THIS spring sees a significant anniversary in British railway history – 25 years since the Settle to Carlisle line was saved. After a six-year battle, it was announced on April 11, 1989 that the Government had rejected British Rail’s plan to close it. A quarter of a century on, 1.2million passengers now travel on England’s most scenic railway every year.
THE fight started on December 15, 1983 and would go on for six years.
That month, Pope John Paul II pardoned the man who shot him, Kenny Dalglish scored his 100th goal for Liverpool and The Flying Pickets hit number one with Only You.
British Rail caused shock by announcing plans to shut the perenially threatened line as it was costing millions to maintain.
Along its 72 miles, eight of its stations had closed, services had been decimated and signal boxes were weathering.
It’s most spectacular feature, Ribblehead Viaduct, standing 165ft tall and with 24 arches, was said to be crumbling.
Created by the Midland Railway in the 1870s to connect London to Scotland, it took six years to build with its 325 bridges, 21 viaducts and 14 tunnels.
This feat of Victorian engineering was nearing the end of its life after 120 years, claimed BR.
Stations at Settle and Appleby would also shut – unless a buyer could be found.
But bosses did not count on the strength of public affection.
“I can remember being in awe of those who conducted the campaign with such vigour, determination and non-stop energy,” says Paul Kampen, secretary of the Friends of the Settle – Carlisle Line, and editor of the group’s magazine.
“Some are still involved in the Friends. Many are enjoying a well-earned retirement and a few, sadly, have now departed forever.”
Cutting through some of England’s wildest terrain, the line was revered not just in trainspotting circles but in the communities it passed through: places like Newbiggin, Appleby, Kirkby Stephen, Garsdale, Dent.
It was a route like no other. At its highest, the central section of the route climbs to 1,100ft.
Over Ribblehead in 1977, the wind had been recorded howling at 120mph. Some said it was the ghosts of the 100 men who died during the line’s construction, buried in a mass grave at nearby Chapel-le-Dale.
The people were not prepared to let it go. They had to make a case for its worthiness and they did so spectacularly – increasing passenger journeys from 150,000 to 450,000 a year.
One of its most famous supporters was Ruswarp – a collie dog owned by Graham Nuttall, from Lancashire, who became Secretary of the Friends.
In a stroke of PR brilliance, Mr Nuttall used Ruswarp’s paw to sign a petition. It was accepted as legitimate because dogs were fare paying passengers!
Now long gone, Ruswarp lives on, high up on Garsdale Station in the form of a bronze statue.
Two groups pivotal to the saviour of the line were of course the Friends of The Settle-Carlisle Line, and the Joint Action Committee.
Edward Album, a founder member of the Friends, recalls the campaign in a new publication, ‘1989 to 2014, Run-Down To Renaissance’.
He writes: “The Friends developed a policy early on of trying to work with, not against, the rail authorities, civil servants and Government.
“This policy did not prevent the Friends campaigning strongly. However, we aimed to maintain good relations.”
He adds: “As regards the Ministers, they were initially strongly supporting closure. Financial reasons, then as now, were what counted. At the beginning, the Secretary of State Nicholas Ridley made the famous remark that the regular users of the line ‘could all be accommodated in a decent-sized minibus’.
" At the end, Michael Portillo was the minister who had the pleasure of communicating the favourable decision to us. He has been a supporter of the line and a friend of the Friends ever since.”
Mr Portillo will be the Friends’ guest of honour on Friday, April 11.
That weekend will see a a number of special events including a Northern Rail sponsored special charity train running on Sunday, April 13 along the DalesRail route from Blackpool to Carlisle.