The Settle Carlisle Line – Celebrating 25 years since its Reprieve

What follows is a transcription of talk given by Colin Speakman on 13th April 2014 as part of the 25th anniversary celebrations in the Hallmark Hotel, Carlisle.

Transcript of Colin Speakman's talk

The Settle-Carlisle line is more than just a railway, a piece of magnificent engineering and architecture.   It is a part of our cultural heritage, our landscape, our history, our passion.

I am sure it is true to say of everyone in this room today, this railway has, to at least some degree, influenced and shaped our lives.

It certainly has been a huge influence in my life.

My love affair with the Settle-Carlisle line goes back a lot longer than 25 years. Indeed over 50 years when as a young student at Leeds University in the very early 1960s, armed with the excellent little Settle-Carlisle Line Dalesman book by David Joy and W.R.Mitchell – good friends of mine to this day -  I discovered how by catching the mid-day Carlisle “slow” train from Hellifield Station – a Black Five and three almost empty coaches – I could reach and enjoy some of the finest walking country in England – the Three Peaks, Ribblehead, glorious Dentdale above all the spectacular fells above the Eden Valley, Mallerstang Edge, Wild Boar Fell.

On usually two one or two weekends a year British Railways, as it was known in those days, ran those wonderful Ramblers Excursion trains – you remember the little printed handbills with two walkers striding above the train timetable and list of cheap fares from Leeds and Bradford, the woman in a tweed skirt (trousers were considered slightly vulgar) the man always smoking a pipe, heading into the wilderness.

These Ramblers Specials – diesel railcars by the mid-1960s, were always packed out with walkers, and of all the excursions British Railways ran, the favourite was always the Settle Carlisle.  Stopping at all the local stations on the line, there were about a dozen guided walks led by RA members. Much of my early love and understanding of the hills came from these walks.
When the first attempt at closing the local stations along the line in 1964 failed because roads around Dentdale and Garsdale were deemed too narrow for replacement buses, we thought that our Excursion trains would be safe for a few more years. 
Sadly it was not to be.  By 1969 a further closure attempt, using dubious financial figures including central administrative overheads costed against the struggling local service, sealed its fate. I remember a final local walk between Dent and Garsdale a few days before the line closed, meeting an old friend, a veteran of the First World War. We had both been among the pathetically few numbers of objectors, at a time when railways were considered an outdated anachronism overtaken by “progress”  - otherwise known as the private car.   It was a nostalgic trip on what was a lightly used train.

With the closure of the local stations, British Rail also decided that the Ramblers Excursions, whose numbers had been falling because of car and coach competition, were no longer economic.    Though the through express train service to Settle, Appleby and Carlisle continued, it was of little use to ramblers, as the “real” walking country in the National Park served by the intermediate stations was no longer accessible without a car.  I had, by this time, given in to the inevitable, and bought my first Morris Minor.
But some of us hadn’t quite given up walking from railways.  During an Easter 1973 hike with the West Riding Ramblers over Rapes Highway, between Littleborough and Marsden, sitting behind a drystone in the rain wall having lunch, two or three of us discussed the idea of the Ramblers actually chartering their own excursion train service from British Rail, just as the RA was now doing with its coaches.

It seemed a good idea, so we approached British Rail and received the quotation of £300 for a three coach train to call at three of the disused stations – Dent, Garsdale and Kirkby Stephen, before running on to Appleby.  The West Riding Ramblers Association Executive Committee, but only on the casting vote of the Chairman, agreed to run a train and risk £300. We needed 200 passengers to cover our costs.  Within days every ticket was sold and we had to go back to BR and ask for more coaches until eventually with 500 tickets sold and 9 coaches filled we had to call a halt and turn people away. The Ramblers made a clear profit of £300 on the day.

