The British love railways, and always have done so. It's not surprising really; Britain was the country that invented them and exported the concept abroad so that there are now few places in the world far from a rail head. They have however never loved the companies and the politicians that have, by and large, incompetently tried to administer them, or worse close them.
No other battle exemplifies the public's contempt for the politicians who tried to close a railway, or the public's resolve to retain a vital national asset than the campaign to save the Settle and Carlisle Railway (the S and C) line in the late 1980s.
The late twentieth century was a bad time for the mode of domestic transport that saved Britain from defeat in the Second World War. Wretchedly worn out, in dire need of investment and with the public falling in love with the motor car, the railways following nationalisation in 1947, and the botched Modernisation Plan of the 1950s, widely began to be regarded as an irrelevant anachronism... Victorian technology that was simply failing to compete with the burgeoning road and motorway network.
And so it was that MacMillan's Conservative government of the late 1950s commissioned ex-ICI supremo Dr Richard Beeching (who answered directly to Transport Secretary Ernest Marples (a director of Amey Construction involved in the lucrative construction of the M6 motorway)) to produce a report on how to control the railway budget deficit, and the haemorrhaging of both passengers and freight traffic to the road network.
His 1963 report Reshaping British Railways was viewed by most of the population as an act of butchery a vital national asset and one of the very worst examples of corporate and industrial vandalism: nearly half of the UK's railway route miles were closed over the ensuing decade, along with thousands of stations. Hundreds of communities lost their rail connections forever, including some sizeable towns.
|Settle and Carlisle line route map.|
One of the survivors was much more than any ordinary railway... it was the Midland mainline from St Pancras in London to Scotland (of which the Settle-Carlisle section is a sizeable part), built by the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) in the nineteenth century to gain a share of the lucrative Scottish coal traffic.
I've loved railways all of my life so it is of some surprise then, that the first time I travelled on this wonderful route was on a long hot day in the summer of 1988, as a treat for both myself and my future wife following our engagement. This was at the height of Margaret Thatcher's premiership, whose negative views on rail transport are well documented.
Her embrace of monetarism and huge public spending cuts will not be explored here, suffice to say that as part of the savings withdrawal of service notices were shortly to be posted (yet again) at all stations on the Settle-Carlisle section of the Midland mainline. Indeed, a few years earlier in 1982 her government had commissioned the Serpell Report, one of whose half-baked ideas was the closure of the whole rail network, save for a couple of main lines. The Minister for Transport at the time, another duplicitous and callous politician who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing was Roger Freeman. He had stated in the House of Commons that he was 'minded' to close the route.
British Rail (BR), who was yet to be disastrously privatised and broken up into
Graham Nuttal, first secreatry
if the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line
with his beloved dog, Ruswarp.
The dog became a legendary icon
regarding the line's salvation.
hundreds of seemingly non-connected fragments, had operated what could be best described as a ‘closure by stealth’ policy on the S and C. This had commenced in the the late 1970s, diverting most freight and Glasgow expresses onto the West Coast mainline via Preston. The excuse could then be made that nobody was using the railway. To compound this duplicity passenger usage surveys were conducted in mid-winter during school holidays (when there would be no schoolchildren or tourists), and the local authority/National Park Dalesrail sponsored social services were at reduced levels over the winter.
However, the largest scandal concerned the huge Ribblehead viaduct whose maintenance had been neglected for more than a decade. This is the most exposed structure on the line and erosion was causing masonry to dislodge and fall, the structure was covered in scaffolding, and BR remedial action was not preventing it from rapidly becoming a health and safety concern with considerable speed restrictions across its length. Indeed, the Ribblehead Viaduct rapidly came to be the focus of the fight to save the line with BR stating that it would cost in excess of £5 million to repair the structure, supporters of the line claiming that this was an excuse for closure as the true cost was a fraction of this amount.
Boarding the Metro-Camell multiple 'Dailsrail' unit at the mighty Ribblehead viaduct station it soon became all too apparent why it was an obscenity to close this railway. Travelling on the packed train was like flying on an aircraft... the massive embankments, viaducts and the Pennine mountain tops of Ingleborough, Pen-y-Gent and Wild Boar Fell mimicking every bit the view from an aircraft cabin window. Myself and my fiancée were glad that in the future we could say that we had had the privilege of travelling on this stupendous railway in the hills.
After shopping in the historic border city of Carlisle, it was with sadness that on that balmy dusk summer night we travelled back to Ribblehead, probably for the first and last time, to alight for onward travel in our car to our rented holiday cottage in Wensleydale (another branch line that succumbed to the Beeching Report).
A couple of months later the Friends of the Settle and Carlisle Line that included tens of thousands of people (plus a dog!) who were objecting to the politicians' outrageous plans, local authorities and the Dales National Park Authority, gained its most potent supporter from a most unlikely direction.
