Scarborough's North Bay Railway - 90 years old and still going strong

When Scarborough’s North Bay Railway opened on May 23, 1931, it did so to a fanfare befitting such a grand occasion in the seaside town.

Steve Johnson, the railway’s general manager. (Picture: Tony Johnson).

The miniature railway was part of the brand new Pleasure Gardens that would eventually include a water chute, open air theatre and boating lake.

However, as Steve Johnson, the railway’s general manager today, points out, things didn’t quite go to plan. “The first train left at two o’clock and promptly broke down,” he says.

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Despite this inauspicious start, the railway quickly became popular with locals and tourists alike. “To begin with there was only one locomotive, Neptune, and five coaches and it proved so popular they bought the second locomotive, Triton, the following year, and another set of five coaches,” says Steve.

The North Bay Railway, seen here in 2018. (Richard Ponter).

Two more diesel hydraulic locomotives were added, built by Hudswell Clarke of Leeds in the 1930s, and all are still in working order.

The narrow-gauge system runs between Peasholm Park and Scalby Mills, mainly carrying tourists and is just shy of a mile long, taking you through parkland, past the Scarborough Open Air Theatre, and up the hill towards Scalby Mills Station with sea views on one side taking in North Bay and Scarborough Castle.

“The story goes that the area was known as Hogdson’s Slack, which is a natural amphitheatre, and one day somebody was playing golf and they hit the ball and shouted ‘fore’ and it echoed all around the valley, and that’s where the idea of having an open air theatre came from,” says Steve.

“Nobody knows where the idea of having the railway came from but it was always part of the plan. There were different descriptions of how it should run and various railway companies put in tenders to build the trains and the track, and they settled on what we have today.”

The railway, seen here in 1960, has been going for 90 year. (YPN).

Due to its design it travels at a fairly sedate pace. “It’s a short run with very tight curves so we don’t go fast.” Even so, tragedy struck on July 10, 1932, just a year after the line opened, when a head-on collision killed engine driver Herbert Carr and injured 31 passengers.

The railway recovered and grew in popularity up until the Second World War when it was closed, due to its location in the Coastal Defence Area, and didn’t reopen until Easter weekend in 1945.

The line was owned by Scarborough Corporation and later Scarborough Council and faced the prospect of being pensioned off in the mid-1990s to make way for the resort’s ill-fated £250m Zenith scheme – an ambitious plan to transform the area into a futuristic entertainment complex – only for that project to be derailed.

Then in 2007 it was taken over by its first private owner, David Humphreys, and during his tenure passenger numbers have risen from around 80,000 a year to nudging 110,000.

Driver Paul Bailey working on Poseidon in the engine shed. (Tony Johnson).

In March this year Humphreys sold the business to John Kerr and Peter Bryant, who have run the Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway since 2014. He did so having left his mark by upgrading the track with new station buildings and lakeside attractions and introducing the new steam locomotive, Georgina.

The steam engine was the first of its kind to run at North Bay. “It’s funny because the newest engine is using the oldest technology,” says Steve. “The original locos are still going, they’ve had new engines put in and they each do about 4,000 miles a year, which for miniature trains is a lot.”

Pre-Covid, at the height of the summer season the railway carried up to 500 people a day. “The railway is not as popular as it used to be when all the hotels here were packed, but it is still busy,” says Steve. “We’re up there with the busiest heritage railways in the country. A lot of places would dream of having that many people.”

As with many tourist attractions, 2020 was a difficult year for the railway with visitor numbers down by around 30 per cent. Despite this, they did manage to reopen. “We must have been one of the only railways in the country to run our normal summer timetable last year,” he adds.

Steve grew up in the town and for him the railway has been part and parcel of his life for as far back as he can remember. “It’s been my dream job since I was a kid. I’ve always lived locally and always been involved in the railway,” he says.

“When it was under council ownership my dad used to bring me down every Sunday to go on it and we got to know all the staff, some of whom are still here. I probably used to do their head in but I would knock about and try to help them. I’d turn up and I’d dry the seats whenever it was raining and things like that.”

He started working properly as a volunteer in 2007 when he was 17. “My dad was always interested in the railways so he encouraged me.”

Steve went on to become the railway’s first ever apprentice and worked his way up to where he is today. “You could say I’ve never really been away from the place.”

His many duties include guard and driver training and during the winter months he helps carry out repairs and maintenance work on the locomotives and the track.

“It’s very varied, that’s the beauty of this job. You’re not just tied to a desk and you do all sorts. I’m driving quite regularly so I get to do the enjoyable bits as well.”

The railway has two full-time maintenance staff (one of which is Steve) who are supported by a small band of dedicated volunteers. “They’re great and they come in each week to help us and they do it in horrible conditions sometimes and they do it for nowt but a sausage sandwich.”

With the Covid restrictions easing, the railway is back open and gearing up for the summer season and Steve is looking forward to it. “There’s a lot to be said for skipping to work. It’s never going to be the best paid job in Scarborough, but it’s probably one of the most enjoyable and that’s worth ten grand a year at least.”

His sense of job satisfaction is mirrored by the railway’s enduring popularity. “It’s for all ages and you still get generation after generation coming here. You have older people who came here when they were kids, and now they come here with their grandchildren,” he says.

“People still like good old-fashioned fun and I think it’s a bit like a step back in time. The railway has changed a bit but I think people like the fact that it hasn’t changed too much.

“It’s been entertaining families on days out in Scarborough since 1931, so it’s been going for 90 years and hopefully it will be going for another 90.”

For more information visit www.nbr.org.uk or call 01723 368791.