The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is celebrating its 50th anniversary, but the history of the line goes much further back
When the Government decided to terminate rail services on the Pickering to Whitby line in 1965, they claimed that it was “uneconomic”. But no sooner had the line closed than the fight began to keep it alive. It was quite a struggle – first came the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Preservation Society, and then, through its determined efforts, came the partial reopening on May 1, 1973.
Fifty years on, the NYMR carries more passengers than any other heritage railway in the UK. It owns 18 miles of track, and there are a further six miles to the north, onward to Whitby from Grosmont, on shared Network Rail track. Behind the scenes, it is also one of the biggest employers in the area, with 100 full time-staff, dozens of seasonal workers and around 800 volunteers. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the line has a packed itinerary of events and services.
Many of today’s visitors are perhaps unaware of the line’s place in railway history. Today it is owned and run by a charitable trust, but, when the first passengers travelled on the Whitby and Pickering Railway in 1836, they weren’t being pulled along by a steam train. The line – planned five years earlier by the railway genius George Stephenson – used horses to give it traction. Stephenson’s brief had been to give added clout to Whitby, then one of Britain’s most important ports.
There had to be an easier and much quicker way to get goods from the quayside to inland destinations, and he came up with the solution. Instead of scores of individual wagons trundling up over the difficult terrain of the moors or North Yorkshire, he would deliver an unbroken direct track of supply.
It was the navvies, however, who were the real heroes. For a start, there was the notorious Fen Bog to cross, an area of fetid deep marsh (they used a bed of timber and fleeces from local sheep, and piled one on top of the other for months, until they had a steady base), then they has to cut a tunnel through solid rock at Grosmont – it’s 110 metres long, and is one of the oldest in the UK. Then there was the little matter of the extraordinarily steep incline at Beck Hole. The solution here was a rope-worked pulley system.
In the first year of operation, the railway carried 11,000 tons of stone from Grosmont to Whitby, and some 6,000 passengers. In the next century came full steam operation, an extension of the line from Pickering to Malton, and then on to York and Scarborough. There were also a lot of name changes, as companies consolidated their grip on the network. The pioneering York and North Midland Railway took over in 1845, before becoming part of the North Eastern Railway a decade later. In 1923, it too was absorbed into one of the “big four”, the London and North Eastern Railway.
Finally, in 1948, came nationalisation, and British Rail. You could still easily catch a train from York, puff amiably along to Malton, change there, and thence northwards through the fields to Pickering, and ultimately to Whitby. In the early Sixties new BR chairman Dr. Richard Beeching was asked to deliver a report on what could be done to solve the business haemorrhaging cash and the line was earmarked for closure. Beeching could never have imagined the grit and determination of Yorkshire folk, and others across the UK who were, almost overnight, deprived of their rail services.
John Bruce is the station master at Goathland and now lives nearby – he retired here after a long career on the railways, ending as the commercial manager for the section that dealt with the transportation of steel from places like Redcar and Scunthorpe. He describes the decline of that industry as “heart-breaking” but what has lifted his spirits is his involvement with the NYMR. Born in Darlington, his first job as a teenager was as “a humble clerk” at the town’s station. And he moved to Yorkshire for one simple reason – he wanted to be part of the team who were getting the NYMR started.
John, 68, can vividly recall those early days, and the baby steps of the new enterprise. “We had a couple of shunting engines, and a few carriages and trucks, and that was about it. I don’t think that anyone ever thought that the day would come when we would be able to run such magnificent engines as Mallard on the line, and that we would grow to have around 800 volunteers giving up their time on a regular basis.”
John started by learning the vital skills needed by a signalman, and progressed up the ranks. With the NYMR, everyone seems to have to know more than a little bit about a lot of things. The staff and volunteers, in today’s description, are all “multi-taskers”. John uses the word “versatile”, adding: “One of the nicest things of all is the interaction with our visitors. We get all sorts, and don’t think for a second that they are all mad-keen steam enthusiasts and specialists. These are, in the vast majority, people out for the day, or on their holiday, who just want to have the experience of seeing, or riding on, a proper working railway.
“It’s fun – and very different. The enthusiasts get their opportunities with events like our steam gala in September. People who loved Heartbeat on TV still come in their hundreds, and there was a whole new interest when some of the Harry Potter sequences were filmed on the line.”
Terry Newman is another long-serving member of the team. He’s now 78, and will be retiring from driving steam trains on May 1, after more than half a century on the footplate. In that time, Terry has met just about everyone you can think of – from King Charles and Queen Camilla and the Duchess of Kent to a whole bevy of Blue Peter presenters.
Terry drives all the way from Stockton, “the birthplace of the railways”, to the NYMR for shifts which might start before 7am and end at 8pm – with breaks in between. His love of all things steam began when, as a lad, he started as a trainspotter on the platform. “I suppose that the real ‘trigger moment’ for me was when two friends and I were allowed into the van of a local train, and after a few free rides, this railwayman said, ‘Why don’t you want to ride on the footplate?’ and we said ‘We didn’t know we could ask!’ And we were all allowed to time after time. We did it so much that they all got to know our names. Nothing like health and safety back then.
“The really odd thing is that the pair of engines that we rode on as lads are now owned by the NYMR, there’s a Q6 Class and a J27. Neither have names, they never did. But it’s ironic that my whole life with the railways seems to have come around in a full circle…”
Will he Terry saying farewell to the NYMR? “No way! I’ll be still coming back, doing all sorts of other things. Once the railway is in your blood, it’s there forever.”
NYMR 50th Anniversary Steam Gala, September 21-24, Heritage Open Days September 8-17. Throughout the Decades on October 14 and 15, and the NYMR Santa Specials run from November 25 until December 24, on selected dates.