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The North Yorkshire Moors Railway

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The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is the world's most popular steam railway. One of the north of England's most popular tourist attractions, it runs 18 miles through the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. Steam trains can even traverse the national rail network for a further six miles to the Railway's own platform in the historic port of Whitby. The Railway opened in 1836, was closed by the infamous British Rail axeman Doctor Beeching in 1965, reopened as a heritage railway in 1973 and has gone on to become the star of film and television, particularly Heartbeat.

History of the Line

Creation, By George

Whitby, a port well known for being the home of Captain James Cook as well as for its fish and chips, has long been isolated and easier to reach by sea than land. In the 19th Century the North Yorkshire Moors were often impassable in winter, all-but cutting Whitby off. Following the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825, the people of Whitby seriously began to consider construction of a railway.

This idea gained momentum and in 1832 George Stephenson, most famous for his Rocket, was consulted, asking whether it would be better to build a railway south from Whitby to Pickering or west from Whitby to Stockton to join the Stockton & Darlington Railway. At a meeting held in Whitby's Angel Inn, he recommended constructing a 24 mile railway to Pickering as the earlier railway already had a port on its route. He estimated the cost would be £2,000 per mile but predicted the railway would soon make the money back by carrying coal from Durham and, in the other direction, fertiliser from the Moors' potassium-rich potash deposits. By providing access to previously remote areas, it would also allow the Moors to be cultivated. However, as the railway had very limited funds, Stephenson declared that it should be horse-powered.

This plan was accepted. Stephenson was appointed the engineer to construct the line for £80,000 and in May 1833 the Whitby & Pickering Railway Bill1 received Royal Assent from William IV. To keep the route simple it used a hemp-rope-worked 1-in-10 gradient up Beck Hole from the Murk Esk valley to the moors of Goathland. A 4 ton water tank on wheels was used as a balance weight to pull carriages up the incline, while carriages descending were detached from their horses and allowed to run freely, with a guard controlling a brake. Charles Dickens described this as a 'quaint old railway along part of which people are hauled by a rope'. Bridges were made of timber and tunnels were only constructed where absolutely necessary, such as the 120-yard Grade II* listed tunnel to get to the Murk Esk valley. The line was also floated across Fen Bog on a bed of timber and heather bound in fleeces.

The single-track line reached Pickering and opened in May 1836, having cost £105,000 to build, or £4,400 per mile - it was the third railway line in Yorkshire2. Stagecoach-like carriages originally carried passengers, with many people travelling on the roof while the carriages' interiors were reserved for those willing to pay more.

Headed by Hudson

Although passenger numbers far exceeded expectations, the railway was in serious debt caused by the amount it had cost to build. In June 1845 the line was purchased for £80,000 by George 'Railway King' Hudson, who had a York-based steam empire including the York & North Midland Railway that he founded in 1836. Controlling over 1,000 miles of track (a quarter of England's railways) Hudson was constructing a line from York to Scarborough with a branch line along this from Rillington Junction near Malton to Pickering opening in July that year. By purchasing the Whitby & Pickering Railway it was now possible to travel from York to both North Yorkshire ports.

Hudson upgraded the line so it became double-tracked and suitable for steam locomotives. This involved building impressive new stations at Whitby and Pickering, and replacing the hemp rope on the incline with wire. This task was completed by July 1847.

Yet in 1847 it was discovered that Hudson had been fraudulently altering the books of the Eastern Counties Railway and his railway empire saw the full scrutiny of the Committee of Investigations. When they looked at Hudson's purchase of the Whitby & Pickering Line, they declared that Hudson had overpaid as, despite the cost of building the line, it was only worth £30,000.

In 1854, the York & North Midland Railway merged with the York, Newcastle & Berwick Railway (another company formerly run by Hudson) and the Leeds Northern Railway to form the North Eastern Railway, the largest in the country at the time. In 1861 a 4½ mile diversion away from the Beck Hole incline to a new Goathland Station was given approval. This cost £56,000 and took four years to be completed with seven bridges across the Eller Beck, a viaduct over the Murk Esk and six other bridges being built before this new route, called the Deviation, opened in July 1865. A mile of the old line was kept to serve the community of Beckhole. The original route is now a 'Rail Trail' walk between Grosmont and Goathland.

