Take a walk down the 119-metre Grosmont Horse Tunnel, probably the oldest of its kind in the UK, and you stumble upon the North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s beating heart.
By 1967 Dr Beeching’s cuts had torn through Britain’s railway landscape, but it was on this railway and in this engine shed that the first murmurings of dissent were heard.
Train driver and NYMR trust vice chairman Chris Cubitt (66) was there to witness the birth of what would become the world’s most popular celebration of steam power and this week, as the heritage railway prepares for its 40th anniversary celebrations, he spoke to Whitby Gazette reporter Karl Hansell about his time on the railway.
Mr Cubitt joined the railway as a volunteer in 1969, four years before it would open to the public, when it comprised of just a row of cottages, two tracks leading to Goathland and the engine shed.
“We came here during the day, we worked all day, then went to the pub nearly all night and then worked the next day. It was exciting times,” he said.
The acquisition of three steam engines gave Mr Cubitt, a British Rail employee lamenting the shift towards modern “plastic” trains, the opportunity to work closely with the steam engines he had “chased” his entire life.
Those pioneering three were named Salmon, Merville, and another known affectionately as Nelly.
All have now moved on, replaced by a larger fleet which currently numbers 20. Yet the close connection between crew and engine remains. Mr Cubitt explained: “All of them are our friends. We all live for steam engines.”
In his eyes a steam engine is a living organism, awoken well in advance of any journey and delicately controlled to allow it to travel safely.
He explained: “With a modern train you can leave Scarborough, say, put the control to three-quarters, and you know you are going to soon be doing 60mph. With a steam engine, they are all very different and you have got to make them do it, not like a car or a diesel engine.”
In those early years the preservation society began hosting steam galas, but the dream of reopening the line to the public continued.
“The first of May 1973,” Mr Cubitt recalls vividly as the day it was achieved. The weather was was bright and sunny, perfect for the visit of royalty. Katharine, Duchess of Kent, rode that first train and shook hands with the crew after. Yet Mr Cubitt said the crew’s focus was more upon the train than their distinguished guest. “What you find about train drivers is we don’t care about who is in the train behind,” he said. “It’s all about the engine and it was just a good day out for us.”
It was another 33 years before the NYMR would reach Whitby, but when that finally happened the heritage railway was changed forever, and the staff faced a whole new set of challenges. Mr Cubitt explained: “Previous to that we went from Pickering to Grosmont. We were turfing thousands of passengers a day into a little village in the middle of nowhere. Now we go from Pickering to Whitby, so there’s a destination at both ends.
“But we are the only heritage railway in the country that runs on the national network, so we had to prove to Network Rail that we are capable of doing it.”
Each engine is serviced on average every 28 days. The oldest locomotive on the railway is the 110-year-old Engine 29, which was having a refurbished boiler fitted when the Gazette visited the engine shed.
Since 1973, and accelerated by the extension into Whitby, the railway has continued to grow. From one paid employee in 1972, there are now around 135 staff at the height of summer, supported by hundreds of volunteers.
However, among the extended staff and almost 400,000 passengers each year, a dedicated group of steam enthusiasts retain that sense of a tight-knit community.
Mr Cubitt explained: “The NYMR is a business and you have to create money to run it, but at the same time it’s a hobby and a lot of us come here and do it for nothing. At the end of the day it is a social activity because when we pull the engines in at night we all go for a drink and talk about the trains.”
For Mr Cubitt, the railway was also the place where he met his wife-to-be, Rosemary, and the couple married in Whitby in 1979.
She passed away three years ago, but this time it was the heritage railway that got Mr Cubitt back on his feet. He said: “My friends on the railway have been a huge help, I had somewhere to come and talk about things.”
The group remained strong and when another volunteer lost his wife six months later, Mr Cubitt was there to pass on advice and offer support.
“It’s one big family,” he said. “We have our squabbles and some people we don’t like, some we do, but that’s the same for any family.”
As a result, his fondest memories stem not from Royal or celebrity visits, but from those days when everything clicks together, the engine “behaves” and the crew enjoy a “good day out”.