On the brink of financial ruin, faced with escalating debts and no obvious answers, directors at one of Yorkshire’s best-loved railways were last summer forced to make a difficult decision.
The sale of Aysgarth Station, one of the Wensleydale Railways’ most treasured assets, also meant the abandonment of long-held hopes to restore the line from Garsdale to Northallerton. But six months on, as board members reveal a radical new direction, they say it has also bought them the time to turn around the fortunes of this Dales’ institution.
“We were maintaining the railway for the nation, but the nation wasn’t using it,” said Steve Davies, board director. “We had to bite the bullet. Had the trustees not agreed, the railway would have been scrapped. We have bought time – to get this railway back on track. And although we have sold Aysgarth, our expansion ambitions have not gone.”
Built in stages from 1847, the railway was initially used primarily for freight but began to decline from the 1950s as traditional industries waned. It was taken on by the Wensleydale Railway Association in 2003, with keen members signing a 100-year lease from Network Rail. It was this lease, said Mr Davies, which has proved to be its “Achilles heel”, including as it does a costly pledge to maintain 22 miles of track.
With tough decisions having been made, a raft of measures has now been revealed to drive the railway in a new direction. A new engine shed, funded by a benefactor, has been completed. Grants secured for renovations at Leeming Bar, while at Leyburn there are plans for a new water tower.
A new Yorkshire-built steam locomotive, Jennifer, arrived this week. There is to be a renewed focus on food such as afternoon teas, and even aspirations for a dining train.
Long-held plans to extend the railway at Redmire, creating a link to Bolton Castle, have been taken to the next step as negotiations are entered into with Lord Bolton, says Mr Davies. The goal is to create a new station, with the scheme estimated to cost £2m to £3m over four years. And, adds Mr Davies, there is to be a huge focus on steam.
“We are looking to take steam into the heart of the most attractive part of the railway,” he said. “People want steam. They will turn up at Leeming Bar and when they see there is no steam engine, will turn around and walk away. The public’s love affair with steam is insatiable. And we need now to give the public what they want today – not what they wanted 15 years ago.”