Operation restoration: Britain's historical railway revival, from Devon to Derbyshire

Closed railways in Britain are seeing a renaissance. Big funding boosts are bringing new life to heritage routes and old branch lines that closed during the 1960s.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 7 Sept 2022, 06:09 BST
The East Lancashire Railway (ELR) is a 12-mile, seven-station line between Heywood in Greater Manchester and ...

The East Lancashire Railway (ELR) is a 12-mile, seven-station line between Heywood in Greater Manchester and Rawtenstall in Lancashire.

Photograph by Liam Barnes

From a cross-country service in County Durham to a coast-to-coast line in Cornwall – and myriad points in between – defunct British train lines and stations are being revived via the Restoring Your Railway scheme launched by the UK Government in 2020. This summer saw the government allocate a further £15m for the development of rural railways, added to the initial £500 million pledged for the project, which aims to support over 45 railway schemes in England and Wales.

In 1963 chairman of the British Railways Board, Richard Beeching earmarked 5,000 miles of track and 2,363 stations for closure. The so-called ‘Beeching cuts’ went deep into the countryside, severing rural access and, so nostalgia goes, our connection to a time when railway porters were on hand to help with luggage, station masters were to be obeyed and branch lines were arteries into the nation’s rural heart.

Nine projects involving these axed lines are now receiving funding, including routes such as the Barrow Hill line between Sheffield and Chesterfield. Also known as the ‘Old Road’, this was the original North Midland Railway line between Chesterfield and Rotherham and follows the River Rother via the villages of Killamarsh and Eckington. Other initiatives include reinstating the Fleetwood line along the Blackpool coast in Lancashire, the world’s first railway constructed specifically to serve a seaside resort, and rebuilding Haxby Station on the York to Scarborough line.

“The last time you could catch a train from Haxby Station was 1930, George V was on the throne and The Times had just published their first-ever crossword,” said rail minister Wendy Morton at the scheme’s launch. “But now, thanks to this funding, communities across England could be reconnected to our railways once more.”

Okehampton station in Devon, part of the revamped Dartmoor line, was the first to reopen in 2021, a train rattling into the platform last year, almost exactly half-a-century since the last service. Better late than never.

Three historic railways to explore 

1. The Dartmoor Line
Best for hiking and biking

Now running between Okehampton and Exeter, all trains on the Dartmoor Line call at Crediton, where you can change for the Tarka Line to Barnstaple and the North Devon coast. This scenic route offers superb river valley views plus the chance to hop off (at Barnstaple or Eggesford) to bike the 180-mile Tarka Trail, named after the much-loved fictional otter. Alternatively, alight at Okehampton, one of Devon’s great walking hubs and gateway to Dartmoor. Try The Granite Way, an 11-mile multi-use trail – there’s bike rental from the station if you prefer pedal power.

2. East Lancashire Railway (ELR)
Best for heritage railways

This cherished 12-mile, seven-station line between Heywood in Greater Manchester and Rawtenstall in Lancashire almost closed after successive Covid-19 lockdowns. Financial support, including a £100,000 grant from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund means it’s full steam ahead again. Don’t miss the ELR’s perfectly preserved platforms, historic waiting rooms and special steam train events. Plus, the Bury Transport Museum opposite Bury Bolton Street Station is packed with prized locomotives and exhibitions exploring the industrial heritage of the North West. 

3. The Northumberland Line
Best for Northern adventures

The route connecting Ashington and Blyth to Newcastle is due to open in 2023, and is just one of numerous projects overhauling rail travel in the North East in coming years. There’ll be improved access to regional tourist treasures including Northumberland National Park, the county’s spectacular coastline and Hadrian’s Wall country. Watch this space for trains running to Washington for the first time in decades, site of Washington Old Hall, once home to the ancestors of 18th-century American president, George Washington.

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