More than 40 years after British Rail closed the Haltwhistle to Alston branch line, the railway is enjoying a renaissance.
The South Tynedale Railway Preservation Society reopened a short stretch of track north from Alston in 1983, relaid to 2ft gauge.
Since then the railway has been extended in stages. The latest, to Slaggyford, will see trains operating over five miles of track. Services to Slaggyford are expected to start this month.
The aim is to re-open the whole 13.5-mile route to Haltwhistle by 2022, providing a connection to the national rail network with steam trains for tourists in summer and hybrid diesel-electric railcars serving locals in winter.
The railway achieved another milestone last month when the Duke of Gloucester opened a new café and toilet block and a £2.3m engineering workshop at Alston, the latter part-funded by a £300,000 Cumbria Growth Fund grant through the Chamber’s Cumbria Business Growth Hub.
It is housed in a former industrial unit acquired by the railway in the 1990s.
Heather Palmer, General Manager, said: “It allows us to repair our own heritage locomotives but there are two other major benefits.
“It has a viewing gallery to provide active learning as part of the visitor experience. Visitors can see everything going on in a safe environment.
“It is also a learning hub where we can run training courses.
“Heritage railways used to rely heavily on skilled volunteers who had themselves worked on the railways or in heavy industry, but these people are getting older and their skills are dying out.
“To replace them we need to bring on a new generation of apprentices in engineering disciplines.
“This new facility allows us to develop them, and will allow us to repair locomotives for other heritage railways. It makes us a viable engineering business for heritage railway skills.”
The railway has nine locomotives, eight full-time staff and four seasonal staff, assisted by an army of between 60 and 70 volunteers.
The engineering workshop should, however, employ 17 people when it is operating at its full potential.
Heather added: “The Cumbria Growth Fund grant made a real difference to the project. It was a boost when the Chamber got behind us.”
Rob Johnston, Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “We all love heritage railways but there’s nothing sentimental about our investment here. We’re investing in the creation of sustainable jobs that lead to long-term careers.
“The idea that we can work with South Tynedale Railway to deliver opportunity for young people in engineering in Alston is really exciting.”
A special has already run over the extended line from Alston to Slaggyford, the first train to call there since the line closed in May 1976.
The railway has restored the original wooden station building, repainting it in the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway livery, and built a toilet block with solar panels and a replica signal box.
Regular services to Slaggyford will start as soon as a loop is installed, allowing locomotives to run around their carriages to haul the train back to Alston, and a new level crossing gate is in place.
The extension was funded by a £4.25m Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
Heather said: “We have a lot of funding to raise, probably in the region of £25m to £30m, to reopen the line to Haltwhistle.
“But we’ve done a feasibility study and it’s one of our founding aims to go to Haltwhistle. It’s not something we’d let drop.”
At present, trains travel sedately at a maximum speed of 15mph, although this will be raised to 25mph when the whole line reopens.
There are 61 bridges and viaducts, including the spectacular Lambley Viaduct where the trackbed crosses the South Tyne.
Reopening the whole route will require a new bridge to be built where the A69 Haltwhistle bypass has cut through the original railway embankment.
Cumbria Growth Fund was set up after Cumbria Chamber of Commerce took part in a national competitive tendering process to secure £4m from the Government’s Regional Growth Fund (RGF).
Manufacturing businesses – and those in services to manufacturing – have been able to apply for grants of between £10,000 and £1m to support growth and competitiveness.
This has allowed many more businesses to benefit from the Regional Growth Fund than would otherwise been the case. That’s because, when businesses apply directly to the RGF, the minimum grant is £1m, which means many projects are simply not big enough to qualify.
Cumbria Growth Fund has supported 44 businesses with £3.8m of grant funding, helping to create or safeguard 520 jobs and leverage £25m of private sector investment