It seemed that at very least Ramblers Specials could become an annual or even twice annual event.
But we then came across what can best be described as the Dead Hand of Bureaucracy with a decision that defied all logic. Because the line was going to be used a diversionary route during West Coast electrification, then the platforms of the disused intermediate stations were to have all their platform edge stones removed in case one would work loose and damage one of the new Mark 3 coaches used on the diverted express trains.     This would prevent – probably forever – any future use of the stations for walkers’ trains.

By happy coincidence I had at that time been appointed onto the newly created Yorkshire Dales National Park Committee, and was able to get myself on a working committee with local Councillors in the autumn of 1974 to see what opportunity there might be to repeat the success of the RA 1974 special.  

Fortunately I had an ally within the local BR maintenance teams, whose Area Engineer reckoned that the platforms could be “made safe”  for around £1,500- £2,000 per station to allow them to be used for occasional charter services like the Ramblers Specials.  Thankfully his bosses agreed and BR took what was a small but decisive step forward. The new National Park Committee agreed £5,000 to finance the repair of Horton, Ribblehead, and Dent platform edges whilst Cumbria chipped in £500 towards Garsdale – which was actually in very good nick.

Having got the National Park to spend money to save the platforms, it was then not a huge leap of imagination to suggest that there was no point in saving platforms if no trains called there. Prices for a pilot service of trains operating on three weekends, Saturday and Sundays between Leeds and Appleby were agreed with British Rail in Leeds.  Thanks to great support from National Park Committee Chairman Keith Lockyer and Park Officer Richard Harvey, £2,000 was allocated to cover the cost of trains and a further £200 for publicity.   Everything else, including the guided walks and stewarding the trains – and this was a sign of things to come – had to be done by volunteers.

So the Park Committee had decided to do what the Ramblers had done – to charter a train, the first and only National Park to do so in British history.

I was so excited by the possibility in 1975 I actually resigned as a member of the Park Committee and from my college lecturing post in Leeds and applied for and took the job of Field Services Officer for the new National Park Committee based in Grassington, primarily so I could be around to help make it happen.

From this was born Dales Rail.  Park Wardens and volunteers worked to get the stations into some kind of basic order, signs with the famous Yorkshire Dales Rams Head logo were purchased and erected (visible station signs were a legal requirement) and despite many setbacks and delays permission was granted a couple of weeks before the first train was due to run – but only after a question was asked in Parliament by the late Bob Cryer MP for Keighley and a friend of railways  - to reopen the station for just 12 days a year, daylight hours only.

But the service was planned not just for walkers.  It was equally important for local people. So the Saturday service had a mid-morning trip back into Leeds to give local people shopping time in Leeds.

The first weekend of operations in May 1975 was only a mixed success- with half full trains, mainly owing to late publicity caused by delays in getting permission to use the stations.  The second weekend in June was much busier.  But the third weekend things went mad.  The trains were heaving, with crowds of walkers, and on the Saturday trip back to Leeds 199 people waiting on Kirkby Stephen platform for an already busy 4 coach train.   It was like Circle Line in the rush hour.

In those three weekends we carried a total of 3,370 passengers. The National Park had not only covered its costs, but (unthinkably) made a small profit.

Not only had we revived the great tradition of Ramblers Excursion trains, but many people who had long abandoned public transport for their cars now caught the Dales Rail train. A Guardian journalist described it as a “Carnival Train” because of happy atmosphere of walkers and locals, with its bright red Dales Rail stickers, its team of volunteers, ladies from the Worth Valley Railway selling coffee and souvenirs, a great programme of guided walks initially provided by the Ramblers Association. Crucial was the network of connecting bus services.  Buses brought people from outlying villages in Wensleydale and Sedbergh to the train at Garsdale and carried walkers from the train into the Howgills, Wensleydale and Swaledale. You could book a combined ticket from Leeds to Hawes or Sedbergh valid on train and bus.

What Dales Rail was about was more than just a train service – it was about experiencing the Yorkshire Dales, and later the Eden Valley, in a totally different way.

