How re-opening an old railway line could transform Wensleydale

The Hawes branch of the Upper Wensleydale Railway was a perhaps surprising inclusion on the government's list of 50 rail schemes that could receive the next round of 'reverse Beeching' funding.

A steam train on static display at Hawes Station, which is now part of the Dales Countryside Museum and severed from the rail network
A steam train on static display at Hawes Station, which is now part of the Dales Countryside Museum and severed from the rail network

A campaign group has been active since 2018 to champion the reinstatement of the short stretch of railway that ran from Garsdale Station, on the Settle to Carlisle Line, to the market town of Hawes.

Until services were withdrawn in 1959, Hawes passengers could access Leeds, Skipton, Carlisle and Northallerton from their branch line, as both the Wensleydale Railway and the famous Settle to Carlisle route converged at Garsdale.

The remains of the branch line from Hawes that once led to Garsdale Station

Their bid is one of seven Yorkshire proposals that will now be considered by the Department for Transport's expert panel, which will decide which of the 50 submissions are eligible for a £50,000 grant to go towards a feasibility study - the first step in the long journey towards re-opening a line.

Many of the schemes focus on improving commuter links between communities that have been cut off from nearby cities since the 1960s, restricting access to jobs markets and educational opportunities. Yet the Hawes branch always served a relatively isolated area and although local residents are expected to benefit, re-opening the six-mile section would be a major boost for the tourism industry.

Its supporters argue that restoration is realistic and attainable because the trackbed remains (it has been protected from development by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority), as do several viaducts and bridges and even Hawes Station itself, which has been preserved and is part of the Dales Countryside Museum.

Reinstatement would certainly open up a range of connections to travellers. Hawes - home to the Wensleydale Creamery - is a popular tourist destination, and visitors could use the train to reach another 'honeypot' area within the National Park, the Three Peaks, via the Settle to Carlisle Line from Garsdale.

Appersett Viaduct and many other bridges and structures from the line survive

Garsdale lost its link to the Wensleydale Railway in the Beeching cuts, but a group of enthusiasts have restored the line from Redmire to Northallerton and run it as a heritage attraction. They eventually hope to reinstate the section from Redmire to Garsdale, meaning a through route from Hawes all the way to the East Coast Main Line is a possibility.

If successful, the Upper Wensleydale Railway Association envisage that Hawes would be served by Northern's trains between Manchester, Blackburn and Clitheroe, which could be extended to reach Settle via Hawes and the Three Peaks.

The MP for Richmond, Rishi Sunak, is a backer of the proposal as the Chancellor of the Exchequer's constituency includes Hawes.

The UWRA's chair Andrew Longworth believes the 60 years since the line shut have seen huge changes in demand for public transport.

"We've got a long list of supporters from across the region. It was always a remote line; if you look at timetables form the 1950s, usage was low and it was slowly run down. But the whole issue of transport has changed completely since them. People want those long-distance connections and for places to be joined up now.

"We have had positive feedback from people living in Hawes who would want to use the railway. It would bring further opportunities to this part of the world, as people do travel lengthy distances to the cities from here. It would serve their social needs as this area is only accessible by road.

"We're looking at two or three different usage patterns, and one of those is to make tourist traffic more sustainable. That's why we have identified the Manchester - Clitheroe service; it's relatively undeveloped and there have been discussions before about improving links to Lancashire. Serving Hawes and Settle would be an addition, rather than a diversion, and open up a large catchment area with the potential for a lot of new journeys."

On a practical level, there are few major physical obstacles to re-laying track, other than a couple of missing bridges. Mr Longworth believes the Dales Countryside Museum and businesses which rent the old station could co-exist with a modern rail service.

"We believe it to be a feasible scheme. There are a few hurdles, and we would need a detailed ground survey and a business case first. Hawes Station is the favoured location for the station - the branch line would not completely take over the station and its other uses could remain.

"We do share the ambition of the Wensleydale Railway (to link Garsdale with Redmire again), but that is a huge undertaking and it has not progressed so far. It would be a piece-by-piece project.

"We've still got Appersett Viaduct, the biggest structure on the line and one that really wants to be used again!"

The government will announce which of the 50 proposals have been successful in winning £50,000 from the Ideas Fund - Restoring Your Railways pot at the end of the summer.