Gareth Huw Davies


Tornado steam train on the Settle-Carlisle – the railway they couldn’t shut

Ribblehead Viaduct - much cheaper to repair than originally forecast

Ribblehead Viaduct – much cheaper to repair than originally forecast. (Train is an earlier photo – not the Tornado services.)

The steam train hauled by steam loco Tornado, which left Appleby station on the Settle-Carlisle line for Skipton on Tuesday morning, Feb 14th 2017, was a significant piece of transport history because it is a scheduled service, run by a railway company – Northern – not an enthusiasts’ special.

Tornado hauled 12 regular Northern services on the Settle-Carlisle line over three consecutive days. The last time a steam passenger train ran on scheduled services on the main line in the UK, as part of the regular timetable, was 1968. 

The line itself, across the Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales is an important piece of transport history. The steam services are part of celebrations to mark the re-opening of the line after landslides in 2016 closed it. There was a time in the 1980s when, run down and neglected by the then nationalised British Rail, it seemed it would be closed forever. So this was a double triumph.

(The £3m Tornado, 60163, was built in Darlington and Doncaster by enthusiasts, and completed in 2008.) 

I wrote the following piece earlier.

By now the Ribblehead Viaduct should have been rubble under some motorway extension. And the rest of the 72 mile Settle-Carlisle railway, they would have turned that into a cycle track. I mean the bits that were not covered in houses, factory units and impossible-to-undo road realignments. Just look at the problems surrounding the full restoration of the Oxford-Cambridge line.

Instead, this thrilling railway across the top of the North of England survived, in an age when that didn’t happen much, well before social media campaigns and disruptive direct action. 25 years ago today, April 11, 1989, the government decided the line would stay open, six years after the then nationalised railway (BR) announced  its intention to close it.

The following piece is by me. A shorter version appeared in the Sunday Times in 1999.

The grand Thames-Clyde expresses no longer thunder up and down the Seattle to Carlisle. Pullman pomp has given way to two-car diesels routine. It wasn’t the Ritz, but our train was clean, warm and on time, and gave a jaunty hoot, as if saluting the epic ahead.

This magnificent line, the route only pig-headed Victorian railway barons could have built, was nearly closed by the grey men in accounts in the early 1980s. 10 years on, the line is safe, with five trains a day each way, and passenger figures at by 500%.

Regional Railways NorthEast commissioned a poem worthy of McGonagall for a promotional platform poster, but the doggerel contains some genuine truths. After a few soppy couplets about melting snow and peeping flowers, they junk the rules of scansion and give us a passage about the most breathtaking countryside in all England.

The 71 mile Carlisle to Settle line unfolds like a four movement symphony. First, the quiet opening passage in Cumbria. We bowled along the flat, rich lands of the Vale of Eden, occasionally swapping sides with the river. The line is channelled between stone walls, which rear and dip like a fairground ride. Every so often we took to the air and soared over a vertiginous valley. Far below, the green river plain was speckled with molehills.

The second, more picturesque movement begins at Appleby, much knocked about by the Scots, and for one week a year Britain’s horse-trading capital. Visual cameos sprinkle the line-side: a buzzard rising idly off the embankment; a sheepdog leading a tractor across the field. At Kirby Stephen, a child and mother, bearing bouquets, sprinted to an alighting aunt like characters from a “travel by train” ad.

Next, the tempestuous third movement. Our little diesel began to grind and strain with the climb. Wild Boar Fell heaved into view on the right. The Moors were ribboned with old snow. Water the colour of Islay malt cascaded off  rocky shelves.

This truly was the line for all stations to Hell. Navvies laboured in the most wretched conditions to blast the Midland Railway’s rival route to the north through the Great Scar limestone. There are stories of railwaymen being thrown off viaducts by the ferocious winds. Riding the expresses from London up the 15-mile incline, the Long Haul, must have been agony for the frantically-shovelling firemen and the grim-faced drivers aiming at the clouds.

We reached Dent, the highest station in England, clamped under Brontë-esque gloom even on a spring morning. All roads, well tracks, seemed to lead into the glowering fells. Hereabouts you do as well to study the weather forecast as the timetable. Such meteorologically-induced hold-ups occur that make the standard “leaves on the line” excuse seem risible. In 1947 an ice age shut the line for two months, steam engines buried up to their chimneys by drifts.

I alighted at Ribblehead, just inside Yorkshire, a short step from Britain’s most illustrious viaduct, and strolled over to the Station Inn for lunch. The walls were plastered with pictures of mighty Pacifics and Atlantics, preserved steam locos that haul regular excursions along the line.

Stoked with a vegetable lasagne, I struck off to the viaduct. The only sounds were the wind moaning under the 24 high arches, and a single plume of water dripping spookily from an immense height. The allegedly terminal disrepair of the viaduct in 1983 was BR’s chief argument for closing the line. Outrage gathered like snowdrifts on the flanks of nearby Pen-y-Ghent. There was passion and protest and the bill for repairs was shown to be exaggerated six-fold.

Good sense prevailed and the line was reprieved. 10 councils and six other official bodies, their names recorded on a plaque, stumped up the cost of restoration in 1991. Another plaque chronicles the navvies’ line-side shantytowns, where life was bleak and often short, names such as Batty Green, Sebastopol and Jerusalem.

Consulting one of the Dales National Park noticeboards, I deduced that the only ecologically-correct way to glory at this wilderness is from inside a railway carriage, stepping off at the occasional station to take the air. The line treads lightly on a fragile landscape. Everything else, particularly cars and people, is its problem.

This is what visitors do. “Devastating effect… reducing enormous stretches of footpath to quagmire,” notes the notice. The authorities have hit on a radical solution, floating a stone path on a plastic mat laid across the ravaged peat. I walked a mile or so over this bouncing route, past shake holes and stream sinks and other geological eccentricities of the glacio-karst, as far as Blea Moor signal box, as remote from Clapham Junction as Ulan Bator.

And so for the tranquil fourth movement. I returned to the station in good time for the train, still picking its way circumspectly across the viaduct, as if it might yet suffer McGonagall-style collapse. From here it could almost freewheel down the Long Haul. We glided down ever-gentler valleys, past the pleasant Dales town of Settle, until the shining new warehouses of the West Yorkshire economic miracle chaperoned us into Leeds.