With its historic stations, picture postcard scenery and a saved-from-closure back story, the Settle to Carlisle railway line could be a nostalgist’s dream.
But the line – and the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line (FoSCL) who support it – is very much more than a heritage railway that brings in tourists.
While it is highly successful in attracting visitors, the line – saved from closure following a long campaign in the 1980s – is also a vital part of public transport for the rural communities along its route.
Although the FoSCL group work hard to maintain the line’s unique character, they are also involved in the continued work to maintain the region’s public transport system – including buses – at the best possible level, providing funding towards some services, including DalesBus.
The group is the largest rail user group in the country and some members have been involved from the early days of the battle to save the line, amid reportedly uneconomic repair costs for Ribblehead viaduct – the line’s landmark feature.
By 1989, the battle had been won and then Transport Minister turned TV personality Michael Portillo secured its future.
Since then the line has proved its value, operating eight trains a day, with the Friends group becoming an increasingly important part of the fabric of the region’s public transport structure.
The Friends has a current membership of around 3,000 people and when its annual meeting was held on Zoom during the pandemic viewers from as far away as New York and Germany tuned in.
Although the line is a conventional operational service, much of its heritage remains in place, with the Friends group providing traditional benches on the stations, as well as maintaining station gardens at eight locations between Settle and Armathwaite.
An increasingly rare sight on today’s railway lines are traditional signal boxes and the distinctive cream and red painted example at Settle station exists only because of the work of the Friends.
Group spokesman John Carey said: “The group is about more than nostalgia, we have a lot of community involvement and we are in contact with politicians, from parish councils right up to MPs.
“We have a big interest in the railway as a critical piece of transport infrastructure and should be treated as part of the rural transport strategy.
“People come to see it in its own right and we don’t want to discourage that, but it is a critical part of the rural transport strategy.”
Despite playing a vital role, it offers something different to most commuter services, with passengers at Settle station still able to rest on traditional railway benches, while the traditional Victorian signal box, which has given way to electronic technology, now houses a museum of old-fashioned traditional signalling.
Many of the tasks are completed by volunteers, who take on a myriad of roles from restoration work to acting as guides for rail and walking parties, in normal circumstances, though the pandemic has affected those.
“We strive to improve the service and the group is a complex organisation,” said John. “We are involved in many things and run a couple of shops. We have a workshop behind the station, which can produce heritage doors and windows.”
While the fate of the line may have once hung in the balance, the strength of the Friends group has help to make the line an enduring success for both local needs and tourism.