Welcome to the 'New Somerset and Dorset Railway'
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
achieving the 'impossible'
(All text and images by Anna-Jayne Metcalfe)
A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to be on the first mainline tour to visit the Weardale Railway since its recent reconnection to the national network at Bishop Auckland in County Durham.
The 25 mile Bishop Auckland - Wearhead branch was originally built by the Stockton & Darlington Railway (the other S&D!) in the mid-19th century, primarily to service the many quarries concentrated around Frosterley and Stanhope. With Bishop Auckland rapidly becoming a hub where lines from Weardale, Durham, Darlington, Ferryhill and even Penrith converged there was no shortage of opportunities to convey stone and other freight between the dale and anywhere it was needed. At one point it was even planned to extend the branch to Carlisle, but that plan never came to fruition.
When passenger services ceased in 1953 the line became freight only.
Unfortunately the railways in the Bishop Auckland area fared rather badly in the 1960s - by 1968 virtually all of the lines converging on the town (one of them a major ECML diversionary route) had closed.
However, the opening of a large cement works at Eastgate in 1964 ensured that the majority of the Weardale branch itself would survive the Beeching Axe - and in fact the cement trains continued to run until 1993. When they ceased, the remaining 18 miles of the branch were mothballed.
Thereafter, all that remained of the once busy railway hub at Bishop Auckland was a two hourly passenger service to Darlington and Saltburn (a service which ironically almost certainly only survived itself because of the cement traffic which had shared the Bishop Auckland - Darlington section).
Although for once tracklifting did not take place, few would have held much hope of the Weardale branch ever returning to use. The line had been economic to run only because of heavy freight, so with that gone what use could there be for 18 miles of single track branch line through some of the most inhospitable and underpopulated terrain in the country?
Despite this, when the line was mothballed an embryonic (but high profile - its patrons even included Pete Waterman) company was formed with the intention of rescuing and reopening it. Although they got some way (restarting services on the 6 mile stretch between Stanhope and Wolsingham), a combination of low revenue and high operating costs led to the company going into administration in January 2005.
Since then there have been two more owners - and fortunately the current owner (British American Railway Services, which also owns the Dartmoor Railway, track maintenance company RMS Locotec and traction spot-hire company D&CR) seems to be making a good go of it.
Although they are currently still running only a limited service on the same short section of the line, a vegetation clearing push in late 2008 allowed WR rolling stock to reach Bishop Auckland for the first time. By Autumn 2009 another milestone was passed when Network Rail reconnected the branch to the national network, enabling planning for its long term future to then get well and truly underway.
Of course it wasn't long before the announcement of the first mainline tour to travel up the branch...which brings me back to 19th February 2010, when I was among the lucky few to board the 07:07 departure from London Kings Cross to Stanhope.
The 12 coach train was sold out, and once we reached Bishop Auckland we found that at virtually every crossing on the route local people had turned out to wave to us. It was quite fantastic to see how glad people were to see the line running again, and I can't help thinking of the parallels with the feedback we've been getting from local people about the Somerset & Dorset.
A second tour followed a week later, and there are now several more in the pipeline. The WR are quite astutely using these tours as a way to raise awareness of the Weardale Railway and its potential both as a tourist destination in its own right and to serve the people and economy of Weardale.
So, having overcome one set of insurmountable obstacles, what are the WR planning to do next?
Well, they are certainly not resting on their laurels. By this summer they intend to start passenger services from Stanhope and Wolsingham to Shildon (which entails building a new WR station at Bishop Auckland and sharing NR metals from Bishop to Shildon itself). That will give them a direct service to/from the National Railway Museum at Shildon, hence raising their profile to visitors to the NRM who probably wouldn't otherwise think to take the Northern Rail service to Bishop Auckland itself.
If that isn't enough, plans are afoot to start coal flows from Wolsingham to the Midlands, and even to re-open the Stanhope - Eastgate section to support the proposed Eastgate Energy Village.
Only time will tell how they will fare, of course. However, as recently as three years ago nobody would have placed any bets on the Weardale Railway getting anywhere near this far - let alone on them having a long term future. Fortunately, they seem to be doing it anyway, so good luck to them!
Now, let's see what we can do with the Somerset & Dorset, shall we...?