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Let a historic train take the Xmas strain

Friday 05 December 2008

Like many people of a certain age, our countryside commentator John Sheard carries a deep nostalgia for the Age of Steam, which is why today we are carrying a black and white picture. But he is far more interested in the possibility of the reopening of a vital rail link between Yorkshire and the North West

AT 9.30 AM on Sunday (Dec 10), a Christmas shopping special train will leave Skipton, in the Yorkshire Dales for Colne across the border in East Lancashire. That’s a statement which under normal circumstances would not justify comment here – but for the fact that it will be the first train to do so for some 40 years.

The two towns are some 11 miles apart and, if normal standards applied, the trip would take less than 30 minutes with a couple of stops along the way. In fact, it will arrive at Colne at 12.07 pm, two hours and 37 minutes later. The reason: it will have travelled almost 150 miles.

The last steam train to run on the Skipton-Colne line, 1958
The last steam train to run on the Skipton-Colne line, 1958.
Image courtesy Michael Feather/Barry Atkinson

The reason for this colossal stupidity – not to mention a huge waste of diesel in these emission conscious times – is that this tiny but crucial length of track was closed down in the 1960s. And that, believe it or not, was probably done by mistake because some idiot couldn’t read a map.

The notorious Dr Beaching, who controversially dismembered thousands of miles of Britain’s rail network in 1963, had nothing to do with the closure of the Skipton-Colne, which was part of a vital trans-Pennine link between the industrial power houses of the West Riding of Yorkshire and North West England, home to Manchester, Liverpool and dozens of big Industrial Revolution towns.

Although the Mad Axeman – as he was called by many railway buffs – slashed hundreds of rural lines, he recognised the strategic importance of this 11 miles of track. But line closure mania took a grip which lasted for years and some unknown British Railway bureaucrat did for the Skipton-Colne with the stroke of a pen.

And that’s why Sunday’s Christmas special will first head east to Leeds before turning west again via Halifax and Hebden Bridge to approach Colne from the South. This is a journey that makes nonsense of much-quoted Government aspirations to cut road congestion and its total failure to upgrade our Victorian railway network which is attracting so many passengers today that getting a seat on many journeys is an absoluter luxury.

The year 2009 may be when the decision to re-open the Skipton-Colne is finally announced

But there is hope yet. The year 2009 may be when the decision to re-open the Skipton-Colne is finally announced, thanks to the hard work and campaigning skilsl of a bunch of amateurs who call themselves the Skipton-East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership (SELRAP).

These are the people who have organised Sunday’s train in the latest battle in their war to get the line reopened. They have already received the backing of 126 MPs, 40 MEPs, and most of the local authorities on both sides of the Pennines. Gordon Brown has promised to bring forward big Government infrastructure projects and SELRAP organisers hope that this will be one of them.

The train will take passengers to the newly opened Boundary Mill factory outlet store, one of the biggest in Northern England, in search of Christmas bargains. That’s not a bad idea in its own right. But to re-forge the link between two of England’s business power houses is a truly historic ambition. Let’s hope Gordon Brown and his minions are listening.

  • Last minute tickets on the shopping special can be reserved by phoning Derek Jennings on 01282 690411. They can be paid for before departure from Skipton on Sunday. Have a good trip!

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