By the early 1990s, the Wirksworth Branch was hanging by a thread. The last freight had run before the previous decade was out and the main source of traffic, Middlepeak Quarry in Wirksworth, was declining in output. There was one hope: flue gas desulphurisation: the addition of an alkaline sorbant, usually limestone, to scrub the exhaust from power stations to remove sulphur dioxide from the gases, thus preventing the formation of chemicals in the atmosphere that cause acid rain.
This could have become a significant source of traffic for Wirksworth but it was not to be: the contract for Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station was won by the quarries at Tunstead near Buxton. This was a blow and not long after, this snippet appeared in Rail Magazine.
Things were not looking good for Wirksworth and lifting seemed inevitable. The infrastructure of the line was beginning to deteriorate. One mile of continuously-welded track had its rail lifted and old rails, cut into short lengths, dropped next to the sleepers as a low-rent replacement. Further along the line, a section was lifted with the track stacked like old shelves, to allow a gas pipeline to be laid.
Around the same time, the privatisation of the railways started to raise its head. Regarded as the least easy state industry to sell-off, a Green Paper emerged which laid-out a franchise model for train operators. This had a lot of railway managers thinking: there were radical new ideas to be considered.
One idea was a microfranchise: a franchise to operate a small network consisting of one or two lines. Another was a marketing franchise: one company supplies the trains and drivers but another promotes the line and takes some of the risk of operation. These might sound quaint today but in 1992 this was as radical as Galileo suggesting that the Earth orbited around the Sun: for three decades the railways had been a monolith and this approach was getting a lot more personal.
Enter WyvernRail Limited
On 2nd October 1992 a company called WyvernRail was registered and in the following February its first board meeting was held in a room at Cromford Station used by the local scout troop. The plan was this: approach Railfreight Construction (the then custodian of the Wirksworth Branch) and obtain permission to run a rail service between Wirksworth and Derby.
This video is worth watching, click on it to open in a new window.
And also Railtrack…
The problem was this: when you called to ask about who managed the Wirksworth Branch, who would pick-up the phone? Privatisation began in 1993 and the following year Railtrack was created to manage the infrastructure of the railway network. Despite all the well-documented failings of that poorly-regarded organisation, the railway industry was going through change of epic proportions and one tiny branch line was hardly going to be a priority.
To cut a long story short, for five years, WyvernRail was to a great extent half a dozen blokes sat around a dining room table with a good idea but little wherewithal.
But not quite. It wasn’t all pipedreams: WyvernRail explored several alternative scenarios including a possible open-access Derby to Manchester service and, most surprising of all, prequalifying for the Midland Main Line franchise!
There were two positive steps towards the resuscitation of the Wirksworth Branch:
In 1996, the company was granted a Light Railway Order to operate the line. This is a statutory instrument (i.e. approved by Parliament and has legal status) that allows an organisation to operate a railway. The process was managed by the company without assistance from legal experts or parliamentary agents.
In 1997, the Derby & Wirksworth Railway Association was launched. This morphed into the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway Association (EVRA) and remains today as the heritage and volunteering half of the partnership with WyvernRail that is today’s Ecclesbourne Valley Railway.
By 1999, progress was being made: they say ‘people buy from people’ and it was the establishment of a relationship with the right person in Railtrack’s Property Department that helped make progress. It was a suggestion that rather than attempt to access the line as a service provider, WyvernRail consider the line’s lease or purchase from Railtrack. This was a little bit of a game-changer but focused the company’s thoughts on exactly what it wanted to do: attempt to continue as a form of franchise or follow a more traditional heritage route.
It was not a difficult decision to make as the offer was going to be difficult to turn-down. For the price of a well-appointed detached house, the railway and its infrastructure could be leased, bought or a combination of the two. Part of the site at Wirksworth was reserved as a Strategic Freight Site, but the vast majority of the estate could become the company’s asset.
There was one other provision, although the line had become an informal path in many places, WyvernRail was granted access to the line “for the clearance of vegetation to allow the inspection of structures”. This allowed words to become deeds and not before time…