No argument this time as work begins again to repair Ribblehead Viaduct

It took just seven months to get the builders in, and as scaffolding towers began to appear along the Ribblehead Viaduct yesterday, campaigners could only marvel at how the sands of time had shifted.

The Winter Cumbrian Mountain Express steams over the Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle Carlisle line. Picture by Bruce Rollinson
The Winter Cumbrian Mountain Express steams over the Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle Carlisle line. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

Network Rail will unveil on Monday the £2.1m programme of work it has set in motion to preserve what is perhaps Yorkshire’s signature landmark for another generation.

But the party had started without them, as politicians and conservationists alike celebrated the relative ease with which the project had taken off.

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It had taken the granting of “listed building consent”, without which no alterations to a structure of historic interest can be carried out, before the repairs to Ribblehead could be signed off. It was rubber-stamped after a modicum of discussion about the fine details, but no dissent.

A column of construction workers haul scaffolding poles at Ribblehead Viaduct

It was very different to what happened three decades ago, when the momentum was in the other direction, said Mark Rand, a campaigner from that time who is now vice-president of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line.

“No-one would have guessed then that we would still be here 30 years later,” he said. “It seemed certain then that it was going to close for good.”

It was a Government U-turn which in 1989 spared England’s most scenic railway from the axe. The line through the Yorkshire Dales, over the Victorian viaduct and on to Carlisle, had been declared surplus to requirements by the still-nationalised British Rail, and a concerted campaign to save it seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. The viaduct itself was said to be beyond economic repair.

It was Michael Portillo, then a transport minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, who took even campaigners by surprise when he persuaded his boss to overrule the railway managers. Mr Portillo is now president of the Friends of the Line.

“The whole background is so different these days,” Mr Rand said. “Against the grain of everyone’s expectation, the line is now an important part of the UK’s rail system.”

The original repairs to the viaduct were less costly than British Rail had estimated, and the latest work is less ambitious still, said Mr Rand.

“This is routine maintenance of the sort you would expect for a structure that has been exposed to the elements for all these years. There was never a suggestion this time around that the viaduct was under threat. It would be extremely difficult now, politically and strategically, to even think of closing it.”

Network Rail, which now owns Ribblehead, will re-point mortar joints and replace broken stones on each of the 24 arches that make up the quarter-mile crossing over Batty Moss. Laboratory analysis of mortar from the viaduct will ensure that the new compound will match the original as closely as possible, and the work is expected to be finished by the end of February.

Phil James, who as north-west route director for Network Rail is the successor to the 1980s engineers who wanted it closed, said the viaduct was “one of the crown jewels of Victorian civil engineering” and that it was “a privilege” to look after it.

“We know the structure is incredibly important both locally and internationally, and we want to give it the care and attention that it deserves so it can be enjoyed by future generations,” he said.

Jim Munday, a member of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, said the discussions this time had centred on how – not if – the repair work should be done.

“In the 1980s the cost of repairing the viaduct was being used as an excuse to close the railway,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “Back then it was a question of cold, hard economics, But economics then and now are very different things. Nowadays we are in the conservation business. So it was a question of negotiating with various authorities to get the repairs and the structure right.”

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