Wensleydale Railway reveal plans for their new Pacers - including bike trains and James Herriot tours

The arrival of three recently-retired Pacer trains could be the catalyst to revive the Wensleydale Railway after one of the most challenging years in the heritage line's history.

Wensleydale Railway finance director Teresa Chapman with one of the Pacers at Leeming Bar
Wensleydale Railway finance director Teresa Chapman with one of the Pacers at Leeming Bar

Two Class 142 and one Class 144 units that ended their operational lives with Northern are now quietly sitting in the sidings at Leeming Bar Station as they await the next chapter in their story.

Derided when they formed commuter trains between the cities of the north, they face a future filled with appreciation and innovation thanks to railway's plans to make them an integral part of their service.

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There are currently three ex-Northern Pacers awaiting an overhaul and new livery before they go into service on the Wensleydale Railway

With operations planned to resume next Easter if all goes well, the rail-ready Pacers - after a winter overhaul - will go straight into action, with a Pacer-led midweek timetable as well as a Sunday morning shuttle between Leyburn and Redmire.

Directors believe the Pacers could appeal to new generations and audiences, thanks to their surprising suitability for workings on a tourist-dependent rural line.

They will be marketed to walkers and cyclists as part of a drive to capture the activity market, as their spacious interiors are ideal for bike storage and their large windows for panoramic views.

And they will play a key role in a series of All Creatures Great and Small-themed rail tours on the original Herriot Line - Finghall Station was the fictional Darrowby Station in the BBC series, and some external shots of Leyburn appear in the recent Channel Five adaptation.

The Pacers are the great hope for the line's immediate resumption of services

Wensleydale Railway director Richard Holt is enthusiastic about the Pacers' prospects at a time when major long-term projects have become shrouded in uncertainty after a year when the line generated little income. The low-maintenance 1980s throwbacks offer an immediate solution to get the railway back on its feet, and more could even be acquired.

"We're hoping to get up and running again by Easter. At first, there will be two midweek Pacer-led timetables, and a diesel-hauled Saturday service aimed more at enthusiasts with on-board catering. On Sundays, there will be an early morning Pacer to Leyburn and then shuttles between Leyburn and Redmire for the rest of the day.

"Visiting trains are a possibility in the summer, but this year has been very difficult, and having to cancel the Polar Express event was a cruel blow.

"We are going to target walkers and cyclists. The Pacers have purpose-built cycle storage areas that Northern installed, so they are really good for that, and with the double doors they're easy to get on and off. We can couple two together to double capacity.

"Eventually we'd like to strip the seats out of one to create a bike train, as ScotRail have done on the West Highland Line.

"The Herriot tours will be like a living museum event - we'll have actors playing the characters.The Pacers will take people to 'Darrowby' and we think they could be a real hit."

Mr Holt points out that the Pacers are perhaps better suited to their new surroundings than the commuter lines they became infamous on.

"They're inexpensive to run, and ideal for a 25mph line, We ran tests in February which were well-supported. They're a good ride - perhaps not on the 70mph lines they were used on before, but here they're fine.

"We are designing a training and safety programme for drivers and volunteers, and after inspections they'll be let loose. We're also going to paint them in heritage colours. One will have a British Railways provincial blue livery, and another a Merseyrail livery. Our Class 144 has just arrived from Keighley, where it was being stored during lockdown, earlier than expected, so we'll decide on a livery for that one too.

"We're even looking at getting a Class 143 - they're mostly in Wales and the south-west now, but they started their life in the north serving places like Saltburn and Whitby, With one of each main class, we could run gala days.

"There has been a massive response from enthusiasts to them. They're not to everyone's taste, but they can really attract people. The Pacer hatred was very media-driven, and people like Andy Burnham jumped on that. They weren't 21st-century trains, there's no Wifi or air conditioning, but they're very reliable and a lot of people have soft spots for them.

"We are embracing them. We are still a developing railway and they are cost-effective for us, and perfect for our scenery with their big windows."

Mr Holt is keenly aware that the railway must become more than just a train ride to attract new visitors, and make the most of its location in some of the most scenic areas of the Dales.

"We'll put more walking routes on the website, and approach local pubs about working together for deals on food. If you take a train through from Leyburn to Redmire, the walk back is lovely, and I think people have really discovered the outdoors more this year. We want people to be entertained and see opportunities, rather than having to design a day out themselves."

In the longer term, the directors still hold out hope that a new bridge and track could extend the line a further three-quarters of a mile to Castle Bolton, where there was once a private station for the Lords Bolton, who still own the castle today and are keen to collaborate to draw more visitors to the fortress. One possibility is that the army, whose Royal Engineers recently funded track replacement and level crossing repairs as part of a training scenario exercise, could work with the railway again on the Castle Bolton extension.

West Coast Railways chairman David Smith, the businessman who now owns Aysgarth Station, is also a co-operative ally for the line. When Mr Smith bought Aysgarth, there were initially fears that the station would eventually become the terminus of a privately-run separate line along what was originally part of the Wensleydale Railway's full route before its closure in the 1950s.

Yet Mr Smith has loaned carriages and locomotives to his neighbours, and is keen to work together in future. The 'ghost' section between Aysgarth and Garsdale, via Askrigg and Hawes, has never been reinstated and directors have a long-held ambition to relay the track and open the old stations again in a part of the National Park with larger tourist flows. Reaching Garsdale again would allow the line to connect with the famous Settle to Carlisle route.

"We have a warm relationship with Mr Smith, and he is keen to extend the railway towards us. At the moment, renovating Aysgarth is his focus, but if we were to open it again, that would be the whole package for us and it would be an incredible railway."