Published 16th March 2012
One of the UK’s most well-known freight railway locations has finally closed after a protracted run-down, as DB Schenker closed its staff depot at Healey Mills, West Yorkshire. The 140-acre site was once one of Europe’s largest marshalling yards, but over the past two decades the yards have become obsolete, the depot closed and now freight trains no longer call there to change crews.
Healey Mills opened in 1963 in attempt to modernise wagon-load traffic. It replaced a dozen smaller yards in the area and its purpose was to improve the efficiency of sorting and marshalling wagons into trains before sending them off to their destination. The yards featured hump-shunting, in which wagons were pushed over a ‘hump’, freewheeled into the required siding, and braked using special retarders next to the rails - all controlled from a centralised operations tower.
A purpose-built diesel depot opened alongside the yards at the end of 1966 and the two facilities saw round the clock activity with a claimed capacity of 4,000 wagons per day. Situated to the west of Wakefield, Healey Mills was ideally located for sending and receiving trains to all parts of the country, as well as handling the large number of local coal trains at the time.
But wagon-load railfreight came under increasing threat in the 1970s and 1980s due to competition from road transport. Then a double blow came with the decline of the Yorkshire coal industry and resultant reduction in coal trains, which had once formed up to 50 percent of traffic at Healey Mills.
As a result, the depot lost its own allocation of locomotives in 1984 and the marshalling yards closed in 1987 - although both were still used for stabling locomotives and trains until the early 2000s.
The redundant sidings were then used to store long lines of withdrawn Class 37, 47, 56 and 58 locomotives until 2010, after which the only operations at Healey Mills were for crew changes of passing freight trains.
From February 4, these crew changes now take place a few miles away at Wakefield Kirkgate station, where portable cabins have been installed as temporary offices. All that remains at Healey Mills are the overgrown sidings, a few redundant wagons, and the buildings awaiting demolition.