The story of fight to save our railways

The last day of passenger trains on the Whitby to Scarborough line, on March 6 1965, the Manchester Locomotive Stephenson Locomotive Societies ran a special excusion. It was a scene of chaos with enthusiasts and local people wandering all ove rthe tracks to take their final photographs.
The last day of passenger trains on the Whitby to Scarborough line, on March 6 1965, the Manchester Locomotive Stephenson Locomotive Societies ran a special excusion. It was a scene of chaos with enthusiasts and local people wandering all ove rthe tracks to take their final photographs.

It is half a century ago when the face of railway travel across Whitby and district changed forever when the decision was made public to close two of its busy railway lines.

The infamous Dr Richard Beeching who was recruited by the Government from a very successful business career at ICI, was tasked with making railways profitable again.

Dr Beeching

Dr Beeching

His report published in 1963 recommended taking an axe to a third of the country’s rail network, 5,000 miles of track including hundreds of branch lines, 2,363 stations and tens of thousands of jobs.

Instead it would concentrate on fast journeys between cities and improved bus services which could replace the closed lines, he argued.

For Whitby his report spelled disaster as it was then served by three railways.

These were from Middlesbrough to Whitby, one from Malton on the main York to Scarborough line and the Whitby to Scarborough railway line - now used as a popular walking and cycle path.

A picture showing the viaduct over the river esk which is now a popular part of the Whitby to Scarborough old railway line. It is pictured here under construction between 1882 and October 1882.

A picture showing the viaduct over the river esk which is now a popular part of the Whitby to Scarborough old railway line. It is pictured here under construction between 1882 and October 1882.

Despite furious vocal opposition from in and around Whitby, British Rail issued formal closure notices for all three lines in February 1964.

The Whitby Gazette’s front page carried reports of the closure almost every week in 1964 and into early 1965.

Whitby Pavilion was the venue for two days of public hearings on 8 and 9 the July, covering all three proposals.

The Transport Users Consultative Committee (TUCC) acknowledged by this point that there had been a total of 2,260 objections made - which was apparently a record

The hearings at first appeared to go well for the objectors with many references made to the unreliability of bus services in winter weather, to the needs of schoolchildren coming into Whitby and the effect on the Whitby holiday trade if it lost its rail services.

The TUCC reported in the August that the withdrawal of the Middlesbrough service would cause “grave hardship not only to the many users but also the large number of holidaymakers who come to the area by train.”

A new book, penned by Lord Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin aims to pour light on the political discussions that took place and tells the story of how Britain’s railways were saved in Holding the Line.

The pair, who were heavily involved in the management of Britain’s railways during the period, both hope the book is an explosive expose of the repeated attempts made in the second half of the 20th century to destroy Britain’s railway network.

Labour peer Lord Faulkner, who is deputy leader in the House of Lords, told the Whitby Gazette: “Unsurprisingly, the Whitby Gazette claimed a great victory and believed that is campaign had saved all three services.

“Three weeks later, however, jubilation turned to despair when Minister of Transport Ernest Marples announced that then Middlesbrough to Whitby line would be reprieved but closure of the other two would go ahead.”

As the general election approached, Peter Hardy, Labour candidate for Scarborough and Whitby produced a letter written by Harold Wilson on September 15 which said that the two threatened lines to Whitby fell within the manifesto pledge on major closures - that if Labour won the election the two threatened lines would be reprieved.

On October 16, 1964, Harold Wilson became Prime Minister for the first time and despite Labour winning votes in Whitby because of its promises on the future of the railway, the expectation was that the new Government would move quickly to overturn the Conservative’s decision.

The Prime Minister’s letter was later exposed as a hoax - the Gazette reported at the time of the “rail letter callous hoax” and to this day, no one has admitted to sending it.

Cabinet records also show, according to the book, that the closure of the two lines to Whitby and a number of others at the same time went ahead because Labour had decided to go back on their election manifesto commitment to halt major closures.

On 22 December, Conservative Whitby and Scarborough MP Sir Alexander Spearman made one last effort to save the two lines and in February 1965 he introduced a 10 minute rule bill in the commons which would have enabled the Minister of Transport to “rescind his consent to a closure of any station or of passenger rail services on any line.”

However despite Sir Spearman’s attempts, it had no chance of making progress unless the Government were prepared to take it over and fast track it through parliament.

Sadly, the Whitby to Malton and the Whitby to Scarborough lines officially shut on March 8 1965 .

There were many redundancies, felt especially hard at Whitby, which lost all its drivers and guards and much of its goods and passenger staff.

Now 50 years on, only the Esk Valley line remains to link the town to the national network while the North York Moros Railway, which started out several years after the closure, was born and is this year celebrating its 40th anniversary.