Following this huge success we then applied to the Countryside Commission (as it was then) for a grant of £4,000 for an extended rural transport experiment over the next 3 years.  The second phase of the scheme was to extend the service to Carlisle and even run a pilot service from Preston and Blackburn over the freight only Ribble Valley line.

I had the job of working with Cumbria County Council to identify which stations between Kirkby Stephen and Carlisle should be reopened. So I went back to the 1969 local station closure proposals and looked through the TUCC public inquiry records to ascertain which had been the best used stations, but also which had, in my view, the greatest potential for walkers.  I chose the three we now have – Langwathby, Lazonby & Kirkoswald, and Armathwaite.  Cumbria County Council duly found the £2,100 - £700 apiece – to render them serviceable.

This meant we could now not only run the Saturday trains to and from Carlisle but call at these stations in the beautiful Eden Valley. This offered  some great walks – to Long Meg, Little Salkeld, Lacey Caves, Nunnery Walks.  Bus links were set up from Langwathby to the Lake District and to Hadrian’s Wall.  We even ran a Christmas shoppers special in the fog and rain to Leeds with some token walkers.

By the end of 1976 we had totally abandoned the pretence of just operating for 12 days a year (but who in Whitehall would notice?) nor just hours of daylight.  We even rigged up oil lamps and miners’ lamps as emergency lighting for the Christmas shopping trains.

I have to say, almost 40 years later, it gives me immense pleasure when waiting for a train in Leeds to hear the platform announcer read out the list of stations that I was responsible for reopening, originally for our Dales Rail trains, all those years ago.

But it was the remarkable Graham Nuttall, who was clever enough to organise a public meeting in Clitheroe in order to get Clitheroe station reopened.  This was addressed by the celebrated Lancashire writer Jessica Lofthouse. The meeting was packed and included local councillors and planning officers eager to get in on the act.  This led directly to the reopening of Clitheroe Station for regular Lancashire Dales Rail trains, a service that continues to this very day (they start in a month’s time) and of course paved the way for the full reopening of the Ribble Valley line as a daily service.  I also believe that the way is now open for a full restoration of the Hellifield-Clitheroe section as part of a regular Manchester-Carlisle service, surely a high priority for all of us.

By the mid-1980s, Dales Rail was an established success.  Management of the service had switched for the National Park Committee to West Yorkshire PTE (Metro) and I had also switched my allegiance to becoming Wayfarer Recreational Transport Officer on a three year Countryside Commission contract for the PTE with Dales Rail still part of my brief.

But by now there was a new threat not just to Dales Rail. But to the whole of the Settle-Carlisle line.  The Dead Hand was about to strike again.  As both James Towler and Stan Abbott and most recently Edward Album have chronicled so eloquently, there were constant rumours about the “closure by stealth”, the barely concealed intention of the British Railway Boards to rid themselves of this “uneconomic” and tiresome railway as soon as electrification of the West Coast was completed. Notwithstanding the huge use of the line by freight trains, it was believed that once loose coupled goods train had disappeared off the railway, all freight traffic could be accommodated on the West Coast main line.

Some of us didn’t believe the self-styled experts and Government advisers, most of whom had shadowy links with either the road lobby or the oil industry. Some of us suggested that there would be a constant need for a major diversionary route between England and Scotland, that rail freight would not disappear, that there would be capacity problems on the West Coast, that the S&C was by far the best direct route between the East Midlands, West Yorkshire and Central Scotland. Above all we knew there was a huge tourist potential for this route through the heart of a National Park which was also a key local transport lifeline for so many rural communities. We believed then that railways in the UK did not have to be in decline and once the oil started to run out or Britain’s cities and motorways became traffic congested hells, people would come back to the railways in huge numbers.
As events have proved we were right and the so called “experts” were wrong.  But that didn’t help us at the time.
Whilst Dales Rail had done so much to raise awareness of the line, and massively widen the line’s appeal to a far wider audience of countryside lovers and walkers, not just to us rail enthusiasts, we now realised that even before closure of the line was officially announced in 1983 there was a wider battle to be fought.  The birth of FOSCL in 1981, started by that remarkable duo of Dales Rail addicts Graham Nuttall and David Burton, was a key step forward.  I am proud to have been one of FOSCL’s founding members, and also helped start the Friends of Dales Rail to safeguard the guided walks programme when the National Park started to lose interest.

