Five volunteers suspended from North Yorkshire Moors Railway after station group accused of 'carrying out unauthorised work and taking safety risks'

Five volunteers at the North Yorkshire Moors Railway have been suspended following an investigation into the unregulated activities of a group running one of the line’s historic stations.

Since 1970, the Levisham Station Group has operated semi-independently of NYMR management, and has been under the control of the same lead volunteer for over 40 years. The 60 members have access to their own overnight accommodation at the site and control their own accounts, in common with other stations. However, in spring 2023 serious concerns were raised by senior staff about how Levisham was being run.

The volunteers were accused of completing ‘unauthorised’ works, not following instructions, overstepping boundaries and taking operational and safety risks, according to a confidential report published by the NYMR and seen by The Yorkshire Post.

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Although meetings were held in early June and ‘boundaries agreed’, by the end of the month all volunteer activities at Levisham were suspended due to further concerns and a full review was commissioned.

Levisham Station during a 1960s event. The station was built in the 1840s, closed with the rest of the line in 1965 and re-opened as a heritage concern in 1973Levisham Station during a 1960s event. The station was built in the 1840s, closed with the rest of the line in 1965 and re-opened as a heritage concern in 1973
Levisham Station during a 1960s event. The station was built in the 1840s, closed with the rest of the line in 1965 and re-opened as a heritage concern in 1973

Allegations made by managers were that volunteers had built a turntable for trains without permission; that they were charging for use of the free cottage and offering it as short break accommodation; that volunteers were abusive and threatening towards staff; that ‘unknown’ persons were part of the group without going through the official recruitment process; that privately owned rail wagons had been connected to NYMR utilities and that parts of the station had been vandalised – with locks broken and superglued, ‘values’ booklets ripped up and a framed photograph defaced. ‘Misleading’ claims that Levisham Station was to close were also reportedly made.

The report accepted that ‘NYMR culture has exacerbated the situation and that there were missed opportunities to widely engage with volunteers’ during a period of change when the heritage line was transitioning from being mainly volunteer-run, as it originally was in the 1960s, to being a professionally managed organisation.

There was also no official framework in place for how station groups should operate; yet the managers leading the review found that the group ‘disregarded the needs of the NYMR, safety and compliance’ and that there was a ‘reasonable expectation of compliance’ despite the lack of a framework.

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The authors added that the group ‘operated as an entity themselves’, had a ‘culture of silo working and disengagement with the NYMR’ and that work referred to in their own blog had been carried out contrary to management instructions.

The five suspended volunteers were disciplined because they did not ‘embody values and actively went against them’. Two, who had been involved in an incident in which staff were allegedly threatened at the station, were told that they would not be allowed to return. A further two were asked to go through the recruitment and training process again if they wished to rejoin the group. The fifth, who had allegedly with-held account books and keys, would be banned permanently unless they were handed over, and police advice would be sought if they refused to do so.

The report concluded: “The group is valuable but cannot be permitted to operate in the same way. This is a very sad situation that has caused unnecessary stress to all concerned. It was the culmination of multiple concerns. Trust has broken down and the management no longer has confidence in the group’s leadership.”

Responding to the document, the Levisham Station Group supplied examples of collaborative projects that members had taken part in with other stations, and claimed that only turntable pit cleaning and repairs had been undertaken rather than a new one being built.

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They said they had provided annual bank statements and had never been asked to submit their donations ledger for inspection. On the subject of the cottage, they pointed out that it was rented by the volunteers from 1975 until the 1990s, when it was taken over by the railway and charging ended. However, the volunteers staying overnight contributed to a ‘kitty’ fund for their own food and drink, as the station is not close to a shop. They denied that anyone had ever paid to use the building or stayed there as a holiday.

The volunteers also denied knowledge of an anonymous phone call in which someone threatened to ‘kneecap’ managers and also said they did not know who had damaged the locks or booklets. The poster was apparently defaced as a ‘joke’ several years ago during a Railway in Wartime event.

An independent group of shareholders submitted proof of ownership of the wagons stabled at Levisham, which were used for storage and workshop space. The group, Farworth Area Rolling Stock Team, complained that NYMR management had removed them to Pickering without notice during the investigation, despite them having been listed in railway stock books as being in the possession of the shareholders rather than the NYMR.

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway said: “We can confirm that a review and investigation was held regarding the activities of some volunteer members of the Levisham Station Group. Currently a small group of volunteers have been asked not to return in a voluntary capacity. As this is an internal matter and part of an ongoing police investigation, we are not able to make any further comment.

"We are working hard to ensure the remaining volunteers are supported and we appreciate that this has been a difficult time.”