In the fourth in our series on Yorkshire’s heritage railways, Andrew Vine finds one of the most scenic pushing to reopen a historic route to help rural communities prosper.
THE trains are running again through one of the most glorious stretches of Yorkshire’s countryside, but at a hefty cost. The price of getting the Wensleydale Railway back on track after a major landslip on a remote and inaccessible embankment closed it from October last year until this spring, cutting off its income from passengers, was £100,000, which is a very big ask for the small organisation that runs it.
It was the last thing the railway needed, but for Ken Monkman and Nigel Park, the chairman and general manager of the line that runs through some of Yorkshire’s most iconic landscapes, it was just another challenge along the way.
There are more to come, because the Wensleydale Railway is a work in progress, its 16-mile route from Leeming Bar to Redmire just the first stage in a grand plan.
One day, they hope, the line will push on through Aysgarth, Askrigg and Hawes to Garsdale on the Settle-Carlisle line, restoring a lost 40-mile link to the East Coast main line at Northallerton.
Ken has set himself the challenge of collecting small change from passengers until it stretches for 40 miles as a symbolic gesture of where the railway wants to go. So far, laid out in lines on the platform, it spans eight miles – quite an achievement but symbolic of the long journey ahead.
For now, though, Ken and Nigel are concentrating on the next piece in the jigsaw of putting that link back together – the reopening of a stretch of line that takes the railway into Northallerton, extending the route to 22 miles, which should happen this year.
Wensleydale is a relatively recent arrival on the map of heritage railways, having started running passenger services only in 2003, after a long drawn-out decline in the line’s fortunes.
British Rail stopped passenger trains as long ago as 1954, but it hung on until 1992 by carrying limestone from the quarry at Redmire to British Steel on Teesside, then getting another reprieve thanks to the Ministry of Defence deciding it would be useful to convey military equipment to Catterick Garrison.
That kept it alive long enough for the Wensleydale Railway Association to rally support and go through the process of taking it over.
The railway stands slightly apart from Yorkshire’s other heritage lines, which are principally visitor attractions, because the case made and accepted for saving it was about economics. As with the campaign to keep the Settle-Carlisle route open, the argument was for its value in supporting rural regeneration in an area where economic difficulties lie behind the idyllic landscapes. And unlike the other preserved lines, steam-hauled trains are relatively rare, with the bulk of the services being run by vintage diesel engines.
Eleven years of hard work have gone into bringing the line back to life. “When we got hold of this, it had been stripped back in the early 80s to a 22-mile-long siding,” said Nigel, 59, formerly a divisional director for mobile phone giant O2, who became involved with the railway when he produced a leaflet for it.
Ken, 54, who runs his own driving school, added: “When we took over we had to put all the platforms back. We’ve opened two new stations and we’ve still got more challenges. We’ve got signalling to put in, we’ve got more volunteers to recruit, we’ve got a bridge to put back in to get back to Aysgarth, and that’s just for starters.
“There’s lots of rolling stock that needs fixing, there are lots of locomotives that keep arriving. We just keep trying to chip away at things because the problem is money.” What keeps them chipping away is the tantalising prospect of re-establishing the whole route.
Nigel added: “It’s probably the most exciting railway reinstatement project in the country. It will cost millions and millions, but if it’s done at some point it will be something very special.
“We recognise that most our income comes from tourism, but as time goes on and the railway develops, the number of passengers as opposed to visitors is bound to increase, which is very different to a lot of railways.
“It’s a business and we have to get to a point where it stands on its own feet.”
The railway attracts 45,000 visitors a year, and could bring even more in if it was able to offer more of the magic ingredient for heritage lines – steam. “Steam is a huge draw and it does bring extra visitors in, but it’s very expensive to run and from our point of view, I don’t think we could sustain this as a steam railway,” said Nigel.
“We’re too late on the scene in terms of getting the locomotives and the people to maintain them, but when we do run steam, it produces maybe 25 per cent more passengers, but it is costly.”
The railway has a devoted band of about 200 volunteers, for whom its potential to boost the Dales economy is compelling. Nigel added: “The thing about the Wensleydale Railway which is quite different to a lot of lines is that it’s a very broad church. We have people committed to it because they’re committed to rural regeneration, we have people involved because they like the aspect of green transport, we have people who are raving cranks for diesel locomotives, and people who just like the camaraderie.”
Helping the communities of the Dales was the reason engine driver Paul Warren, 39, who lives in one of the disused stations along the route, became involved.
“It’s about giving something back to the local community. I live next to the line, so once it started running they wanted volunteers, mainly with mechanical skills to keep the ageing rolling stock going,” he said.
“I came here originally as an engineer, but moved onto the operational side as the old generation of British Rail drivers got to the point where they didn’t want to do it any more, so they trained the next generation of drivers.”
Paul persuaded his mother, Judy, to become involved as well, first as a level-crossing keeper and then as ticket inspector. They are just one of a number of close-knit family groups committed to doing everything they can to keep the railway runming and expanding. Nigel’s wife, Maureen, is involved, as is her father, Ken.
So is Ken Monkman’s daughter Robynne and her partner, Rob Williamson, a volunteer guard, and his father, Tim.
Guard Richard Walker, 66, has a closeness to the railway too. He’s been a volunteer for two-and-a-half years, but worked for British Rail in the Dales for 30 years. “It’s in my blood,” he said. “Never known anything else.”
Last weekend the railway played its part in the Tour de France’s Grand Départ by laying on extra trains to get spectators up to Leyburn, keeping countless cars off the road.
It’s also possible that as British forces return from Afghanistan and equipment comes back to Catterick, the Ministry of Defence will once more call on the line to help transport it. They are illustrations of the argument to save the line, that it can help the Dales economy, and reinforces the determination of those involved to keep chipping away, collecting pennies until they stretch for 40 miles and the entire route is reopened.
“It’s a hell of a challenge as well as a great opportunity,” said Nigel. “There’s huge potential. It’s what gets me out of bed in a morning.”