Patience is a virtue: something worth remembering when rebuilding a railway. Although 1999 was the year of the breakthrough, it was not until November 8th 2000 that boots were on the ground. In torrential rain, the ‘Original Eight’ started clearance at Wirksworth.
The task was immense. Over a decade’s disuse had left the line heavily overgrown, suffering from encroachment, drains and watercourses blocked and a general air of decay. Clearing impenetrable vegetation in torrential rain in November and staying positive takes a special kind of person.
While miracles were taking place on the ground, many hours were spent negotiating and reviewing a lease / purchase agreement with Railtrack. In parallel, a public share issue was being worked-up. This is a hugely complex exercise that requires considerable process and procedure, not to mention the assistance of professional advisors. This didn’t come cheap and by the time the share issue was launched, expenses were at a significant five-figure sum.
WyvernRail Limited becomes WyvernRail plc
By the Spring of 2002, much of the railway was clear to a sufficient extent where we could see what needed to be done. The line was not in a fit state to run passenger trains, but slowly but surely, rolling stock arrived and people could see the difference. They needed-to as well: planned for April that year was the public share issue. This was a high-risk, you-know-what-or-bust event where failure would have meant the collapse of the project and a big bill for the directors.
An extensive publicity campaign took place to support the share issue with traditional advertising through placing flyers in various publications, arranging for others to be distributed to several thousand homes in the area and employing ‘guerrilla marketing’ techniques: cheeky adverts emailed to popping-up in unlikely places. It was you-know-what-or-bust, so anything that worked was considered.
Other preparatory work had been taking place. Heritage Railway magazine took an early interest in the line and published an extremely supportive article not long before the share launch, while the team on the ground had worked very hard to make the immediate vicinity of Wirksworth Station look presentable.
The morning of Friday 22nd April 2002 began with a mix of excitement and nervousness. The target was a minimum of £40,000 that had to be raised within 40 days: this was a statutory requirement, if the initial target was not met, then the share issue would have deemed to have failed and the monies raised refunded.
What was not anticipated was the level of public interest. The publicity campaign combined with the television coverage below had caused the response to be far greater than the most optimistic predictions.
The 40-day target was reached in 40 hours. We were on our way.
The Share Launch raised £250,000 and this allowed WyvernRail to pay for pretty much the whole value of the line. It was effectively a purchase barring £1 and a lot of legals but it meant that the company wasn’t saddled with the monkey of an annual payment to Railtrack. However, as a plc WyvernRail had an obligation to its shareholders both to continue the line’s restoration and stay financially viable. But with passenger services at least a couple of years away, how could it attract revenue?
Enter MyTestTrack.com. Not long after the share issue, a casual enquiry by an engineering company led to a business case and marketing plan being put-together. The deal was this: there were very few places where companies with new rail equipment could test it. Until equipment was certified it wasn’t allowed on the national network but there were very few rail backwaters available for testing kit to allow it to obtain certification. Catch 22.
In the meantime, the company had a railway in moderate condition with very little using it. There was a real opportunity and the creation of a website allowed a valuable source of revenue to be tapped at very little cost.
Over the years, the testing business has grown and facilities have been developed. MyTestTrack’s target market is the unglamorous but necessary part of the market: ‘Yellow Machines’, construction vehicles modified to run on the rail network. Perversely, the poor state of the line was an advantage: could small-wheeled navigate their way through the uneven and haphazard layout at Wirksworth?
MyTestTrack.com has proved to be an important part of the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway’s business and continues to be so. It is nice to know that a line associated with testing at many times in its life continues to do so.
The Return of Passengers
The plan was to open in stages and the first was local to Wirksworth. The line between Wirksworth and Gorsey Bank Crossing had been doubled in part during the late 1960s and advantage of this was taken by using one line as a short passenger spur, while leaving the other as the ‘main line’ to be reopened south.
Just to prepare for a half-mile ‘there and back’ service took well over a year: Wirksworth platform needed rebuilding the track layout to the south of the station needed to be brought-up to proper passenger standards and rolling stock had to be acquired.
However, the greatest task involved paperwork.
To operate a railway, regardless of length or frequency, approval must be obtained from the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR). This involved creation of a Rule Book, Safety Management System, Risk Assessments, a Sectional Appendix and many other documents. In turn, the new line requires inspection by Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate (HMRI) and a demonstration of the management’s competence to operate the railway. The term ‘jumping through hoops’ is unfair, but the management of the railway was certainly exercised.
An example of one of the exercises the railway had to undertake can be seen by clicking on the image below.
Approval to operate from Wirksworth to Gorsey Bank was received in August 2004 and very short notice a brief reopening ceremony was held and services recommenced after 57 years.
A small item of trivia: tickets to Gorsey Bank included VAT, usually excluded from railway tickets. The reason? As there was no station at Gorsey Bank, the Inland Revenue regarded the journey as a fairground ride!
The incline to Ravenstor was the bottom of a path that had risen at 1 in 5 to the former Cromford & High Peak Railway that ran across the northern border of Wirksworth. Rising at approximately 1 in 30 (with a steep part at 1 in 27) the branch rose from Wirksworth Yard to the site of the former conveyor from Middlepeak Quarry.
