Steamy romance: North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s 50 year labour of love

PIC: Richard Ponter
PIC: Richard Ponter
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As it celebrates a landmark anniversary, Phil Penfold boards the North Yorkshire Moors Railway to discover how we all fell back in love with steam.

First some facts and figures. The North Yorkshire Moors Railway might run to just 18 miles, but each year 350,000-odd people travel between its six stations. One of the county’s leading tourist attractions, it boasts more than a thousand volunteers, nearly a hundred paid workers and it’s also estimated to contribute £30m to the local economy. It’s a wonder though that the NYMR exists at all and the fact it does is down to a small group of people who back in June 1967 gathered to form a preservation society.

The line, which was opened in 1836, had fallen victim to Lord Beeching’s axe a few years earlier. Told to “rationalise” Britain’s railways, his report urged the closure of thousands of miles of track, including that which ran from Malton to Whitby, through communities like Goathland, Grosmont and Kirby Misperton.

There were protests from those in the same plight all over the UK. In many places, the outcry went unheard, but not for the people of Pickering and district, who were convinced that their line, running through stunning National Park scenery, was not only viable but essential and could be a major magnet for tourists.

They were right. As well as the thousands who step on board each year, a similar number stop alongside the tracks to watch one of the historic engines chug past.

They don’t just come from this country, but from all over the world. In fact, one of the volunteer engine drivers leaves his home in New Zealand every year just to stand on one of his beloved footplates.

The official opening of the revived railway by the Duchess of Kent came on May 1, 1973, after years of delicate negotiations with bodies like British Rail, vigorous fundraising and sheer hard work which continues today.

“I walk the line every week,” says current NYMR Trust chairman John Bailey, who will be stepping down at the end of this year following a decade of service. “I pop into the places that make the NYMR tick, from the workshops and the train-sheds, through to ticket offices, repair depots, signal boxes and tearooms. The feedback I get is invaluable. For us as an operation – and for our visitors.”

What is possibly not appreciated as much as it should be, is the knock-on effect that the NYMR has to the area it serves. For every pound spent on buying a ticket to ride, several more find their way into the tills of nearby shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants and other attractions.

“People don’t turn up just to savour the smell of steam, but they have lunches, enjoy a pint, buy food for picnics, and investigate the villages and towns,” says 70-year-old John. “It is an invisible, but hugely lucrative and thriving boost to the economy.

“When I first started with the organisation I knew next to nothing about engineering. I had been a corporate lawyer all my working life, at home and overseas, and I thought that it might be nice to volunteer with the NYMR as maybe a ticket inspector.

“Someone took me up to Levisham, and said: ‘Ever thought about doing signal work?’ I looked around at this bewildering collection of levers and lights and thought: ‘No way, this is far too complex’. But, by the end of that day, I was hooked.”

John has been pulling the levers ever since and while he and his wife are moving to Worcester to be closer to their family, he still plans on keeping his place on the signalman rota.

“I still pinch myself that I am allowed to do it – it is a tremendous privilege. I thought that I’d be able to offer my legal background to the board, but, if you’d ever told me that I’d have been standing in a signal box I’d have thought that you had taken leave of your senses”.

There are scores of occupations represented in the running of the NYMR, filled by young, old and middle-aged. Among the 1,000-plus volunteers are teachers, dinner ladies, accountants, students, doctors, dentists, packers, mechanics, a judge and even the High Sheriff of Edinburgh, who comes south regularly to take up his duties.

“It is an obsession for us all, but in the very nicest way,” says John. “It is a testament to the loyalty of the staff, that there are now no less than 48 people who have each served 45 years with the line.”

One of the many youngsters on board is Douglas McNicholl, whose mother Sharon is also on staff at Pickering. He is just 17, but is already gaining experience on the footplate as a trainee fireman, and in the dining cars, where he can be found washing the pots one day and offering silver service at tables the next.

“He loves it,” says Sharon. “He’s at college, but this involvement with the railway is teaching him all sorts of other skills – social as well as mechanical. His dad is also a driver here, so we really are a railway family.”

Sometimes it is a wonder that the trains depart at all – everyone is constantly bombarded with questions. It can be something very technical, such as the precise specifications of the engine and her inner workings, through to “why do you need special steps up into the carriages when the train is at Pickering station?” The answer to that query is simple – the station, built in the early 1850s to designs by George Townsend Andrews, is a listed building, and cannot be altered. Back then, the platforms were lower than those today, and the carriages had steps that unfolded down to their level.

As a living, working railway, the NYMR needs constant maintenance and overhauling. The grand old lady is showing her age – the famous wrought-iron footbridges at Goathland (seen so many times in TV series like Heartbeat) are fast approaching the end of their useful life, and will need to be replaced with replicas. That is going to cost a lot of money. The recent refit of a steam engine cost £750,000 alone.

“You only really know what the problems are going to be when everything is stripped down to the last nut, bolt and valve,” says John. “And then, 10 to one, it generally happens that a lot more work needs doing than was first imagined. The reality of how much it costs to keep an engine running properly is absolutely staggering”.

The yearly turnover of the NYMR is around £6.4m. Or it was – last year. That figure puts it squarely in the small to middle-scale business category.

So, next time you pass the signal box at Levisham, it could be John up there – give him a wave as you pass, he’ll like that. Or it could be Douglas on the footplate or serving you your lunch. Make time to say “hello”. If the NYMR has made your day, that’ll make theirs as well.

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the North Yorkshire Moors Railways Trust, the line is holding its first “behind the scenes” event. Taking place on May 20 and 21, the event will showcase all the work that goes into keeping the wheels turning. There will be a chance to see the steam crane in action at Grosmont, learn about the infrastructure and bridges at Goathland, and meet the archive team at Pickering to find out more about the railway’s past half a century.

Organisers are giving away two family passes to Yorkshire Post readers and to stand a chance of winning answer this question...

What year was the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Trust formed?

Send your answers together with your name, address and telephone number to NYMR Competition, Yorkshire Post, Features Department, No 1 Leeds, 26 Whitehall Road, Leeds LS12 1BE or email sarah.freeman@ypn.co.uk. The closing date for entries is May 6.