Huddersfield Daily Examiner (23/Jan/2013) – Rural Pennine Rail Line that Just Refused to Die

Rural Pennine Rail Line that Just Refused to Die

It was due to shut but now carries 1m passengers each year. Paul Salveson is a councillor for Golcar ward and founded the Penistone Line Partnership in 1993. Here he examines a new book about the massive cuts to the local railway network over many years.

Dr Richard Beeching is a name that still sends shudders down the spines of many rail supporters. He was the famous ‘axe man’ who was responsible for the closure of thousands of miles of railways in the 1960s and 1970s. His report — The Re-shaping of British Railways — was published 50 years ago, on March 27, 1963.

A new book puts the Beeching legacy into context and prominently features one particular railway — the Penistone Line — which refused to die.

“Holding the Line — How Britain’s Railways Were Saved” is written by two highly experienced railwaymen, Lord Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin, OBE.

The book is the first detailed account of successive attempts to drastically cut Britain’s railway network, of which Beeching was the low point.

While Richard and Chris are passionate about railways — and their anger about the slashing of our railways in the Beeching era comes through strongly — the book does not harangue the reader. It shows, with clear evidence, that there really was what amounts to a conspiracy in government circles to destroy what was once the best railway system in the world. And it could have been far worse.

Many lines had closed before Beeching published his infamous report.

Locally, Holmfirth lost its passenger service in 1959 and Meltham’s passenger trains ceased 10 years earlier.

The Penistone Line itself from Huddersfield to Sheffield was proposed for closure by Beeching in 1963.

Perhaps, surprisingly, it was reprieved in 1966 by Labour’s incoming transport minister, Barbara Castle, as one of six ‘conurbation commuter services’. However, that was not to be the end of the story.

The section of line between Denby Dale and Sheffield was proposed for closure in 1982, making the remaining section from Denby Dale to Huddersfield unviable.

South Yorkshire Passenger Transport executive relented on the Denby Dale-Sheffield closure but meanwhile West Yorkshire Metro had withdrawn financial support from the Huddersfield section. It wasn’t until 1987, after much pressure from groups such as the Huddersfield Penistone Sheffield Rail Users’ Association that the threat of closure was removed. However, the branch from Shepley to Clayton West saw its last train on January 22, 1983 — one of the last major closures in the country. The authors stress that the threat to large swathes of the rail network continued throughout the 1980s. The Serpell Report of 1983 presented ‘options’ which included a network of just 1,630 route miles — a loss of nearly 9,000 miles, including all of Huddersfield’s railways.

The book demonstrates that the attempts to close substantial parts of the network were highly political. Villains of the piece include Ernest Marples, Conservative transport minister at the time of Beeching, but also the shadowy figure of Alfred Sherman, a right-wing ideologue who had the ear of Mrs Thatcher. His ‘big idea’ was to tarmac over as many railways as possible and turn them into ‘super-highways’. But Labour Governments do not escape criticism either. The incoming 1964 Labour Government of Harold Wilson could easily have saved several well-used routes such as Whitby to Scarborough and York to Beverley.

The last major attempted closure came in the early 1980s when British Rail announced its intention to close the Settle-Carlisle Line. The route had been threatened, but reprieved, in the 1960s. The announcement led to a high-profile campaign which saw over 23,000 objections — including one dog!

The Government backed down. Like many other lines which had been threatened by Beeching, the Settle-Carlisle went on to prosper, today carrying a mix of both passenger and freight trains. Other lines in West Yorkshire which Beeching wanted to close included the now-electrified commuter line to Ilkley.

Sadly, the line to Wetherby succumbed and one has to wonder at the madness of closing what might have been an important part of the West Yorkshire commuter network had it survived.

Since the ‘final’ reprieve in 1987 the Penistone Line has, of course, gone from strength to strength. An active users’ association has been complemented by the Penistone Line Partnership, the first ‘community rail partnership’ in the country, formed in 1993. It became a model for other lightly-used lines around Britain. Passenger numbers have more than doubled and the line now carries well over a million people a year. It could so easily have been lost.

The main problems facing Britain’s local railways today are not lack of passengers but shortage of capacity to meet rising demand.

The so-called ‘basket-case’ lines of the 1970s are now carrying trains which are bursting at the seams. The challenge of the next 20 years will be to provide the capacity — both extra trains and more track capacity — to meet the sort of growth that the so-called experts of the 1960s would have dismissed as a pipe-dream. It was the romantics like John Betjeman who were proved right, not the ‘realists’ such as Beeching, Serpell and Sherman.

“Holding the Line: How Britain’s Railways Were Saved” by Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin is published by Ian Allan.