Yorkshire Dales community bid for capital to reopen railway link
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in the Observer, 2002
The train currently waiting at the platform at Hawes, the popular Yorkshire Dales village in upper Wensleydale, is best not relied on if you are in a hurry. Marooned on about fifty yards of track, the engine looks ahead towards six miles of overgrown trackbed which snakes its lonely way alongside the upper reaches of the river Ure. At the back of the solitary coach are twelve more miles of ex-railway, including a missing river bridge and a bulldozed former embankment. Hawes station, and the train which it accommodates, are now simply exhibits in a National Park visitor centre.
But a local action group is determined that the railway will return to this part of the Yorkshire Dales. The 2700-strong Wensleydale Railway Association has the audacious aim not simply of creating a heritage line but of reconnecting the line through the valley as an integral part of the national rail network. To help raise money, the specially established Wensleydale Railway plc is currently looking for investors prepared to add to the £840,000 or so already subscribed in share capital.
Given the present problems in Britain of getting trains to run properly, the idea of bringing this long-gone line back into daily use might seem hopelessly utopian. But anyone inclined to this viewpoint has clearly never met Ruth Annison, the no-nonsense secretary of the Wensleydale Railway Association and Marketing Director of Wensleydale Railway plc. Ruth, a local businesswoman, is also a veteran of the previous successful campaign to bring local services back to the Settle-Carlisle line. She talks not of the charms of steam engine pistons but rather of the need for rural economic regeneration and socially inclusive access to the countryside. "We are not looking at this nostalgically, but at what makes sense for the future. Were talking about sustainable transport. Im not particularly interested in trains," she confides.
It is already eleven years since Ruth Annison called the first public meeting of the Wensleydale Railway Association, and she accepts that the whole project could take a generation. The eighteen miles of overgrown trackbed is now owned by 52 separate land-owners, each of whom would have to be bought out. On top of that, the cost of re-laying railway track has been estimated at £1m a mile.
However the Wensleydale Railway project also has some advantages. Firstly, it would reopen a forty-mile rail link between the Settle-Carlisle line and the East Coast main line, through the heart of a national park. Secondly, and more importantly, the eastern twenty-two miles of track remains in place, until recently used for freight traffic and available almost immediately for passenger trains. Wensleydale Railway plc is negotiating with Railtrack for an operating lease on this line and expects to begin a limited service from Leeming Bar, beside the A1, to Leyburn this summer . The former stations at Leeming, Leyburn and Aysgarth have already been acquired.
The Wensleydale Railway plc share issue aims to bring in £2.5m, with the capital being used primarily to establish a successful operation on this eastern section. Scott Handley, a civil engineer who is chief executive of the plc, says that the share issue is being pitched as much at environmentalists as at railway enthusiasts, and the company has recently been targeting ramblers for support. "Were not a typical heritage railway," he says.
Like other railway share issues, however, investors are not primarily putting in their money in hopes of financial returns. Although Scott Handley talks of the long-term aim of the company to operate commercially and points to the commercial success of rural railways in other parts of Europe, the share prospectus admits that dividends are unlikely in the early years of the companys life. Investors also need to remember that there is no ready-made market which would enable shares to be easily sold. The company hopes to arrange an AIM listing or trading facility in the medium term.
Though its aims may be a little different, Wensleydale Railway plc is following the route of many other preservation railways in raising much needed capital through share issues. According to Peter Ovenstone, chief executive of the Heritage Railway Association, £15m or more may have been raised in total in this way over the past thirty years. In many cases, the bulk of the capital subscribed has come from local well-wishers, an interesting return to the position a century and a half ago when local entrepreneurs tended to fund branch line development.
As well as the Wensleydale share issue, a number of other preserved railways currently have share issues open. For example, the South Devon Railway plc, based at Buckfastleigh, has been raising funds to enable it to purchase its line from its current owners. With £0.5m invested, the sale is expected to take place shortly, but Richard Elliott, General Manager, says that more investments will be welcomed. A £100 investment brings two free tickets to ride each year and discounts in the railway café and shop, but the real perks are reserved for shareholders with at least £20,000 to invest: they get the chance to try their hand at driving a steam train in what the company calls a footplate experience ride.
Wensleydale Railway plc prospectus available from www.wensleydalerailway.com
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