Twenty years ago this month, an historic announcement in the House of Commons lifted the threat of closure on England’s most scenic railway, the Settle-to-Carlisle line.

Faced with British Rail’s determination to close the line, a remarkable rearguard action was fought by an alliance of local people, railway enthusiasts and environment-alists who were to shatter the authority’s contention that the route would always be a huge drain on finances.

Today it is busier than ever and Network Rail has underlined its confidence in the line’s future by investing £18 million in new signalling.

But it could have been a different story had railway observers not recognised all the classic tactics long before the official announcement of the intention to close the line was made.

A combination of strange pricing policies, cancelled trains, the neglect of maintenance over a period of years and warnings about how few passengers were using the line were well-known as measures adopted by British Rail in the run-up to any official statement.

It was known as “closure by stealth”, a phrase the campaigners would use frequently over the next eight years.

Claims that repairs on Ribblehead Viaduct would cost £6 million and the 93,000 passenger journeys generated less than £500,000 in revenue were seen as imminent warning that the line would be lost.

But if British Rail expected to close this historic and beautiful line without opposition, they were in for a rude awakening.

There were protests by local users and conservation groups alike. The line, famous for its scenery, had many friends, as was recognised at a meeting in Settle Town Hall in 1981 when The Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line was founded in readiness to campaign for the future of the route.

The official closure notice came in December 1983 following an announcement made earlier that British Rail intended to withdraw services.

On the day British Rail announced its closure plans, it seemed like an act of heavenly intervention when the overhead wires on the West Coast main line blew down. The Settle-Carlisle line thus proved its worth as a diversionary route for InterCity trains.

But this was just one of the many twists in the saga.

A Joint Action Committee was established shortly after this, bringing together the Friends, the Railway Development Society (a national rail pressure group) and Transport 2000. The phoney war was over and the fight was on to save the line from closure.

In November 1983, Ron Cotton was appointed by British Rail as project manager for the Settle-Carlisle Line, charged with master-minding the line’s closure. In the meantime, his job was to provide maximum revenue.

Ironically, the publicity unlocked the line’s potential. Crowds flocked for what they thought may well be their last journey on the line. As the publicity grew, the numbers of passengers increased, thus undermining British Rail’s arguments that the Settle-to-Carlisle could not pay its way.

A record number of objections to the closure of the railway were received from more than 32,000 people and one dog – Ruswarp, a border collie cross who used to travel the line with his owner and co-founder of the Friends, Graham Nuttall. Ruswarp’s objection was allowed to stand and he appeared at the Transport Users Consultative Committee (TUCC) inquiry in Appleby, Skipton and Settle in 1986. Indeed, a statue in memory of the dog was unveiled at Garsdale station two weeks ago by Mr Cotton and Olive Clarke, who chaired the public inquiries.

As well as individual objectors, county, district, town and even parish councils along the route all played their part, galvanising local opinion and badgering the authorities.

A host of ministers and celebrities were invited on special trains to experience the spectacular journey for themselves and to promote the fact that the line was worth saving as a fine example of Victorian engineering alone.

The DalesRail service was launched by the Yorkshire Dales National Park to give people a glimmer of hope and a service to use.

Hearings into closure objections by the TUCC opened in Appleby on March 24 1986. Its report – which found that closure of the line would cause extreme hardship to frequent users and those who lived in remote Pennine areas – gave hope to the protesters that the line could yet have a reprieve.

One light-hearted case of hardship came from a Halifax Town football supporter who lived in Appleby. He told the committee that, should the line close, he would be unable to get to matches, and Halifax Town needed every supporter it could get!

In May 1987, English Heritage offered £1 million, its largest ever grant, towards the repair of Ribblehead Viaduct and, against all the odds, local councils managed to raise £500,000 to give the line a chance of being saved.

In 1988, an English Heritage report showed that British Rail’s estimates for the repair of Ribblehead Viaduct were vastly overstated. Passenger journeys had now increased to 450,000 and the revenue to £1.7 million.

Even when Paul Channon, the Transport Secretary, announced he was “minded” to give consent to the closure, the campaigners did not lose heart.

Indeed, if anything, efforts were redoubled.

On Tuesday April 11 Mr Channon announced to the House of Commons that he had changed his mind due to the increased traffic on the line.

Now, 20 years on, the line is thriving.

Friends chairman Mark Rand said: “What has happened in these past 20 years is remarkable. The line is open 24- hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. Freight has returned in a mighty big way.”

That is in stark contrast to its lowest point when passenger traffic had dwindled to just two trains a day, freight had gone completely and stations were forlorn, with broken windows and weed-infested platforms.

“When, 20 years ago, the line was saved the Government made a stipulation – that people who had so politely, but effectively, campaigned for the line’s retention must now work hard to ensure its success. And how they have delivered!” said Mr Rand.

“Stations have reopened and every one is magnificent in its presentation and the loving care lavished on it by a small army of volunteers.”

On July 26, the 20th anniversary milestone will be marked with a day of public walks across Ribblehead Viaduct – the structure at the centre of the closure bid.

Announcing the walks, Jo Kaye, Network Rail’s route director, said: “Had the line not been saved, rail travellers would have been denied one of the world’s most scenic railway journeys, coal traffic from Scotland to power stations in Yorkshire and the Midlands would have had to use either the east or west coast main lines – both of which are heavily congested – and we couldn’t have used it as a diversionary route.”