Moor Network

In 1865 a second line connected with the Whitby to Pickering line at Grosmont when the Esk Valley Line extended from Middlesbrough. In 1883 a line extended north along the coast from Whitby to Saltburn-by-the-Sea and on to Middlesborough, while a 20-mile coastal route from Whitby was built south to Scarborough, opening in 1885. This includes crossing the impressive 120-feet high 13-arch 915-foot long Larpool Viaduct3 over the River Esk just outside Whitby.

Pickering also became a junction station when in 1875 a line west reconnecting with the main route to York via Helmsley was opened. In 1882 a direct route from Pickering to Scarborough was built. The route also passed the hamlet of Esk Valley, which remained isolated and inaccessible by road until 1951.

During the end of 1916 the double-track line between Pickering and Levisham was singled so that the spare line could be sent to help the war effort. Sadly the ship carrying the line was torpedoed and sank in the middle of the English Channel. The line was never restored to its former two-track glory as the Government refused to pay compensation.


Following the Great War, the British Government passed the 1921 Railways Act that combined Britain's railway companies (of which there were over 120) into four. The 1,757 miles of lines controlled by North East Railways became a part of the London & North East Railways network. This stretched over 6,590 miles and was the second largest of 'the big four', yet it stayed heavily in debt. It also came under stiff competition from former servicemen purchasing Army surplus lorries and setting up their own haulage businesses. In an attempt to compete, steam railcars4 were introduced, providing a service until the end of the Second World War.

During the Second World War the line saw an increase in traffic, but the line leading into Whitby was severely damaged on 16 September, 1940.

British Railways

On 1 January, 1948 the LNER was nationalised, becoming part of British Railways. However rather than restore the railways to their pre-war condition, soon minor lines were cut. In June 1950 the line east from Pickering to Scarborough was closed and in September 1951 the last train served the Esk Valley hamlet on the Beck Hole branch as the isolated community was now accessible by road. In 1953 the service west from Pickering to York via Helmsley was closed, followed by the coastal route north from Whitby in 1958.

In February 1964 Dr Beeching proposed to close the remaining Esk Valley line to Whitby, except for coal traffic, as well as the Whitby to Scarborough line and the Whitby to Pickering line and its extension to Malton via Rillington Junction. This plan to once again isolate Whitby from the outside world led instantly to over 2,260 people in Whitby objecting. As the proposals met with strong local objections, in September 1964 it was announced that the less popular Whitby to Middlesbrough line would be saved, but the line over the Moors would definitely be axed. Later, Harold Wilson signed a pledge promising that if he became Prime Minister in the elections held that year, he would not close any of the remaining lines to Whitby. A month later he was in Downing Street, but announced that, despite ruling the country, he was powerless to prevent any actions designed to ruin Britain's railways from being taken.

It was announced that the last train on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway would run on 6 March, 1965 at 9.15pm, although the Royal Train ran over the rails during the Duke of Edinburgh's visit to the Flyingdales Early Warning Centre on 3 June. However the last actual train ran on 29 November that year, when an emergency service set forth to rescue stranded schoolchildren after their bus was trapped in a heavy snowfall.

Railway Rescue and Heritage Line

The rescue of the line by volunteers can be traced back to 3 June, 1967 when a meeting at Tom Salmon's house took place to discuss saving it. By 18 November the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Preservation Society was established with 450 members. British Rail asked for £120,000 for the line by 1 April, 1968 though, when it was apparent that this sum had not been reached, later agreed to sell the Society the 5½ mile single track from Grosmont to Ellerbeck for £35,000. The railway property between Grosmont to High Mill near Pickering was also purchased by the Society for £7,500, including 11 railway cottages, Goathland and Levisham Station and the Up platform at Grosmont (but not the Down platform as the station was still being used by the Esk Valley line). They were aided by a grant from the English Tourist Board, the largest tourism grant then given in England.

