Published: 27th December 2013
December 1983 brought the news that it wanted to close the world famous Settle-Carlisle railway which was engineered through the Pennines in northern England by Victorian navvies.
The closure proposal was fought by many campaigners (including a dog) who were ready for action as there had been whispers from within British Rail that they wanted to close the 72 mile long scenic route. Settle and Appleby stations were also to be closed joining the intermediate stations which had already been shut and many trains already diverted away from the line.
Construction began in 1869 and ended in 1876 being built by 6,000 navvies, some of who lived in a temporary shanty town at Ribblehead while the viaduct was being built. This was one of 20 viaducts on the line which also has 14 tunnels, giving an indication of the scenery and topography. Today, the line is the highest main line in England and reaches 1,150ft above sea level at Dent station, the highest mainline station in England.
Rumours about British Rail's secret plan to shut the Settle-Carlisle line had been circulating for years and in December 1983 the formal closure notices were issued and associated posters displayed along the route. They said that trains would be withdrawn from May 1984 following consultation about ‘hardship’ suffered by passengers who used this line, which was one of the final huge Victorian infrastructure schemes.
But campaigners discovered that the closure notices were not legally compliant with legislation and so had to be taken down, reprinted and redisplayed. This gave a little more time for the anti-closure movement to get organised and crucially to form the ‘Friends of the Settle-Carlisle’ organisation who drafted letters for objectors to send in.
John Moorhouse, who was the chairman of the North West Transport Users Consultative Committee, fought the closure and says the unexpected level of opposition to the plan gave some hope. "You had to be optimistic, the objections kept mounting up and I think that closure notice being reissued was a big help in the campaign to keep the line open, also shutting the line was opposed by the local authorities, they came together and made a very good case to keep it open."
The campaigners generated a huge amount of publicity which in turn generated more and more passengers to the line who were worried that they might not be able to travel over the scenic route for much longer. The line serves some remote areas of the Yorkshire Dales and in the north of the route, Cumbria's Eden Valley and tourists switched to rail from road.
The increase in passenger numbers continued and after 20 years of reducing services, British Rail increased the service level thus ending the decline started in the Beeching era. In addition to this, charter trains were popular on the route, many of them steam hauled.
But the perceived difficulty with Ribblehead viaduct remained to be solved. This difficulty was that the 24-arch viaduct was thought to be in a poor state of repair. To counter this, BR singled the line over the viaduct and introduced a severe speed restriction over it.
Repairs, BR claimed, were estimated at £7m, but engineers provided by the anti-closure campaigners thought that the viaduct could be made good at a fraction of the cost. As with most UK rural routes, the Settle-Carlisle line was a heavy loss-maker but the huge infrastructure maintenance costs made this a target for closure. The mid 1980s were not a good time for the UK railways and only just avoided mass closures as proposed in the Serpell Report.
Five years after the closure notices were published, the now well-known TV presenter Michael Portillo decided in May 1989 in his role as Minister of State for Transport to reprieve the route.
Mr Portillo said: "There was awkwardness because Conservatives want to do two things, they want public services to run efficiently, so we wanted to reduce public subsidy to the railway line, but we also had a respect for the national heritage and we knew it was a very remarkable and historic line," he said."
Fortunately we managed to bring the two things together, because the economic case for closure was very much weakened when vast numbers of people began to travel on the line.
Since the reprieve, traffic on the line has steadily increased and is now a major freight route relieving the busy West Coast Main Line. So far as passenger numbers are concerned, the line now generates 1.2 million passenger journeys a year with just 90,000 30 years ago.
Ribblehead station now has a timber terminal with logs loaded for industrial use and the line is also used for coal traffic between Scottish coalfields and Yorkshire power stations.
Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the closure notices being published, Network Rail (NR) finished its £550,000 refurbishment of the 130 year old Hellifield station, the southern gateway to the Settle-Carlisle line.
The station has a large canopy made of iron and glass and was last given serious attention just under 20 years ago by Railtrack. The station canopies have been repaired and redecorated and the glazed panels in the roof replaced.
Network Rail area director Martin Frobisher commented: “This is a beautiful old building and the investment we have made to sympathetically refurbish it will safeguard its future and allow passengers to continue to enjoy the station for decades to come.”
The station is managed and served by trains run by Northern Rail. Their Richard Allan, Area Director for Northern Rail, said: “Investment of this kind into our rural stations is extremely welcome and Hellifield will hugely benefit from this refurbishment. Our customers are now greeted by a brighter and more welcoming environment and be able to enjoy the unique surroundings this historic station has to offer.”