Michael Portillo (left), the man responsible for saving the Settle to Carlisle Railway from closure approaches Ribblehead Viaduct. He revisited the line after twenty years as part of his TV series "Great British Railway Journeys" which is being shown on BBC television.
Speaking of the line, Portillo says "The reason it's so special is that this is a piece of magnificent railway architecture. It goes through some of the most stunning countryside and it has some of the most remarkable viaducts. You don't have to be a railway enthusiast to be blown away".
In the programme Portillo meets Pete Shaw and Mark Rand of the Friends of the Settle Carlisle Line, who helped organise the campaign against the proposed closure by British rail in 1985. The former Transport Minister explains: "The campaign raged for six years, generating huge publicity for the line. As a result, ever more people began to use it, strengthening the case for keeping it open. It was my job to get the Prime Minister on side".
Early in the campaign Portillo arranged a top secret cab ride over the line to assess it for himself. He admits it was a "really stressful" decision; "I did feel quite emotional about it, because I felt emotional about a line which is so important in our heritage, and by the way, I thought Margaret Thatcher would understand that argument too."
Enter the conflict one Thatcherite golden boy and cabinet minister, a certain Michael Portillo. As it turned out, he is an ardent railway enthusiast. Indeed since leaving politics he has gone on to produce some superb BBC Great British Railway Journey travelogues including the latest currently being broadcast on BBC2. Following a top secret visit and sampling of the line, he pilloried and pleaded with the Thatcher cabinet to keep it open. Despite his archaic politics this genorous and rare act of public spiritedness in a politician, and its outcome means I shall forever be one of his fans.
The rest, as they say, is history. This wonderful tourist attraction, stupendous railway, diversionary route, important freight and passenger artery, and lifeline for the communities of Settle, Dent, Garsdale, Penrith, the Eden Valley and Wensleydale was reprieved. In 1991, BR was forced to concede that the cost of repairing the Ribblehead Viaduct was a fraction of what they forecast, and by the early 2000s the entire track was replaced by Railtrack as modern welded rail with steel sleepers and all of the vital lineside structures were refurbished. Since then Glasgow TransPennine Express trains have been reinstated, freight traffic over the line has soared and today, the line sports more passenger services than in its entire history.
Who'd have believed this thirty years ago? A refurbished Ribblehead Viaduct complete with Virgin Pendolino being dragged across it due to the West Coast Main Line undergoing repair work. Amongst its enhanced roles, the line also carries diversionary traffic from the WCML on a frequent basis.
Democracy and people power in action? Without a doubt. The Settle and Carlisle Railway is living proof of what can be achieved when faceless bureaucrats and gutless and often corrupt politicians and financiers endeavour to destroy irreplaceable national assets, often built at great cost in terms of both lives and money.
In the mid-1980s, Border Independent Television in the face of the proposed closure of the line produced a stunning 25 minute documentary recording for posterity the attributes of this wonder of Northern England. Recording the programme on VHS, I’ve transferred it to digital format in two parts, available here. Please now enjoy a journey on the Settle-Carlisle Railway behind the A4 streamlined Pacific steam engine Sir Nigel Gresley.
Steam on the Settle and Carlisle Part 1
Steam on the Settle and Carlisle Part 2
ITV Press Release:
Narrated by Allan Cartner.
The Settle to Carlisle Railway, perhaps the most scenic and spectacular main line in Britain, is one of the wonders of northern England.
This film recaptures the golden age of steam,and provides a lasting record of this remarkable railway in the hills. A brief history of the building of the line by the Midland Railway is followed by a nostalgic footplate journey down the line, on board former LNER A4 Pacific "Sir Nigel Gresley".
Starting from Citadel Station, Carlisle, the Cumbrian Mountain Express steams through the beautiful Eden Valley on the long climb to Ais Gill Summit. Now on the most scenic stretch of the line, the train crosses Arten Gill and Dent Head Viaducts, to Blea Moor and the most famous structure on the line - Ribblehead Viaduct.
A4 "Sir Nigel Gresley" is joined on the route by the Stanier Paciic "Duchess of Hamilton", and wo Southern Railway veterans "Lord Nelson" and "City of Wells".
With closure notices ready to be posted by British Rail, this wonderful documentary was recorded posterity and juxtaposes helicopter sequences of the line within the stunning backdrop of the Pennines, With a classical music score, the documentary is narrated by golden voice of Allan Cartner.
Happily, although the future of the line has now been firmly assured as an important passenger and freight artery, both Border Television and Allan Cartner are no longer with us.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful railway documentaries ever produced.
Full details of about the Settle and Carlisle Railway including timetables, fares, steam specials, points of interest and a full history of the line are available at:
Abbott, S and Whitehouse, A,. The Line that Refused to Die, Leading Edge, 1990