Keeping the wheels turning

Steam gala on the North York Moors Railway from Grosmont to Pickering
Steam gala on the North York Moors Railway from Grosmont to Pickering
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In the latest of our series on Yorkshire’s heritage railways, Andrew Vine finds the largest of them expanding its services to the seaside to attract more income and passengers.

THERE’S a sight guaranteed to make everyone pausing to catch their breath at the top of the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey turn away from the towering ruins to look back over the town below.

Steam gala on the North York Moors Railway from Grosmont to Pickering

Steam gala on the North York Moors Railway from Grosmont to Pickering

It’s of a steam locomotive hauling a train along the banks of the Esk towards the station, the sound of its whistle carrying all the way up the abbey. For a resort so steeped in tradition, and so redolent of history, it’s a spectacle that fits perfectly.

And for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR), which runs the steam services into Whitby, the journey to the coast is a perfect fit as well. This summer should see the completion of a £2m operation to open a new platform at Whitby Station so that the railway can operate more services, and generate extra revenue, which it needs.

If there was a heritage railway equivalent of football’s Premier League, the NYMR would be as unassailable as Manchester City, or as Manchester Utd once were.

It carries more passengers than any other heritage line in the world – 327,000 last year – is the only one to operate on part of the main-line rail network, and generates around £30m a year for the local economy, which is a substantial sum for rural North Yorkshire.

Steam gala on the North York Moors Railway from Grosmont to Pickering

Steam gala on the North York Moors Railway from Grosmont to Pickering

But that brings with it challenges, amongst which are the constant need for investment in the line and meeting a monthly wage bill for about 100 employees, a vastly bigger paid workforce than all the other preserved railways in Yorkshire put together, even though the line simply could not operate without hundreds more volunteers.

Next year will mark half-a-century since Dr Richard Beeching swung his axe on the line from Pickering to Whitby. It was the great railway pioneer George Stephenson who had planned the route, but historical significance held no sway with Beeching or his radical plan to modernise British Railways and even now his name remains mud.

Two years afterwards, a campaign to reopen the line began, and on a bitter February day in 1969, the first locomotive for four years ran between Pickering and Grosmont. Even so, it would be another four years before the NYMR was open to the public, and 1976 before regular steam services began.

The 18 miles from Pickering to Grosmont, through some of Yorkshire’s most breathtaking scenery is one of the loveliest rail journeys anywhere, and the six miles further to Whitby, to where the NYMR has run services along the main line since 2007, only adds to the magic.

But there are some hard sums behind the romance of the steam-hauled trains running across the moors and alongside the Esk. The economic downturn hit the NYMR, as it did all tourist attractions, and last year’s passenger figures were well below the 350,000 the line was getting before the slump.

NYMR managing director Philip Benham said: “There’s always a financial challenge to make sure you’re taking enough income in the summer to see you through the winter, not just to keep staff employed, but for the money that’s needed for investment, renewals or maybe new facilities, so there are always plenty of things to be concerned about.

“We’re looking to consolidate the business as we come out of recession, improve the flow of cash so we’ve got more money to spend on renewals. We are at the point of having to consider spending quite large sums of money on some of the bridges. We have renewed two major bridges, and there’ll be more of that to come.

“That’s why we’ve got the extension at Whitby, which will allow us to run more trains, which will generate more money which we can plough back into development of our own railway.”

Cash flow and consolidation – the realities facing an organization the size of the NYMR – probably never occur to the visitors crowding the platform at Pickering, but the volunteers who keep the line running know exactly the scale of the challenge. Among them today is the crew of a 110-year-old engine, driver Peter Greef, 60, from Hull, and fireman Scott Morrison, 47, from Durham. It’s not the most powerful locomotive on the railway and needs to be nursed up the steep incline from Levisham, or, as Peter says, “she’ll be winded”.

He’s been volunteering at the NYMR for 25 years, getting his hands dirty after the day job as a financial director by starting off as a cleaner and progressing to fireman and then driver. “I think it’s really man over beast,” he said. “It’s great driving them, but the really interesting part is firing them, it’s about just getting it right and there’s a real sense of fulfilment. Every engine is different. There’s banter and there’s hard work, it’s a constant learning process.”

For Scott, an ex-soldier who served in armoured vehicles, getting involved was part of his recovery from illness, when his wife, Christine, brought him to the NYMR for a day out six years ago.

“When I stepped over the bridge, it really gave me a lift. And then we came down on holiday one day, we joined the railway as members. I came down one night to the engine sheds, and there was an engine with bits hanging out, and I uttered the immortal words: ‘Do you want a hand?’

“My great-grandfather was a fireman, my grandfather was a signalman, but my father was a plumber, and I ended up in the Army, but the railway gene kicked in about five years ago.”

The volunteers come from many walks of life. On the platform at Pickering, in full period uniform, is Chris Mitchell, 62, a retired vicar who worked in Derbyshire and Norfolk, as well as Yorkshire, and started volunteering 18 months ago after moving to York. His wife, Penny, works in the station shop.

“I’ve been interested in railways all my life,” he said. “This is a very friendly railway. People’s eyes light up and it’s a beautiful ride.”

The volunteers know that they play a vital role in the railway being able to operate – and shrug off the passing years. The youngest member of the group that maintains Pickering Station is 74 and its eldest 81.

Ted Baker, 76, from Scarborough, said: “Without the volunteers, the railway wouldn’t be able to do it. People are fascinated with the steam trains, and we’re of the era that grew up with steam trains. Children can’t believe it when they see one of the trains come in, and it lets steam off.”

Alongside him repairing the bridge at the station are Graham Higgins, 78, and Fred Wilson, 74. Their friend Stuart Carr, 81, is the railway’s artist in residence who refurbishes the period noticeboards. The group runs the Santa Specials at Christmas, and also fits the station out with air raid shelter and gun emplacement for its 1940s weekends.

Such front-of-house attention to detail helps draw visitors. Behind the scenes, though, keeping the past alive involves a great deal of work and expense. The steam locomotives that are the railway’s lifeblood need major overhauls every 10 years, and with each passing decade require more attention, according to Philip Benham.

“The aim is always to try to be ahead of the game, and we find that quite difficult to do at times, because the level of deterioration tends to get worse as the engine gets older so the time out tends to get longer at each overhaul.”

This summer’s work at Whitby should give the railway another boost, but for a line that depends for its existence on capturing its visitors’ imagination by bringing the past to life, the future is always vital.

“In the longer term, we want to look at how we can increase the number of trains we run,” said Philip. “Do we put in more loop lines, or do we put in a portion of double track so that we can run more trains? That will probably be five or 10 years ahead, but those are exciting projects that capture people’s imagination.”

• The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is at