THE “Back on Track” campaign to bring the Hitachi factory to Newton Aycliffe is one of the most proud, and most successful, campaigns The Northern Echo has been involved with in recent decades, and so it is desperately sad to see that the factory could be nearing the end of the line.

The situation today is reminiscent of the early 2010s when, like today, there didn’t seem to be a national strategy for procuring trains.

Hitachi had been the preferred bidder to build the £7.5bn next generation of InterCity trains since 2005 but when the Conservative-led coalition was elected in 2010, it reviewed all massive projects as it launched “the age of austerity”. It wondered whether buying trains “off the shelf” from France was a cheaper option that getting them homegrown.

The Northern Echo: Hitachi Back on Track, September 21, 2010So “Back on Track” was launched with two main aims: firstly, to persuade the Government that any new trains for British railways should be made in Britain and, secondly, that they should be made in a new factory in Newton Aycliffe.

Hitachi had chosen Aycliffe after looking at 33 sites, and its Japanese owners rather liked the fact that it was beside the 1825 trackbed of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the railway which had got the world on track. The site would also mean the return of train-building to the region which, from Darlington to Shildon, had once employed thousands of workers.

And so the campaign was called “Back on Track” – not the most imaginative of titles, but the campaign didn’t really have a name until it became clear that one was needed as it was about to be discussed in the House of Commons. The title was dreamt up one day in the Echo offices and used the next by Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, at the Despatch Box in London.

The campaign was led by the then MP for Sedgefield, Phil Wilson, and involved politicians of all political persuasions, Durham County Council, the unions, the Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the property developer behind the Aycliffe site, and even celebrities like Duncan Bannatyne.

The Northern Echo: CONTRACT: Hundreds of jobs were secured as Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe won a £1.2bn deal

A key moment came in September 2010 when a report by the County Durham Development Company revealed that every £1 of Government money invested in the project would be turned into £48 in the local economy.

This chimed with the Prime Minister David Cameron’s desire to “rebalance the economy” – he wanted to boost areas like the North East so the nation was no longer so dependent on the south east. Ever wonder where Boris Johnson got the idea of “levelling up” from?

The Northern Echo: How The Northern Echo welcomed the Hitachi deal

As with all train stories, there were plenty of delays – but on March 1, 2011, Mr Hammond announced in the Commons that Aycliffe would be awarded a £4.5bn contract that would create 730 skilled jobs, as the Echo reported above.

Mr Hammond said: “I recognise the huge head of steam that there has been behind The Northern Echo’s campaign.”

An ecstatic Darlington MP, Jenny Chapman, tweeted from the chamber: “Philip Hammond – I could kiss you!!”.

The Northern Echo: Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech at the opening of the £82m Hitachi Rail Europe vehicle manufacturing facility in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday September 3, 2015. During the visitDavid Cameron opens the Hitachi factory in Newton Aycliffe

The factory was officially opened on September 3, 2015, in the presence of both Mr Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne. This was a clear sign of its importance in the Government’s rebalancing the economy project. A clear sign of its importance to local people was that it received nearly 16,000 applications for jobs in its first year.

Like many large manufacturing industries, contracts seem to come on a flood or drought basis. In January 2020, there was dismay when the Tyne and Wear local authorities granted a £362m contract to build new Metro trains to a Swiss company, Stadler, rather than to Aycliffe – Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, pointing out they were Labour-run local authorities, said it was an “absolutely disgraceful” decision leaving the local factory high and dry.

But then flood in December 2021, when Hitachi and the French company Alstom, which has a works in Derby that employs 3,000 people, won a £2.8bn contract to build 54 trains for HS2, starting in 18 months time.

Even though Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelled the northern leg of HS2 last year to save money, the southern leg from London to Birmingham will still need these trains, which will also run on the old lines north of Birmingham.

The Northern Echo: Rishi Sunak and Sedgefield MP Paul Howell visit Hitachi in Aycliffe in January 2023

Indeed, Mr Sunak visited the Aycliffe factory in January 2023 and hailed it as a “fantastic example of world class manufacturing happening right here in the North East”. He said: “That is what this Government is all about, supporting businesses like this to ensure we create jobs and opportunities across the UK.”

But it now seems that Aycliffe, and Derby, do not have enough work to sustain them until the flood of HS2 begins so they are reaching the end of the line.

Just like when the Back on Track campaign began, there seems not to be a national strategy for procuring trains.

The Government talks of “the future pipeline of (train-building) orders which we expect to remain strong in the coming years”, yet it isn’t able to ensure a steady trickle of orders down the pipeline to keep Hitachi’s head above water in the short term.

Surely, in a few months time, the first job of the newly elected North East mayor will not be to emulate Mr Houchen’s efforts at Teesworks in Aycliffe and invest public money into repurposing an industrial site that used to be a major employer?

And surely when construction on HS2 begins, an enterprising local newspaper, exasperated by the prospect of local trains being built at least partly abroad, won’t have to launch a “Back on Track II” campaign because it makes financial sense to support local manufacturing in a bid to rebalance the economy, level up the region or whatever buzzphrase is then in vogue?

The Northern Echo: David Cameron reading The Northern Echo's Hitachi souvenir edition.  David Cameron keeps on track with The Northern Echo