The Hope Valley line, which winds its way among the rolling dales of the Peak District, connecting Sheffield and Manchester, is celebrating its 125th anniversary.
But those marking the milestone believe it may never have reached such a ripe age were it not for the cement factory which to detractors stands out like a sore thumb amid the natural beauty.
For all its popularity with ramblers, especially during its early years, and the many commuters, schoolchildren and farmers it has served over the decades, it was perhaps the call of industry which saved it from a premature demise.
The line could easily have become another victim of Dr Richard Beeching’s savage cuts to the nation’s railways during the 1960s, some argue, were it not for Hope Cement Works, which churns out 1.5 million tonnes of the building material each year.
Sharon Davison, of the Hope Valley Railway Users’ Group, said: “It didn’t fall foul of Beeching because of the cement plant, which needed a railway line to carry material to and from the site. If that wasn’t there, it might have been a very different story for the Hope Valley line.”
Closure had in fact initially been recommended as part of the Beeching review but the decision was overturned on appeal, with continued access for ramblers to Edale proving a key factor, and passenger services on the Woodhead route were instead axed.
It’s not clear just how much of a role the cement plant, which was there long before the Peak District became the UK’s first National Park in 1951, played in saving the line from closure.
Whatever the reason, the fact trains still trundle their way through the valley is a cause for celebration for the many passengers relying on the service, even if they have been kept waiting longer than they would like for promised improvements.
A series of walks, talks and exhibitions is taking place this summer, stations along the route have been smartened up and many of the area’s traditional well dressings have given a railway theme in honour of the anniversary.
Construction of the 21-mile route initially known as the Dore and Chinley line began in 1888 and it was a considerable feat of engineering, with the 3.5-mile Totley tunnel at the eastern end at the time being the longest mainline railway tunnel running entirely underground.
The first goods trains ran on the line in November 1893 and passenger services began the following May. But the line was not officially opened until June 1, 1894 and it was June 25 that year when stations along the route were opened for all traffic, and local passenger services got underway.
The new service delivered a boom in tourism to the Peak District, opening up its pretty dales and dramatic peaks to many more visitors.
“It brought lots of tourists to the valley and was very popular with ramblers in particular, but it was also well used by local schoolchildren, commuters and farmers, who used it to deliver milk churns and take their cattle to market,” said Sharon.
The line would remain popular with walkers.
One video from 1954 shows passengers spilling out of a ‘ramblers special’ train, strapped into their hiking boots and lugging backpacks as they set off to explore the Peak District, and Edale is today the most popular place in the country to start a walk, according to Ordnance Survey.
But Chris Morgan, chairman of Dore and Totley station, explained that was not the main reason for the line being built in the first place.
“It was primarily built to transport coal, with some of the largest locomotives in the country passing through the valley, but it became very popular with ramblers” he said.
The line would also carry material for building the Derwent Valley reservoirs, construction of which began shortly after the turn of the 20th century, and at the other end of the scale transported royalty, with Queen Victoria using it in May 1897, and King George V and Queen Mary passing through the valley when they visited Sheffield in 1905 and 1919.
In October 1907 there was a serious derailment at Dore and Totley, though thankfully no one was seriously injured, while in September 1925 tragedy struck when three people died in a head-on collision at Hope.
During the big freeze of 1947, 50 wagons of ice had to be removed from the Cowburn tunnel, where icicles measuring up to 20ft long and weighing over half a ton were found.
One of the biggest changes came in 1969, explained Chris, when pay trains were introduced and stations along the line lost their staff.
“Today all the stations have friends groups of volunteers who tend flower beds and generally provide extra care for the station and promote greater use within their local communities,” he said.
“It’s their enthusiasm that is driving the range of anniversary events being prepared, running until September.”
Steam trains ran on the line until around 1960, according to Chris, before being replaced by diesel ones.
Today, trains running on the line include the much-maligned Pacers – created in the 1980s using the body of a bus, and now many years beyond their intended use-by date – though they are due to be replaced by Northern.
Despite controversy over the Pacers’ ongoing use, Chris said: “They’ve served us well. Passengers on the Hope Valley line aren’t so anti-Pacer as others because we realise that without them we probably wouldn’t have had a train at all. We’re a tough breed up in the Peak District. A Pacer is fine with us as long as it comes more or less on time.”
After many years of decline, not helped by rising car ownership and the fall of heavy industry, the Hope Valley line is enjoying a renaissance.
Passenger numbers have soared in recent years, with around 90,000 people a year now using Edale station, official figures show, and almost 180,000 journeys beginning or ending at Dore and Totley in 2017/18 – more than eight per cent up on the previous year.
Longer trains and more frequent services between Sheffield and Manchester are planned to tackle overcrowding on the route – and for long-suffering passengers these cannot come soon enough.
TransPennine Express intends to double the number of carriages on its trains serving the route later this year.
The Government gave the go-ahead in 2018 for a passing loop to be created on the line, paving the way for three fast services per hour between the cities rather than the two at present, and a stopping service each hour rather than every two hours.
Work on that 1,100-metre-long loop – expected to take three years to complete – has yet to start but Network Rail is looking for a contractor to carry out the project, which it hopes will get underway later this year.
As Chris points out, that upgrade is well overdue for passengers using Dore and Totley station, where an extra track would be created.
“Dore and Totley station had four platforms by 1904 but this reduced to one in 1985 and that remains the case,” he said.
“Passengers deserve a better rail service between Sheffield and Manchester and it’s taking far too long to make the improvements which are so badly needed.”
For details of upcoming events marking the Hope Valley line’s 125th anniversary, visit https://hopevalleyrailway.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Events-Calendar.pdf