A quarter of a century ago the news that the scenic Settle-Carlisle railway line had been saved from closure was broken by the then Public Transport Minister, Michael Portillo. The next day he travelled to Ribblehead, where he was interviewed about the announcement by reporter Andrew Hitchon, who is now editor of the Craven Herald. The two met again at the 25th anniversary celebrations of the line’s reprieve and rebirth.
“I’m very relieved I’m not the man who closed the Settle-Carlisle railway line. That would have been a great burden to bear, and I suspect I wouldn’t have been invited to make Great British Railway Journeys!”
So said former Conservative politician Michael Portillo, now a presenter of television programmes largely about – perhaps rather ironically – memorable railway journeys in Britain and Europe.
If he had reason to be relieved by the decision to save the Settle-Carlisle, then so did a great many other people, rail enthusiasts and Craven residents, a point emphasised by the party atmosphere as a specially chartered train carried 600 people, over 40 of them the original campaigners who fought against the threatened closure in the 1980s, on a sentimental journey from Leeds to Carlisle and back.
During the anniversary celebrations, organised by the Settle-Carlisle Partnership, there was a special moment as the train entered Settle Station, to be greeted with flags and youngsters waving red items of clothing, in a conscious echo of an iconic scene from The Railway Children.
A quarter of a century earlier Mr Portillo made a slightly less high-profile entry to Settle, arriving there the day after he signed the paper lifting the threat of closure that had hung over the railway for nearly six years.
The Public Transport Minister then boarded a coach – again, rather ironically – to make the journey from Settle to the Ribblehead Viaduct, where he posed for the cameras and was interviewed by reporter Andrew Hitchon.
Twenty-five years on the interview was repeated, but this time actually on the anniversary train as it rolled over the viaduct.
“It feels pretty emotional really. It think it’s fantastic we are celebrating 25 years with so many of the people who fought so hard to keep it open,” said Mr Portillo. “There are a lot of familiar faces here.”
Describing the Settle-Carlisle as “one of the great railway journeys”, he said: “The line is a monument to railway engineering and to those who lost their lives building it.”
Back in 1989 the then Minister had to be diplomatic about the closure threat, but could he say now whether he had been trying to keep the line open all along?
Mr Portillo said when he took over as Public Transport Minister he discussed the case with his predecessor, David Mitchell, and they agreed they should try to save the line. But they faced the twin problem of low passenger numbers and the estimated £9 million cost of repairing the Ribblehead Viaduct.
“The critical thing wasn’t just the campaign but that people responded. We needed people to travel on the line.”
And they did, with passenger numbers reaching 350,000. Then a British Rail engineer, Tony Freschini, said he could repair the viaduct for £3 million, and actually did it for £1.8 million, said Mr Portillo. That and the campaigners’ success in pushing up passenger numbers creating the situation where he could sign the paper saving the line.
He said the line had subsequently been transformed. “Everything about it is a joy for visitors.”
Mr Freschini, who also travelled on the celebratory train, said the viaduct had been dangerous because stone was falling from it.
“It was in quite poor condition, but structurally it was quite sound, though it needed radical intervention. Hopefully it will last for many years to come,” he said.
Another guest was former British Rail manager Ron Cotton, who was charged with shutting the line, but decided instead “I would do my best to improve it”, putting on more services and special ticket offers and reopening stations to increase revenue, where before there had been only two services a day and two stations open.
Richard Morris, chairman of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line, said that the 25th anniversary celebrations had been arranged to bring together those who worked so hard to save the line and to recognise their achievements, “and also to look forward to an even brighter future for the line”.
Reflecting on the day, former Friends chairman Brian Sutcliffe said: “It feels like all the hard work we put in has paid off.”