The first locomotive the Society acquired was a diesel railbus, but on 2 February, 1969 the Society's first steam engine, the small industrial 0-4-0ST tank engine Mirvale, pulled its first train on a snowy day. The North Riding County Council and North York Moors National Park Authority, impressed with the Society's efforts to date, persuaded British Rail not to pull up the remaining track between Ellerbeck and Pickering. The North Riding County Council agreed to buy the track from British Rail and sell it back to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway over 20 years. The 18-mile line was then officially reopened by the Duchess of Kent with a special Royal Train on 22 April, 1973.

Unfortunately the Pickering Urban District Council was far less co-operative, wishing to demolish the site of Pickering Station and turn it into a supermarket car park. For two years the Railway had to use a temporary halt north of the main station while the Council demolished the remains of the original 1836 station and sidings shed, but were prevented from demolishing Pickering Station itself when it became a listed building. After a public enquiry decided in the Railway's favour, in 1975 the Railway was finally able to get to Pickering Station once again. This had been left severely vandalised but was soon restored to almost its former glory, missing only its roof which had been removed by British Rail in 1952.

A Helping Heartbeat

In 1992 ITV began broadcasting a television police drama set in 1960s North Yorkshire entitled Heartbeat. Incredibly successful when first broadcast, with over 14 million regular viewers, many episodes featured the North Yorkshire Moors Steam Railway. The fictional village of Aidensfield where it was set was filmed in the village of Goathland, a village served by the Railway.

Effectively Heartbeat became an incredibly popular prime time advert for the Railway. Goathland especially revelled in its status and attracted tourists eager to see where the show was filmed, focussed around the pub. Heartbeat lasted for 18 series and 372 episodes before it was cancelled with the last episode broadcast in 2010.

The 21st Century

The biggest major development of the 21st Century was the expansion of the Railway into Whitby. When British Rail was privatised, any Train Operating Company was allowed to apply to operate trains over Network Rail lines, and so the North Yorkshire Moors Railway applied to run services along the mainline from Grosmont to Whitby. This was the first UK heritage railway to be granted a licence to run on a national network.

Unfortunately the track to Whitby had been singled in the 1980s, and Whitby retained only one platform, limiting the service that the Railway could provide without interfering with the timetabled main service. In 2012 the Railway consulted with Network Rail about the possibility of opening their own platform at Whitby, something to which Network Rail was happy to provide some money for if the Railway could provide the remaining amount - with a grant from the Coastal Communities Fund they were able to do that. Reconstructing the platform, installing a run round track to move engines from one end of a train to the other, and installing the last surviving Falsgrave signal gantry (a listed structure) from Scarborough cost £2.3million. The platform opened in August 2014.

Another recent project has been the transformation of Pickering Station. This has created a learning centre equipped with conference facilities, but more visually impressive is the reconstruction of the station roof, which cost £556,000. The station was reopened in 2011. On 18 June, 2012 the Olympic Torch had a ride on a train pulled by Sir Nigel Gresley, sister of Mallard, from Whitby to Pickering.

The Line Today

Today, well over a quarter of a million visitors each year ride the rails. So, what can a visitor to the line today experience? Here is a description up the line5 from north to south of the stations along the way.

Whitby to Grosmont

Whitby is a port town famous for Captain Cook and Count Dracula, overlooked by the evocative remains of Whitby Abbey perched on the hill. The Grade II listed station itself was built in 1847 by George Townsend. Originally the station had four platforms, but now it has two. In 2013 plans to convert the former Grade II listed railway shed into a heritage and art centre were announced.

After leaving Whitby, trains head along the 6½ mile route to Grosmont along the national rail network, crossing the river Esk nine times. It passes beneath the Larpool Viaduct heading to the small single station stop of Ruswarp, where the Grade II listed station house built in 1847 is a tea room and B&B. The trains next arrive at Sleights, again only a single platform today but still with its Grade II listed station house and signal box, last used in 1983. The trains pass the 13th Century remains of Eskdale Chapel before arriving at Grosmont.


