Settle to Carlisle line: Shortage of trains 'hampering growth'
- 11 April 2014
- From the section England
Veterans of one of the most contentious battles ever fought between railway campaigners and the Thatcher-era government have seized their moment to rejoice, by boarding a special anniversary train to celebrate their triumph.
Tickets sold out far in advance for the special run which marks the victory 25 years ago by a resolute group of enthusiasts over ministers who had threatened to close the scenic and much-loved Settle to Carlisle line. Along the route churches and public buildings will fly the union flag in honour of the occasion.
Friday's celebrations, however, cannot mask the growing concerns at the dire need for increased and sustained government investment in new rolling stock for this bitterly fought for rail route.
Campaigners nationwide have pointed out this is the least that is deserved for a line that is seen by many as England's most dramatic and romantic train route. Its popularity has surpassed even the expectations of the enthusiasts who fought to rescue it in 1989.
From only two trains a day in the 1980s the Settle and Carlisle line now sees 14 passenger and 18 freight services a day.
The millions of tonnes of freight that the line now carries annually would otherwise have to travel by road.
Spare capacity is also regularly offered for one-off chartered services.
"The line is a real crowd puller," said James Shuttleworth, commercial manager of West Coast Railway Company. "We have been running 500-seat steam charter trains over the line for eight consecutive weekends, plus a couple during the week and all have been full."
Campaigners understandably now argue that their energy and resolve a quarter of a century ago has brought unforeseen benefits to the wider rail network and the economy.
As well as a boost to tourism in the region, this romantic and picturesque rail route has proved to be an essential backup to the congested West Coast Main Line that links northern England to Scotland.
Commuters, too, have begun to benefit. A new early morning train to Carlisle now attracts 70-80 passengers each day, a figure which is growing every month. Precious to the rural communities it serves the service is both reliable and cheap. Fares are 60% lower mile for mile than they are in the south-east.
Views are outstanding, with rolling farmland gradually giving way to the rugged terrain of the upland Pennines.
A former Bishop of Wakefield, Eric Treacy described the line as "one of the top three manmade wonders of the world". By quirk of fate Bishop Treacy died of a heart attack on the station platform at Appleby while waiting to see a passing steam train.
There is no shortage of enthusiastic passengers today.
Paul Spray, from Oxford, chose to mark his retirement this week by walking the full length of Hadrian's Wall, and then deliberately deviating home along the Settle-Carlisle line.
"It's a breathtakingly beautiful line, and what a great way to mark my retirement," he said.
The route is equally beloved by crew. A happy retinue of retired volunteers travel daily on the trains selling tea, coffee and locally made farmhouse produce.
A retired train driver called it "the only line where RAF fighter jets hugging the contours of the land fly beneath you".
Jobs on the Settle and Carlisle line are surprisingly popular and even considered the holy grail of rail postings eliciting applicants from all over the country.
One signalman left his family in the south so he could work at the Blea Moor signal box, a mile from the nearest road and officially the remotest in Britain.
This old-fashioned feel pervades the line, in spite of considerable expenditure on track and signalling upgrades.
One of the neatest and least costly innovations to the traditional semaphore-style signalling system has been the introduction of intermediate block signalling. This enables two trains to now run on each track section simultaneously doubling capacity.
Despite all these successes, serious problems remain - as far as the line's doughty campaigners are concerned, the fight is not over.
"Overcrowding is a real issue with the current two-coach trains," said Mark Rand, former chairman of the Friends of the line. "It's appalling that at busy times over 50 have to stand, when they have come a long distance especially to experience the journey."
Operator Northern Rail admits there is a problem. Their spokeswoman said: "We are massively aware of the overcrowding issues but we are running at 100% capacity, and without new rolling stock we don't have a choice."
She added the best they can realistically hope for is a cascade of existing diesel trains, when the Manchester to Liverpool line is electrified in December this year.
Peter Shaw, one of the original campaigners, said: "The current trains are getting a bit long in the tooth, but are the best that Northern (rail) have and they are doing a good job with the limited resources they have."
Mark Rand, a local campaigner, was similarly sympathetic to the company, pointing out that it was the government, ultimately who decides where rail investment is focused, with "the North" lying at the bottom of the pile, now as it did in 1983.
Current chairman of the Friends of the line, Richard Morris, makes a case for more government investment in what he believes should be recognised as "the jewel in the crown" of Britain's rail network.
'Poor man's railway'
He said: "Our own analysis shows that far from being a drain on the public purse, many of the trains are actually profitable.
"The average take on the line is £15 compared with just £2 per head on other parts of the Northern Rail franchise network."
The fragmented geography of the line, he points out, raises further problems with funding, as nobody sees it as theirs.
"It covers three counties, starting in West Yorkshire, passing through North Yorkshire and ending up in Cumbria," he added.
Paul Kampen, secretary of the line's association, agrees.
"We have regular meetings with the government to talk about investment. But it never seems to translate into action," he said.
For the travellers heading north to experience this remarkable line, the stunning views for the time-being will have to compensate for the discomfort of overcrowded trains with broken toilets and unreliable air conditioning.
Mr Kampen summed it up succinctly: "Despite the beauty and rich heritage you are aware that you are travelling on the poor man's railway."