Wensleydale Railway will move away from steam as heritage line's future looks to diesel

The directors of the Wensleydale Railway have told their supporters that the North Yorkshire heritage line is unlikely to invest further in steam locomotives within the next few years.

Pacers at Leeming Bar Station

An update on future traction published on the railway's website confirmed that diesel rolling stock will become increasingly important.

Though the directors acknowledge the appeal steam travel holds for passengers, they believe that the expense of maintaining the engines and their operational limitations mean they are not suitable for regular workings on the 22 miles of track between Northallerton West and Redmire.

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Several steam locomotives have left the railway in the past year and others are soon to depart.

Steam services will still be provided for special events such as gala days, when locomotives will be hired, but the regular timetable will be operated by ex-Northern Pacers that arrived in 2020 and earlier first-generation diesel units.

The decision has allowed staff and volunteers to significantly overhaul and clear out the sidings at Leeming Bar, which had become congested with underused stock, to improve their appearance to complement the restoration of the station building.

When the line re-opens following lockdown, the first workings will be by the Pacers, which are 'rail-ready' and convenient to operate while the visitor attraction gets back on its feet.

The full statement reads: "There have been a large number of movements of locos and rolling stock to and from the railway in recent months with the departure of some long-standing residents and the arrival of new Pacer units fresh from the main line. A number of people have asked the question ‘are you becoming a Pacer only railway?' The simple answer to that question is no, but that leads on to if not, then what are your plans? Hopefully, the following will explain what our plans are.

"Firstly, we need to understand the railway as a whole. It is 22 route miles from Northallerton West Station in the Vale of Mowbray through the Dales and up to Redmire Station, passing through Leeming Bar, Bedale and Leyburn on its way. We currently have storage space for stock at Leeming and some sidings at Redmire but compared to many other railways we are very limited for siding space.

"Our primary focus is as a heritage tourist attraction combining the natural appeal of a train ride through glorious scenery with the historical aspect of showcasing the railway through the ages. In addition to this we will be running event and special enthusiast services, including regular evening trains, afternoon tea trains, gala and supporting events within the dale.

"For the railway to operate we need a range of reliable traction and rolling stock, that we can maintain to a budget and use flexibly. For off-peak services the first generation DMUs and Pacers are ideal, with low costs and simple operation on the line. But we also need units that can maintain our timetable; the line is almost constantly graded from Leeming Bar westward and that means some lower powered classes of units are not suitable. In addition to the Class 121 we can deploy one, two, three or four car trains depending on the perceived level of demand using either first generation DMUs or Pacers.

"For our re-opening we will almost certainly be heavily reliant on our Pacers, at least until the Class 121 returns from its repairs. We will have to go through a period of re-training (we haven’t run a passenger service in nearly a year) and the use of Pacers on these ghost services will keep the costs down. We can start to introduce more appealing traction once our passenger numbers start to climb.

"For more heavily used services and event/gala trains the use of locomotive hauled coaching stock is the preferred option. We currently have enough air braked coaches for our immediate needs, with capacity for one to be under heavy exam/refurbishment. Likewise, for vacuum stock for use with older diesel locos or steam.

"Our diesel locomotive fleet covers our immediate needs and are all very suitable for use along the line. Looking forward we would consider adding suitable locomotives. Larger locomotives would be considered ‘nice to have’ but their additional running costs in terms of both fuel and track wear really preclude their use on anything except enthusiast specials, in which case a hire arrangement make more sense than permanent residence. This has the added benefit in that we can ensure that any gala or enthusiast event will provide something new rather than the same old locos just on slightly different diagrams.

"We now come to what the majority of our customers want, steam. While we fully understand that steam sells tickets, we also understand that the costs of steam are orders of magnitude greater than diesel traction, both in hire/ownership and running costs. Our long-term plan is to acquire suitable steam traction, but we need to ensure that we can properly maintain and service it first and that we have the passenger numbers to make it pay before taking the plunge. Until that happens, we will continue to hire in where there is proven demand, such as during the high summer months, as we have successfully demonstrated in the past.

"In the shorter term we need to ensure that we can provide suitable servicing for any steam locomotive on the railway. Our maintenance shed is not really suited to be a steam running shed as well; just think of the issues with ash on a newly painted coach! So, we need to clear space around Leeming Bar to be able to add the servicing facilities we need, such as an ash pit, watering arrangements, coaling area and covered accommodation.

"So, the sensible decision has been taken, that if there is no long-term plan or if the item of rolling stock/locomotive has no position in our strategy, then maybe its best option would be at another site where renovation would be more practical. A number of long-term residents have now left the railway for pastures new and there will be more to follow, with the siding space that they have been taking up put to good use for new stock arriving at the railway.

"The regular arrival of Pacer units at the railway are not all of direct benefit to us. We have also been helping a number of other heritage organisations by using the railway as a ‘rail head’ for accepting units directly off the main line before allowing then to be loaded onto road transport to travel to sites that are not blessed with rail connections.

"The overall effect of all this activity has generated the added benefit of making the entire Leeming Bar site look more of a heritage railway and less of a scrap yard, which, with the work on the station house (and in particular the other new customer-facing facilities) is starting to make the railway look more appealing to visitors.

"Going forward we are moving away from the mentality of ‘if its available then we will have it’, and moving to a more considered approach of ‘if its available, it fits into our plan and we can resource it, then we will have it’.

"Feel free to contact us with any comments or questions, we are always pleased when people take an interest in us, and even happier if they can lend a helping hand."

In December, director Richard Holt spoke exclusively to the Yorkshire Post about the railway's plans for their new Pacers.

He revealed hopes to eventually convert one into a bike train as part of a strategy to target walkers and cyclists.

James Herriot-themed services are also planned, with the Pacers being used to take passengers to Finghall Station, which was used in the filming of the original BBC series of All Creatures Great and Small.