor street lighting. Imagine doing it with luggage.
Fortunately, a little further up I found a road to the St George’s Hotel, which is directly opposite the airport and is linked to it by a pedestrian footpath.
Outside the hotel was a memorial plaque to the pilots who had been based here during World War II (the airport started life as an RAF base). It was still covered with flowers from a recent service that had taken place there.
While researching the area a few weeks earlier, I had found the hotel’s web site. A quick e-mail to them had confirmed that yes, the bar was open to non-residents and I could stop by any time after 11am. I arrived at 11.05 and the hotel staff seemed slightly surprised to see me there; they had to open the bar up specifically for me. Maybe it was a little bit early for a drink, but I felt like celebrating.
I didn’t linger too long, as I wanted to make sure I was back at the station for the return train. I retraced my steps to the station. There were a couple of signs pointing the way, although they appeared very neglected.
Back at the station, Tim had enjoyed a productive hour of railway photography, capturing some great shots of the trains that had passed through.
I myself got one more photo; purely for completeness, here is a solo station sign shot.
And that was it. The second and final train of the week at Teesside Airport, the 1216 to Darlington, rolled into the station. The train driver peered out of his window, regarding the three of us with a look of sheer amazement as we got on board.
A passenger on the train was similarly astonished. “I have never, ever, seen anyone get on at that station,” she said.
“In all my time on this line, I’ve only ever seen one person get on there,” said the guard, “You’re numbers two, three and four.”
I basked in our new-found celebrity status, but it only lasted for the duration of the short ride back to Darlington, where the train terminated.
At Darlington, Emma bought me a coffee as a thank you. “I got a trip to York because of you,” she said. She didn’t seem to mind too much that the journey was via Teesside Airport. Then we said our goodbyes as they headed to York, while I sat down to wait for my Transpennine Express back to Liverpool.
The prospects for the station as an airport interchange look bleak at present. The airport’s passenger numbers have plummeted, and at the moment the only regular flights are to Amsterdam and Aberdeen. In fact, the airport’s slogan is now “Teesside Airport: We Only Fly To Places Beginning With ‘A'” (NB: I made this up). The half-empty car park outside the terminal building told its own story.
The once a week return journey is, in fact, the only public transport to the airport – the bus service was withdrawn in 2012. Travelling Wolf on Twitter has pointed out that there is a bus which doesn’t quite reach the airport but nevertheless still gets closer than the train.
There are plans afoot to develop the area around the airport with new housing and commercial buildings, and as part of this the station may be relocated further west, to a site just off the airport access road. As with so many of these schemes, it has to wait its turn in the queue for funding, so Teesside Airport station, with its irrelevant name and irrelevant service, will remain, for now at least.
For some, Teesside Airport is held up as an example of all that’s wrong with our country’s transport policy. For me though, it will always have more positive associations. I slumped into my first class seat with a smile on my face. For a while, earlier this year, I had been wondering whether this Station Master project was worth it, and I had been thinking of packing the whole thing in. After this North East excursion, though, I was feeling invigorated, and my main thought was: where should I go next?