MARCH 2015 brings a 50th anniversary that not many people in the Dales will remember with pleasure - the closure by Dr Beeching of the Ilkley-Skipton railway, with its stations at Addingham, Bolton Abbey and Embsay.

Had the line remained open, there is little doubt that by now it would have been an electrified, busy commuter and tourist route, with thousands of visitors using Bolton Abbey Station.

But that dark cloud has a silver lining in the form of the Yorkshire Dales Railway Museum Trust (YDRMT), an educational charity, founded in 1968 as the Embsay and Grassington Railway Society.

From small beginnings in Embsay in 1970 with just half a mile of track, through gradual extensions to Skibeden, Holywell and Stoneacre, it finally reached Bolton Abbey in 1997, where the station has been rebuilt in traditional style thanks to generous donations from scores of businesses and hundreds of individuals. The railway was able to secure grant aid from the European Regional Development Fund and English Partnerships for line extensions, but nothing would have been possible without huge inputs of volunteer labour and professional skills.

As well as being a heritage railway, with numerous historic railway artefacts and memorabilia, and working, mainly industrial steam locomotives, diesel locomotives and rail cars, mainly lovingly restored and loaned to the railway by dedicated owners, this is a working line.

The building of passing loops to increase train capacity on the single track, and constantly improved signalling systems, allow full daily train services between Embsay and Bolton Abbey to be restored. In the winter months this is limited to Sundays, but from April onwards trains run Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays and daily in the main school summer holidays.

Around 100,000 passengers a year are now carried on this four-mile line, making this one of the top visitor attractions in the Dales. Whilst the family market remains important, with parents and grandparents reliving their childhood memories of steam trains with their offspring, more independent couples and overseas visitors are making their way to Embsay for a sedate and scenic ride in grand style accompanied by the chug and hiss of steam.

The YDRMT has a membership of around 800. An impressive 200 to 250 of these – over 20 per cent - are “active” volunteers who regularly help on the line, with a variety of duties from manning the bookshop and café, selling tickets, cleaning and maintenance, tackling demanding tasks of locomotive and carriage maintenance or restoration, signalling and track repair, to the glamour jobs of firemen and engine drivers. On any one operating day, 15 to 20 people are on duty, rising to 30 to 40 on special event days.

There is no short cut to becoming a driver. As on any public railway, drivers have to go through years of apprenticeship and rigorous training, through the grades of cleaner, trainee fireman, pass fireman and finally driver, before being allowed to be in charge of several hundred tons of powerful locomotive and carriages and the safety of passengers on what is a very professional railway. An increasing number of the elite corps of around 20 firemen and 20 drivers are female, as gender is no barrier to putting on a greasy overall and cap to handle a coal shovel or a rocking steam engine.

All are volunteers giving their time freely, and of course spending money in the local economy when pursuing their hobby – in station shops and café, and also in local pubs and cafes and if they stay in the area, in local B&Bs. But if the volunteers give to the railway they also get a lot back in return – companionship, and sense of purpose in running a railway. Many older volunteers use lifetime skills, no longer made redundant by retirement, whether in engineering, technology, electronics, or human relations.

But it’s not just about older people. Many youngsters have learned new skills as volunteers on the railway which has provided a springboard to full time professional work. Business manager Stephen Walker points to several local young people, volunteers on the railway, who, having proved their worth, have been awarded apprenticeships in prestigious firms such as Siemens and Rolls Royce.

To attract new volunteers, on March 8 the railway is arranging a Volunteer Open Day, with special train services and behind-the-scenes visits to encourage more people to get involved.

But what of the future? Top of the agenda is to restore the second platform at Bolton Abbey to increase line capacity.

But equally urgent is the "missing link", installation of points and signalling to enable trains to be run through to Platform 5 on Skipton station. This would immediately open up the line not only for connections with Aire Valley electric trains between Leeds and the Dales, but enable park and ride commuter shuttle trains to Skipton for Leeds; if the Skipton-Colne line is restored, maybe even an Embsay-Colne service.

An official study indicates that investment of £1.2 million to allow this would provide £12 million in economic benefits over a ten-year period. Maybe it is time for Government to recognise the need for infrastructure investment in the north. The Embsay Railway has the potential to deliver on key economic, environmental and social objectives.

For details of train times, special events and the Volunteering Day, or to contribute or help with fund raising, log onto; for Sunday bus links from Skipton and Ilkley to access the railway log onto