The South Tynedale Railway

This remotely situated ‘gem’ is built on part of the former North Eastern Railway trackbed to Alston. It may well be England’s highest narrow gauge railway, and has deep-seated aspirations to return to Haltwhistle. Graeme Pickering paid them a visit.

It was the remoteness of communities in the South Tyne Valley that led to the railway which served them surviving long enough to become one of northern England’s last rural branches.

The final British Rail train from the Cumbrian market town of Alston began its journey to Haltwhistle at 9.09 on the evening of May 1, 1976. Its departure, accompanied by a bagpipe lament and the crack of detonators, marked the closure of the 13 mile- and 12 chain-route after almost 125 years of service. The death knell had been postponed until work on a new ‘all weather’ road was completed.

While a census showed that on average it was lightly used, Northumberland County Council argued the line was an important alternative to negotiating steep hills and narrow roads during the course of a normal winter, when it tended to attract a greater number of passengers. The Transport Users’ Consultative Committee concluded its closure would present a hardship. Forty-three years later the area’s comparative isolation still presents challenges, not least of all when it comes to attracting visitors to the 2ft-gauge South Tynedale Railway, which operates five miles of the old line.

Unsustainable losses

“The state of the national economy plays a key part in it,” says South Tynedale Railway (STR) deputy chairman Alan Farrar. “Putting it crudely, people have got to have that extra seven or eight quid in their pocket for the extra gallon of fuel to get themselves here from wherever else they’ve been, and it’s just getting the word out that we are here.”

Having started services over around a mile of track from Alston in July 1983, the STR now runs as far as Slaggyford, the first of the original intermediate stations as the line heads north.

The official return of the railway last year to the small Northumberland village was welcome progress for the STR after a period of serious financial difficulties which, by 2012, included five consecutive years of unsustainable losses. Visitor numbers weren’t providing enough income for the railway to remain viable.

A need for organisational change was identified, and plans were drawn-up for a £5.6million development project funded by various grants, £4.25million of it from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

This paid for work on lengthening the line to reach Slaggyford (including the laying of the one and a half miles of track necessary to extend from its previous terminus of Lintley, associated bridge repairs, and reinstallation of the level crossing at the station), the restoration of the station building and addition of new toilet facilities, and a new signalbox.

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