The Friends were soon boosted by help from the Railway Development Society, whose North West’s Secretary Richard Watts was eventually to become the inspirational Rail Development Officer with Lancashire County Council behind the huge and continuing success of Lancashire Dales Rail and the reopening of the Ribble Valley line.

I think those of us who were around at the time recall hard work – meetings in draughty village halls and even suspicion from some senior railway managers that this was their railway and a bunch of amateurs should not meddle with its legitimate closure process.  But equally there was great if unofficial support from many railway staff, and one or two senior managers, most notably David Harrison, Area Manager at Preston, who opened many doors for us.

But we also soon had some big players on our side.  Not only had Metro ensured Dales Rail survived into the 1980s by making it part of Metro’s operations (citing the rule that they could operate 25 miles outside the Metro boundary) but were to become with Cumbria County Council leading players in the campaign.  I well remember the steam specials in the dying days of West Yorkshire County Council, designed to promote awareness among the great and the good about the strategic importance of the Settle-Carlisle line.  Even North Yorkshire County Council reluctantly and belated joined in, though local councillors such as Beth Graham of Settle were always great supporters.

But the initiative always remained with the voluntary sector. Special tribute should be made in the period leading up to the Public Inquiry to the Joint Action Committee, representing several local bodies, with Dr John (now Professor) Whitelegg as its chair, and Peter Horton its secretary. The JAC put constant pressure on national and local Government as well as the two Transport Users Consultative Committees for both Yorkshire and the North West.  I well remember the regular meetings (I represented the Ramblers Association and the Yorkshire Dales Society) which always took place at some local hostelry near a station and tended to get more convivial as the meeting progressed. We also held a highly successful, well attended public rally in Settle in summer 1984 attended by John Watson, the local MP and Mike Harding the writer and entertainer which achieved widespread publicity.
When the Public Inquiry finally took place in 1986 we knew then that it was going to be one of the most extraordinary events in the 150 year history of railways in Britain.   With 22,150 objections – plus one dog – there was an unprecedented level of formal opposition.  But this public response was largely enabled by one individual, who perhaps more than anyone else, provided the essential mastery of legal and political procedures that allowed so many more peoples’ voices to be heard - the late James Towler, Chair of the Yorkshire Area Transport Users Committee. 

James’s tenacity and shrewdness ensured that many thousands more protests would count. He was able to support and argue the legal point that the many thousands of Dales Rail users had a legitimate right to object, forcing closure notices to be re-advertised and boosting the number of objections from an initial 2,396 to the massive total it eventually became. 
What a tragedy that James did not live to be with us today.

James was sometimes accused that far from being a neutral chair of the Committee, he was biased.  He was. I think this was an accusation he could live with.  He was driven by a sense of natural justice and decency. He soon became the railway’s most powerful and effective advocate. James and both TUCC branches became a conduit for the massive groundswell of public opinion that was to focus on the saving of the line.  He had the courage and the intellect to take on the bureaucrats, to refuse to be bullied or accept often crude distortion of facts such as the alleged costs of repairing Ribblehead viaduct. Ultimately James did what he was tasked to do - to stand up not for the Dead Hand of State Bureaucracy, but for actual Transport Users.
There is neither time nor necessity to go through the amazing, complex story of the Public Hearings which are so brilliantly recorded by James in meticulous detail in his book The Battle for the Settle Carlisle Railway.  I was just one of many hundreds of people giving evidence at one of Hearings, in Skipton, on behalf of the Yorkshire Dales Society and the Ramblers Association, but I was impressed by the skill and seeming objectivity by which James conducted the events.  It was a model of how it should be done.