Ravenstor made a logical next step: the line was similar in length to Gorsey Bank and fitted-in with a plan to remodel the station area: the single platform had been adequate for the original passenger service but Ravenstor would need a separate location and the plan for the future required a second platform to Duffield.
Further up the incline, two loop lines, used for exchanging wagons between the quarry network and BR, were lifted and the path of the line changed to ease the severity of the curve. These loops released many components that could be reused further down the line.
Ravenstor Halt was opened to the public in September 2005 by Gwyneth Dunwoody MP, head of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee. The route was an immediate hit with walkers owing to its proximity to the High Peak Trail and the National Stone Centre. Having available a 1 in 27 gradient was also of value to MytestTrack.com, especially for investigations in to runaways: there had been a spate of permanent way trolleys running away in the 1990s and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch were able to simulate conditions by using the incline.
It would be another two and a half years before the line was extended. The railway was going to expand fourfold and although it was essentially just a single line, much work needed to be done:
- At least 1,000 sleepers required replacement;
- There were level crossings across two public roads;
- The platform at Idridgehay required refurbishment;
- Another platform was required at Wirksworth;
- Six overbridges and two underbridges required inspection and repair;
- There were several occupation and farm crossings to be refurbished.
This was a huge task and took the railway from refurbishment to construction. The level crossings were to be redesigned back into gated crossings, replacing the automatic lights installed twenty five years earlier by British Railways and the crossing at Idridgehay required the road to be closed while the track was replaced underneath.
Idridgehay Opened in March 2008 with a five-carriage special railcar from Wirksworth. There was a moment of panic when the new destination blinds arrived for the railcars: the destination Idridgehay had been spent IDREDGEHAY! Urgent action with a black marker pen was required the night before the opening.
The Dash to Duffield
The momentum to Idridgehay needed to be maintained and as the line opened, a campaign called The Dash to Duffield was launched. The cautious approach might have been to extend gradually to Shottle and then to Duffield a couple of years later but the Board was keen to finish the job as quickly as possible: until Duffield was reached the railway would always operate below its potential. Opening to Duffield was like Idridgehay on steroids: significant work would be required at the southern terminus, while the number of sleepers to change was likely to exceed Idridgehay by a significant margin.
The kind donation of the funds to purchase a 360 degree excavator made a tremendous difference to the pace of progress as it allowed the use of concrete sleepers. Concrete sleepers cost much less than wooden and come with fittings attached that otherwise would have to be acquired. The downside is that they are considerably heavier than wooden and so require mechanical handling. The excavator provided this facility and was used extensively at Duffield where, in addition to rebuilding and raising the platform, the entire layout was relayed with concrete sleepers.
The original plan was to reopen at the end of the 2010 season but it soon became apparent that more time was required to finish the job, while opening at the end of the season did not make a great deal of commercial sense. The effort to replace rotten sleepers was considerable: at least 2,000 sleepers were required and there were times when work was suspended because we had exhausted the supply of sleepers available. The section of track to the south of Hazlewood station became known as ‘Heartbreak Straight’ owning to the seemingly never-ending requirement for replacement sleepers. It was not until September 2010 that sleeper replacement could be considered complete.
A Royal Occasion
On 6th April 2011, H.R.H. The Duke of Gloucester arrived by train from London St. Pancras and transferred t the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway’s platform to travel to Wirksworth behind British Railways Standard Class 2 locomotive no. 78019 on hire from the Great Central Railway.
Duffield and Wirksworth had been reconnected by a timetabled passenger service for the first time in nearly 64 years and, appropriately, the passengers on that train were the very people who had worked so hard to bring the line back to life.
2017 will be the seventh operating season for the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway since services recommenced to Duffield. In that time, the railway has continued to expand: a passing loop has been installed at Shottle, a beautiful wooden station building opened at Duffield and Wirksworth now occupies a booking hall dating back to the 18th century!
The Ecclesbourne Valley Railway can never grow longer: the Midland Railway’s plans to expand beyond Wirksworth to Rowsley will remain as ‘what might have been’, so the railway can only get wider. There are engine sheds to be built, signalboxes to be commissioned and partnerships to be established. Importantly, the EVR has become a community and an important participant in the local economy and cultural life of the area.
The EVR is not unique: it is one of a long line of independent railways that have blossomed after having been abandoned by the national rail operators. However, the line is a late entrant to the ‘club’ and shows great potential to become a major attraction in the coming years.
The Wirksworth Branch was built as a commercial tactic in an era of shin-kicking capitalism, blossomed and withered with the fortunes of the railway industry as a whole and now occupies a place as both an attraction and, in a minor way, a part of the national rail network. The principal difference between the days of the Midland Railway, LMS and BR is that the EVR is now very much a community-based venture able to benefit from the enthusiasm and talent of those who can afford to donate their time and resources to the railway.
The Ecclesbourne Valley Railway is as much a community as it is a means of transport. Who would have thought that a railway built to reach a city would, 150 years later, survive to serve in such a novel way the community in which it resides?
Here’s to Ecclesbourne 250!