commercial manager of the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway, outlines the importance of offering meaningful experiences to the public.
One of preservation’s newcomers, on learning to ‘walk before you can run’
If you had visited Wirksworth station 18 years ago, you could have easily overlooked that there was a railway there at all. Some 11 years or so of growth had hidden the entire infrastructure of the nine-mile railway under a thick layer of bushes and trees. Somehow, the prospect of clearing all of this undergrowth didn’t seem to faze the eight volunteers who boldly ventured into the wilderness in November 2000 to begin the restoration of Derbyshire’s longest branch line. Over the next four years, the line was gradually cleared until work could start on refurbishment of the track, drainage and stations with a view to opening the line to passengers in stages. With momentum growing and volunteer numbers increasing, a small section of line was opened between Wirksworth and Gorsey Bank Level Crossing in October 2004. It was a great occasion for the band of volunteers who had relaid this half-mile section of line, and back then there was never any doubt that the goal of opening the line to Duffield would happen, even if they weren’t quite sure how it would be achieved. Grant funding enabled the unusual half-mile incline to Ravenstor to be opened in September 2005. This stretch of track is a sort of twig off the branch line, running from Wirksworth in a northerly direction to the top of the 1-in-27 climb. Originally it was used for quarry traffic and had never carried passengers, so it was something of a novelty to be operating passenger trains on it. Steam ran briefly on the incline during the opening weekend and, more recently, has featured the restored Andrew Barclay 0-4-0STs based on the railway. In March 2008 the line was opened to Idridgehay (around 3½ miles) and, following grant aid and a clever marketing push, called ‘Dash to Duffield’, the line was opened fully on April 8 2011. It was a very proud moment for the volunteers of this fledgling railway and to celebrate the occasion, ‘2MT’ No. 78019 visited from the Great Central Railway for around six weeks. This was the first time that steam had operated in earnest with a train consisting of a Mk 1 Second Corridor, an LMS Third Open and an LMS Inspection Saloon. Thereafter, the railway settled into a rhythm of using preservation DMUs, as they can provide a cost-effective and reliable service, while providing great views of the line. The operation of these trains allowed for as much money as possible to be injected into improving the infrastructure of the line and the facilities that are desperately needed for running a preserved railway. While the track was all in place, every inch needed refurbishing, with thousands of sleepers to change. Wirksworth also lacked sufficient facilities to be a maintenance depot, so those that are there today have had to be constructed from scratch. In some ways this is one of the greatest challenges for a new railway, as projects to construct maintenance sheds and acquire all of the necessary equipment required, plus the training of volunteers to use it, are vital parts of an extremely costly exercise. Steam visited the line twice in 2013, firstly in May with the GWR Collett 0-6-2T No. 5643 and then again with Lancashire & Yorkshire 0-6-0 No. 52322 for the summer. The visits of these locomotives were learning curves in a lot of ways, as it became apparent that facilities to support steam operation were still primitive, especially when it came to providing water for a day’s service. The next few years were key, and involved acquisitions and restoration of coaches to support a growing railway. A challenge for any preserved railway newcomer is obtaining serviceable coaching stock, usually of the Mk 1 variety. The railway was able to source coaches but many of them required partial or full restoration. Diesel events were growing and the passenger numbers they attracted rapidly made it apparent that a rake of at least five coaches would be required before steam could return to the line. There seems little point in operating steam regularly if you are unable to provide for the visitors who come to enjoy it. This includes being able to comfortably get them onto the train, as well as supporting facilities such as catering and toilets. The railway prides itself on providing a positive customer experience as their patronage is so crucial but also, at a basic level, it needs to be able to get them onto the train if the additional expense of operating steam is to pay its way.
CAUSE TO CELEBRATE
2017 was a bumper year for the railway, 150 years since the line was opened by the Midland Railway. There were several other celebrations, including 25 years since the formation of WyvernRail, the company which operates the line. It was decided that steam should return to the line and be a big part of the celebration, and it was delightful that ‘Jinty’ No. 47406, also from the Great Central Railway, could visit
THE VISITS OF THESE LOCOMOTIVES WERE LEARNING CURVES IN A LOT OF WAYS
from the end of May until the end of August. The hunch about the coaching stock was correct as many happy customers visited the line to enjoy steam in the valley once more, with a historically relevant locomotive looking perfectly at home in the Derbyshire countryside. The locomotive assisted with a few ‘firsts’ for the line too, as it headed the first steam passenger train to pass another on the recently commissioned loop at Shottle (the line wasn’t originally equipped with a passing loop). Passenger revenues were up around 30% on the previous year, which highlighted the need to improve facilities, particularly at Wirksworth and so, with the assistance of a generous legacy, construction of the foundations for a new station building began in November 2017. The ageing portable buildings which house the toilets and bookshop are starting to look past their best and the increase in visitor numbers also highlighted that the buffet car, which is housed in a former Gatwick Express carriage, was inadequate. The success of last year’s season and, in particular the steam operation, made it apparent that preserved traction should regularly feature on the line to sustain the momentum and provide motive power variety for all visitors. While both a Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0T and a Bagnall ‘Austerity’ are under restoration in the maintenance facility at Wirksworth (and not too far away from being completed), neither will be available for the 2018 season. It was a greater challenge than expected to try and source another locomotive to hire for a similar period to 2017 but thankfully, right on timetable printing deadline day, it was agreed that No. 47406 would make a return visit from the end of May until the end of August! You can now enjoy steam in the valley this summer too.
Visiting ‘Jinty’ No. 47406 at Duffield on August 23 2017 during a Timeline Events charter.