I think we all felt extremely sorry for the British Rail officer who had the unenviable task of presenting the closure case – Ron Cotton. We now know his heart wasn’t in the job, but we can now reveal what we all knew at the time - he was really a double agent. Even when suggesting the farcical reversal of trains on the Carnforth parcels loop, he was planning ways of doubling the number of passengers on the surviving S&C services that were his responsibility.

In fact it was Ron’s brilliant game of double bluff backed up with great marketing that massively increase passenger numbers on the trains.  But in the Spring of 1986 came the greatest coup of all, in partnership with Cumbria County Council – the restoration of local trains with a  diesel railcar service between Leeds and Carlisle calling at all the Dales Rail stations – on a line due to close! Our one weekend a fortnight summer service had now become a far more frequent daily service, better than our wildest dreams.  Numbers soon built up on the new daily service.  We made sure that West Yorkshire weekend Dales Rail services were cancelled so that Dales Rail users now supported the new service. They have done so in ever increasing numbers ever since, and continue to provide a core market for the railway, the best railway line for serious hill walkers in the British Isles, providing superb access to the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the Eden Valley.

But what the TUCC Hearings really demonstrated was a massive coming together of activists and wide range of different users, a change of perception towards rural railways to soon taken up by the more astute politicians aware of a changing public mood.   It was, literally, people power.

Up until the attempted Settle-Carlisle closure, the reduction of Britain’s rail network to a residual Beeching style 3,000 miles of InterCity and commuter routes into London was considered a foregone, inevitable conclusion.  Major national or regional strategic lines such as the Carlisle-Edinburgh Waverley route, the old Great Central route via Sheffield to Marylebone, the Southern Railway lines to the West Country and even the mighty Midland main line from Manchester through the Peak District were wiped off the map. 

Settle Carlisle was the line that Refused to Die.  But it was a close call.  Thankfully ill-thought-through schemes like its privatisation as a heritage railway failed to gain credence.   However I also believe it was organisations like Ruth Annison’s Settle Carlisle Business Development Grou, - now Settle-Carlisle Enterprise Network – who even led a deputation to No 10 Downing Street,  who were crucial in convincing a Conservative Minister that keeping the line open was also about helping and encouraging rural business within the corridor to expand and thrive. Likewise the excellent relationship  and personal chemistry between left wing Councillor Bill Cameron of Cumbria Council and right wing (at that time) Michael Portillo – Bill and Michael  - was a part of that indefinable magic that determined the outcome in ways which defied the cynics.  How sad that we have just heard of the death of Bill Cameron a few days ago. Bill was one of the true heroes of the saving of the line.

11th April 1989 was not only a day to rejoice for the Settle Carlisle line. As we now know, it was the turning of the tide, the day when railways suddenly became fashionable, the start of a period of unprecedented passenger growth on intercity, rural and commuter networks, far outstripping road transport, which has continued over the last quarter of a century, to a point when I am told that we are now carrying far more passengers on a much smaller railway than our forefathers did on the pre-Beeching Edwardian network.  And there is even more spectacular growth predicted in the decades ahead.

But the savings of this iconic line didn’t happen by chance. It was because of the combined energy, drive, commitment and passion of many individuals and organisations, including many people in this room today. The same individuals and organisations have worked together since the 1989 announcement and continue to do so to make our railway one of the most successful rural main lines in Europe.  British Rail or Northern Rail as they have now become, far from being the villains as they might have seemed to some of us in the past,  have operated the line in a superbly professional way, not as a museum line but a modern, efficient railway. They have been magnificently supported by the Settle Carlisle Development Company whose marketing of the line has been superb. I know of know of better nor more informative printed timetables and promotional material anywhere.  The Settle-Carlisle Railway Trust led by Edward Album has given us superbly restored stations, lineside buildings  and even a station master’s house, that contribute so much to the linear conservation area the line has now become. The local authorities including the National Park now recognise the S&C as one of their top regional attractions, an example of sustainable tourism bringing well over a million visitors into the area annually.

