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|The Wensleydale Railway: Rebirth of a Rural Railway - David Gibson|
|We were pleased to welcome David Gibson, Vice-Chairman of the Wensleydale Railway Association Ltd, on 13th October. Despite his title, he did not have too far to travel as he lives in Essex.
David used an extensive selection of photographs to illustrate his talk, covering progress on reopening the line and its future plans; but he started with a brief history. 1848 saw a start made from Northallerton to Leeming Bar, a length of 5m 70c. It took another 7 years to get to Bedale. A very sharp curve was installed to allow an extension to Leyburn in 1857. Finally, in 1878 the Midland made a junction to Hawes to join with the NER line which had extended from Leyburn. Although after 30 years there was now a 'through route' but it still operated as two branches to Hawes. The line continued in that form until the passenger service was withdrawn in 1954 and freight withdrawn west of Redmire in 1964.
David then took us on a virtual tour of the line giving a few snippets about each main location. At Northallerton the Hawes train left from a bay at the north end sandwiched between the down fast and slow lines of the ECML. The Hawes formation is now buried under the car park. Northallerton has always been a bottleneck. In World War 2 a loop was built from the ECML to give some redundancy in case of bombing. With only 3ft vertical separation from the Hawes branch, it used a moveable and fully interlocked bridging piece (it never seems to have been used!)
Leeming Bar station is placed where the old Great North Road used to cross the line — it is now effectively in the middle of nowhere following the building of the A1 bypass. Aiskew Crossing over the A684 is ungated but protected by flashing lights, and it is indeed 'a skew' crossing! Bedale station was rebuilt as an industrial unit - the railway rent a couple of rooms.
Spennithorne village is 2-3 miles away from the railway; the old station building is a private house and unlikely to reopen. Leyburn, at which one of the platforms has been rebuilt, was once a major loading point for race horses. Its claim to fame was in 1927 when a total eclipse brought crowds to the area.
The village of Wensley, which gives the Dale its name, was effectively wiped out by the black death and has never really recovered. Redmire station building is now owned by the Scout Association. Limestone traffic continued to this point until 1992, only finishing because the overhead loading cable-way was life-expired. The quarries didn't have much stone reserves anyway. BR put the line up for sale at £1.5M but there were no buyers. However, the Army proposed to use it for transferring tanks to/from Catterick Camp and paid BR £750k to bring it up to standard. The company is still under contract to move Army trains. These are difficult to operate — they arrive very early in the morning and only pay by the mileage run, so are not very profitable.
Aysgarth was a passing loop mainly serving farms but it was a major station with 8-9 staff. Askrigg was reopened to passengers during the 1962/3 winter as the only means of communication during the heavy snows. Hawes station is now owned by the National Park. The only tunnel is at Mossdale Head (240yds) thence to Garsdale. at which the last train from the branch arrived in April 1954.
William Hague is the local MP for Richmond and helped Ruth Annison, set up the Wensleydale Railway Association by enabling discussions with Railtrack. This resulted in the transfer of the railway to a separate company. By having a 99 year lease and remaining part of the national network, it was eligible for all five licenses from the Rail Regulator to operate both track and trains. On transfer, the line was effectively a 22 mile siding with no buildings or signals — other than a single fixed distant. The lease was finally handed across in March 2003 and the line opened on 4th July 2003. William Hague flagged off the first train, and the Duke of York visited the line in March 2004.
Grant-Rail installed the loop at Constable Burton as a training exercise. The railway has a good working relationship with the company, which uses it to test new track maintenance equipment.
Although they have a rake of 5 Mark 1s, these have not seen much use. The mainstay is a class 101 DMU. Class 66s bring in the army trains and steam excursions occasionally come in off the main line. For two years running they have operated a ”whiff of steam• during August and September. However, it has no infrastructure to support steam — the locos even have to be topped up with water from a childrens' swimming pool!
Although set up as a community railway, it hasn't been able to offer such a service due to the lack of connection at Northallerton. Despite this it has helped regenerate the local economy by attracting tourists, and more steam may attract even more. However, diesel galas make more money for the railway, not because they carry more people but because running costs are much lower. One lesson learnt from the special train visits is to plan a break of journey at Leyburn to give visitors the opportunity to be parted from their cash in the local shops.
Future plans include ideas for a station at Northallerton and the relaying of the south curve connecting the Wensleydale branch to the ECML, by reinstalling the old line to the main station and a tighter curve into a new platform on the low-level loop. This would also benefit Arriva Northern services to Sunderland, but will also involve relocating signalling and overhead masts. Costs are around £3M and progress will depend on grants from the regional development agency.
Phase two will be a one mile extension to Castle Bolton which is a popular tourist destination. The main problem is a 50-60ft gap where the Apedale Beck bridge used to be. The rest of the formation is in good condition with little tree growth thanks to grazing sheep.
The third stage is a two mile extension to Aysgarth giving access to the National Park centre and Aysgarth Falls. This will be the natural terminus for the foreseeable future, but it will cost several million pounds to complete. You can hire Aysgarth station, which is situated in several acres of grounds, for week stays.
Phase four is a six mile link from Hawes to Garsdale on the Settle & Carlisle line. There is good local political support and the track formation is in excellent condition. The final step would be the 9 mile link between Aysgarth and Hawes.
The last two years has been a period of consolidation with financial hard reality setting in, requiring some cost cutting. There are now only 2 full time and 3 part time staff, down from the original ten. Running is at weekends only in winter with special events to attract customers. £3M capital has been spent so far with no government money or grants, all the money coming from small investors, but the line is now very close to break-even.