The platform souls who keep our heritage on track
North Yorkshire boasts some of the most popular heritage railways in the world, with thousands boarding the historic steam or diesel trains each year.
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR), Wensleydale Railway and Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway have been operating for decades, taking visitors through some of the county’s most picturesque scenery, from wooded valleys to rolling hills.
The heritage railway stations and steam trains have taken centre stage in TV and film, with the most recent Indiana Jones film seeing Harrison Ford on a section of the NYMR near Grosmont, escaping from a Nazi prison camp during World War Two. Its station at Goathland has featured in the first Harry Potter film and Heartbeat.
In more recent years, the likes of The Polar Express has brought the magic of Christmas to the heritage railways, inspiring annual sell-out family events. Last year’s remake of the Railway Children has also reignited love for the classic tale, both filmed near Keighley in West Yorkshire.
This year, NYMR is celebrating its 50th anniversary. As one of the earliest and most historic lines in the north of England, the route proved an important trade link between Pickering and Whitby.
The line was registered as a charity under the title of the North York Moors Historical Railway Trust in February 1973, before being officially opened by the Duchess of Kent in May that year.
Through a major fundraising scheme and help from the former North Yorkshire County Council, sufficient funds were raised to re-open the line in stages until May 1975.
Its 50th anniversary Steam Gala is running from Thursday, 21 September, to Sunday, 24 September, where they will showcase up to 12 steam locomotives.
The not-for-profit organisation relies on more than 600 volunteers to operate the route. Since its inception, what started off as a small group of passionate individuals has grown into around 10,000 members.
For the last 20 years, Margaret Stainburn has been volunteering as a ticket inspector on a weekly basis. Her interest in the heritage railway stems from her father, who was a steam locomotive fireman and engine driver.
She said: “I love being part of the railway, we are a big family. I can recommend things to do in the local area and making a small difference to travellers gives me such a buzz. I never get fed up with seeing the beautiful scenery.
“The heritage railway is great for the local area, bringing in tourists from far and wide. It provides a real boost for businesses at places along the route. I’m really proud to have it on my doorstep.”
Since introducing annual tickets, the 24-mile railway has seen a surge in return visitors, with the shop and tearoom reaping huge benefits.
Michelle Baggaley, community engagement manager at North York Moors Historical Railway, said: “The dedication of our volunteers has played a vital role in the preservation and operation of our esteemed heritage railway and living museum.
“Their enthusiasm, passion, dedication and commitment has, and is, instrumental in creating unforgettable visitor experiences. Sharing and imparting knowledge, resources and skills, together they preserve the North York Moors Historical Railway and inspire future generations.”
The county’s heritage railways play an important role in educating and telling the story of North Yorkshire’s past, as well as providing local jobs to boost the visitor economy.
They have demonstrated resilience in the face of wide-ranging challenges posed in recent years due to the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
North Yorkshire Council’s leader, Cllr Carl Les, said: “Our heritage railways bring important economic benefits to the areas in which they operate. They represent some of the most popular tourist attractions in the county, generating significant employment opportunities.
“They also offer an attractive pastime for hundreds of volunteers who are vital in securing a successful future of the railways. We find some younger people volunteering to gain skills for careers, and many dedicate their time in retirement to benefit from social interaction and exercise.
“The organisations are also a way of keeping history alive and celebrating Britain’s industrial past, proving popular for family days out and school trips. Preserving our heritage railways is important for generations to come.”
Running through the picturesque Dales countryside is the four-mile Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway, formed in 1979 and opened in 1981.
Further north lies the Wensleydale Railway, which operates for 22 miles between Scruton and Leyburn. The first stretch opened in 1848.
With the exception of goods trains serving the quarry near Redmire until 1992, freight traffic on the line ceased in 1982. However, in 1990 the Wensleydale Railway Association (WRA) was formed with the aim of restoring passenger services.
After a mammoth fundraising effort, passenger services restarted in July 2003 with the stations at Leeming Bar and Leyburn.
Since then, the stations at Scruton, Bedale and Finghall Lane have all reopened. Work is currently ongoing to restore services from Leyburn to Redmire.
Nick Keegan, fundraising and marketing manager at Wensleydale Railway, said: “Our volunteer-led heritage railway has been operating since 2003 and we’re proud to play our part in preserving and showcasing the region’s important railway heritage and amazing scenery to thousands of annual visitors.
“Our community railway contributes significantly to the local economy, and we anticipate welcoming 60,000 people on board our Polar Express Christmas trains this year.”
The most recent restoration project took place at Leeming Bar station thanks to a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant. It houses the staff offices and engine shed where locomotives and rolling stock are maintained and restored.
Bob Coombs volunteers at Leeming as station master six days a week, leading the living history volunteer team. He has been involved in the railway for 11 years, previously working as a crossing keeper.
During the recent refurbishment, Bob helped with the painting. He said: “The station at Leeming has a very popular heritage education programme and we offer tours and school visits to keep local history alive.
“We have visitors flocking from overseas and across the UK to see the station and ride on the trains. It’s an important piece of history for the community to hold on to.”
Connor Lagus, community engagement officer at Wensleydale Railway, added: “We cannot survive without local community support and the passion and dedication of our wonderful volunteers and staff.
“If you haven’t visited us before, we urge you to come. If you can spare a few hours, get involved and help us to protect our railway for future generations to enjoy.”