The official beginning of the North York Moors Railway is at Grosmont, where the trains leave the national network's Esk Valley line to Whitby and head south along the Railway's own track to Pickering6. There the station has been transformed to give it the appearance of a 1950s rural station, albeit one with four platforms. Many of the buildings date back to 1845, when the station was known as Tunnel after the nearby tunnel. The station is decorated with such items as the down-side waiting room from Sleight's disused platform, and the footbridge originally came from Robertsbridge in Sussex. A new signal box, Grosmont Crossing, was commissioned in 1996, using the 52-lever frame from Horden near Hartlepool in County Durham with some of the bricks coming from Whitby.

Grosmont is also the site of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway's engine shed and workshops. Impressively it has a mechanical coal hopper that was built in 1989 - the first one to be built in Britain since the 1950s. A path from the area through the 1836 tunnel allows people to visit these.


Possibly the most picturesque station on the line, and almost certainly the most famous, appearing not only as Aidesnfield station for Heartbeat but also as Hogsmeade for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. There have only been a few minor changes since the station opened in 1865. The footbridge, needed to handle the large number of visitors, came here from Howdon-on-Tyne, and the goods shed is now a tearoom but still retains its hand-operated crane. The station, footbridge, goods shed and water column are all Grade II listed.

South of Goathland the route reaches its summit, 532 feet above sea level at the northern edge of Fen Bog. This is a nature reserve, and the railway line crosses the bog on a floating raft made of wattle resting on heather-stuffed fleeces.

Newton Dale Halt

This is the most recent station on the line, opening in 1981 with aid from the Countryside Commission to allow hikers to visit this remote part of the Moors. It is claimed that this station is the furthest one from a road in all of England. The shelter was built in 2004, based on the design of one that stood at the former Sledmere & Fimber station.


The village of Levisham is 1½ miles from the Grade II listed station, which has been restored to an Edwardian appearance and has appeared in many television series including Brideshead Revisited and All Creatures Great and Small. Just before the station Skelton Tower overlooks the line - this is a folly built in 1850 but designed to look like a mediæval ruin. A true castle is now not far away.


Beneath Pickering Castle's Mill Tower is the Grade II listed Pickering Station. Built in 1845 and now restored to its former glory after the construction of the canopy roof, Pickering is now the site of the carriage works and is well known for its trout fishing.

Southern Extension?

The often-asked question is whether the line could extend south 6½ miles to rejoin the national network at Rillington Junction. At present, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway is not planning to do so, mainly due to financial reasons. The main obstacle is extending the line out of Pickering, where there are a few buildings blocking the route as well as a supermarket car park, and more importantly two roads, including the busy A170. In fact, extending the line would potentially involve reconstructing seven level crossings, although modern standards are phasing out level crossings and replacing them with bridges wherever possible, which is far more expensive.

After crossing the A169 the next station is Marishes Road Station, which despite being a private residence still retains its railway features. This station is located in the middle of nowhere, as is Rillington Junction station itself, although rejoining the York to Scarborough mainline would potentially allow trains from the National Railway Museum at York to run along the line. There has been a suggestion of extending the line south of Pickering to a site just outside the town, where the railway could create a park-and-ride area and provide more space than they have at the crowded Pickering station site.

Instead of extending the line, the railway's current priorities are to consolidate their route, especially their bridges, and begin doubling the track between Levisham and Goathland to allow them to be able to run more trains.


Many fine engines survive to work on the North Yorkshire Moors Steam Railway. The A4 4-6-2 60007 Sir Nigel Gresley (1937) is undoubtedly the flagship locomotive, but other engines include 4-6-2 60532 Blue Peter (1948), 4-6-0 75029 The Green Knight (1954) and 'Black Five' 44767 4-6-0 George Stephenson (1947). Engines built in Eastleigh that run on the line include S15 4-6-0 825 Greene King (1927) and 'Schools' class 4-4-0 30926 Repton (1934).

1One section of the Act permitted the use of steam locomotives while another section expressly forbade it.2Following the Middlesborough extension to the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1830 and the Leeds & Selby Railway in 1834.3The viaduct is mentioned in chapter 6 of Bram Stoker's Dracula.4Railcars locate the engine inside a single carriage, creating an all-in-one bus that can be operated from either end and move in either direction.5In railway terms 'Up' always means towards London, and 'Down' away from London.6The Railway has occasionally run services that continue along the Esk Valley Line - see their website for details.

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