Nor must we forget the hundreds of professional railwaymen and women within Northern Rail whose contributions to the day to day running of the line in all weathers and in all circumstances, have been astonishing, even heroic. In this context let us remember the terrible day in January 1995 when guard Stuart Wilson on a Carlisle bound train died in a landslide and subsequent collision with a southbound train near Aisgill, whilst trying to ensure the safety of his passengers.

And of course, vital to the line’s future, are the millions of regular and occasional passengers whose continued patronage provides the essential income to keep the railway as the vital transport link it has now become.

But what cannot be overemphasised is huge contribution to the continuing success of the Settle-Carlisle line that is made by one organisation in particular  - FOSCL.  You have campaigned, championed, cared for the line, provide a huge pool of experienced and skilled volunteers to man the shop, the catering trollies, kept alive (with the Friends of Dales Rail) the Dales Rail tradition of public guided walks between stations, and at times connecting buses.

It is perhaps wrong of me to name any individuals from among the hundreds of FOSCL members who have given so much of their lives to the success of this great railway, over not 25 but 33 years, especially with so many FOSCL chairmen, current and former committee members and lifelong workers present – a too long list to name. Yet there are two individuals who have been there from almost the very beginning I wish to especially thank -  former long serving Secretary and superb photographer Pete Shaw, and Ruth Evans whose energy and imagination developing the guided walks and managing events such as the visit of the Prince of Wales 2005, have been an inspiration.  Their dogged determination to see the job through over so many years, the enthusiasm and energy underpinned by expert knowledge both of the railway and the landscape through which it passes, to me epitomises what FOSCL is all about.  But in thanking Pete and Ruth I am thanking everyone in FOSCL who have contributed so much, so magnificently, over those 33 years.   How much has the Settle-Carlisle contributed to our lives and but how you all have also contributed to the railway and the magnificent landscapes, and the great cities of cities and town of the North of England it serves.

Most recently FOSCL has helped support another Dales Rail inspired innovation, the connecting DalesBus network which link the railway every summer Sunday with Wensleydale and Swaledale from Ribblehead, Wensleydale from Garsdale, Dent and Sedbergh from Dent, and Malham and Ingleton from Settle.   I manage the Dales & Bowland Community Interest Company, set up as a subsidiary not for profit company by the Yorkshire Dales Society in 2007.  We now manage the Sunday DalesBus network and see ourselves as a sister organisation to FoSCL  The Settle-Carlisle line between Skipton and Garsdale is the spine of the DalesBus network, a superb, integrated green travel network, the best of its kind in any National Park in the UK, perhaps even in Europe. We have intermodal, integrated tickets on both bus and train services.  This summer if you have a return rail ticket to Ribblehead on any Sunday you can come back free of charge on  DalesBus from Ribblehead, Ingleton or Clapham to connect with the 1646 train at Settle, or catch the 1810 bus from Buckden to Skipton Station timed to meet the S&C train. We also provide a morning and early evening bus rail links from Ilkley and Otley to feed to and from the Sunday S&C train service.

So what of the future?

Yes we want to see the line continue to flourish over the next 25 years and beyond and passenger numbers continue to grow.  We want more trains on the S&C, and I would fully and totally support the next major steps being proposed by FOSCL to link our railway as it was historically, and should be in the future, with Greater Manchester and East and Central Lancashire by reopening the Manchester-Hellifield-Settle route on a daily basis, with through running to Carlisle, and interworking of trains with what we must now call the Bentham Line to and from Lancaster and Morecambe.

So thank you FOSCL – not just for being the most brilliant and effective campaigning organisation in railway history, but for your continued commitment to England’s greatest scenic railway, one which has had such a profound and continuing influence on all our lives.

Colin Speakman
April 2014