A VOLUNTARY group of railway enthusiasts is offering to step in and host talks to find a compromise in the increasingly bitter dispute over the future of the historic Locomotion No 1 engine.

In a strongly worded statement, the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway express dismay at the breakdown of talks between the National Railway Museum at York and Darlington council over where the 196-year-old engine should be sited.

Locomotion No 1, which pulled the first train on the line on September 27, 1825, is owned by the NRM but has been on display in Darlington since 1857. With the 200th anniversary fast approaching, the NRM wants to place the engine at the centre of its revamped Locomotion museum in Shildon, where the inaugural journey started, whereas Darlington wants it to be at the heart of its Railway Quarter plans revolving around Head of Steam museum.

The Northern Echo revealed on Saturday that talks between the two parties had broken down, amid acrimony, and the NRM was planning to move the engine in early March.

Now the chairman of the Friends, Niall Hammond, has offered his services as an “honest broker” to find a compromise.

In a strongly worded statement, the Friends, who have deliberately held a neutral stance on Locomotion No 1, said: “We firmly believe that if the bicentenary celebrations are going to be the greatest success, and leave the widest possible legacy, all interested parties along the whole 26 miles of the railway from Witton Park to Stockton have to work together.

“The railway was all about improving communication across our region in the early 19th Century so it is extremely disappointing that in the early 21st Century, the parties are not able to reach an amicable agreement.

“Both Darlington and Shildon have very strong claims to Locomotion No 1, but really the engine belongs to neither of them. It belongs to the whole line.

“The idea that Locomotion No 1 has to be rooted permanently in one place is antiquated – and, of course, in its working days, it travelled from place to place.

“There is no reason why it can’t do so again, and we understand the two sides were close to agreeing this a month ago. Indeed, 100 years ago, Locomotion No 1 was a global superstar, touring the world, and perhaps there are times when it should be out there again, acting as an ambassador for the history of our area. It would help us positively promote our heritage and economy to the world, and inspire our communities and children to engineering and technical excellence.”

The Friends group was formed a decade ago to promote and preserve what remains of the S&DR, which is regarded as the first modern railway in the world. Mr Hammond has written to Judith McNichol, director of the NRM, and Cllr Heather Scott, leader of Darlington Borough Council, offering to be an “honest broker”.

The Friends statement concludes: “We applaud the ambition of the museums at Shildon and Darlington to improve their facilities and give No 1 the prominence it deserves, but we urge the parties to come together and find a compromise that benefits the whole of the line, one that recognises the wider cultural importance of No 1 and ensures that 2025 is a great celebration of the S&DR as the line that got the world on track.”