“The best thing we ever did!” 

The Ribble Steam Railway is home to arguably the finest collection of industrial locomotives in the UK, as well as being the only preserved railway still seeing regular ‘real’ freight services. It is hard to believe, therefore, that this North West success story has only been operating for just over ten years.   

By Gary Boyd-Hope 

THE dilemma of a preserved railway having to ‘up sticks’ and move to a new operating base is no stranger to the news pages of Steam Railway, the current threat faced by the Colne Valley Railway being a case in point, as well as that encountered by the Helston Railway following the closure and sale of the Trevarno estate and gardens in late 2012.

As in the case of Helston, which had to relocate its headquarters to a site further along the line, or with the compulsory purchase of the Chasewater Railway’s former Brownhills station site to make way for the M6 Toll, these moves were not made by choice but were instead forced upon the railways.

But not Steamport in Southport.

As some will recall, Steamport was based in the old Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway steam shed in the coastal resort, having opened its doors in 1973. The museum boasted a short running line and housed an extensive collection of industrial locomotives, but over time the costs of maintaining the former 27C began to escalate as the building’s condition worsened.

The directors therefore decided to look for pastures new and scoured the locale for suitable sites where they could establish a new railway operation, while maintaining their own individuality. They enlisted professional help in the search, which resulted in a major developer offering a seven figure sum for the Steamport site. This was gratefully accepted by the directors and the Southport base was officially closed in 1999. To bring the curtain down, a final steam charter was organised that brought both surviving L&Y ‘Pugs’ together in a fitting closure to the old engine shed.

Now back in 1992 Steamport had provided and transported RSH 0-4-0ST Agecroft No. 2 (W/No. 7485) and two Mk1 coaches (plus Andrew Barclay 0-4-0ST No. 22 from Embsay) to run during the Preston Guild celebrations – something that occurs once every 20 years. These railway events took place on part of the former Preston Corporation docks system where Bagnall 0-6-0STs once, and Sentinel diesel locomotives still, held sway. Although maintained by Preston City Council (PCC) for the conveyance of petroleum/bitumen traffic, the system was effectively redundant but offered great potential for anyone with vision and money. The Steamport team certainly had both, so when it came to finding a new home, Preston was naturally at the top of the list. Luckily for them PCC could see the tourism potential of a preserved railway in the city, and in 2000 agreed a 105-year lease for the docks railway from Strand Road westwards to a site just short of the old PCC diesel shed, a distance of around 1½ miles including a substantial parcel of land for a running shed and museum.

With a wallet bursting from the Southport shed sale, the new tenants began the process of turning a brownfield site into the headquarters of what would hence be known as the Ribble Steam Railway.

On completion of the not insignificant task of transferring all the stock, exhibits, track and tools etc from Southport to Preston, and after a very long wait, the lease was finally signed. This provided the green light for construction work to begin, and a new running shed - incorporating a purpose built workshop and machine shop with 25 ton overhead crane -  was completed in 2001. This quickly gave the new railway a self-contained facility capable of handling all but the most major of engineering requirements; a facility to rival some of those found on much larger preserved lines.  

Yet while this took care of the operational side of running a railway, there were the other non-operational ex-Steamport locomotives and exhibits to consider, so the RSR took out a loan to build a museum and visitor centre, incorporating a shop, café and passenger platform (Preston Riverside), which was completed in 2004. All was set for the commencement of operations under the Ribble Steam Railway banner.

It was during this period that an unexpected approach was made to the RSR by the rail freight giant English, Welsh & Scottish Railways (EWS).

As mentioned previously, petroleum products had long been the mainstay of traffic on the docks system prior to the coming of the preservationists, and EWS was naturally keen to see this traffic return. The idea was for the RSR to not only provide a rail link to the Total (Bitumen) plant (just a stone’s throw from the railway’s new headquarters), but also provide the motive power and manpower to operate these bitumen trains on the branch. This would involve collecting loaded tankers brought in to the RSR exchange sidings by EWS from the Lindsey Oil Refinery, taking them into and from the Total site, and assembling the empty trains for EWS to take away again.

The negotiations led to a ten-year deal being signed with Total, and so Ribble Rail was born as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ribble Steam Railway. Today Ribble Rail employs four full-time members of staff who are not only responsible for operating the bitumen trains over the branch, but also for the maintenance and upkeep of the line’s permanent way, as well as the three Sentinel diesel locomotives (two of them being ex-Preston City Council) which form the mainstay of the Ribble Rail fleet. A fitting link with the line’s history is maintained by these locomotives as they carry names formerly born by the famous Preston Corporation Bagnall 0-6-0STs – Enterprise, Energy and Progress

Before the operation of the bitumen traffic could begin there was the usual amount of red tape and paperwork to be dealt with, as well as the installation of a barrier crossing at the Strand Road end of the line, marking the end of RSR metals and the beginning of Network Rail’s. As such the railway successfully completed its first ten-years as a freight operator in 2014, with Total signing another five-year agreement ending on December 31 2019. It is hoped that a further contract extension will be forthcoming as traffic continues to grow; five trains per week running during the peak periods, although EWS is no more (having been bought by DB Schenker) and Colas Rail has taken over the movement of the bitumen traffic over the national network.  In 2010 the aging wagon fleet was replaced by a fleet of 30 specially designed bogie tankers.

This income stream has helped towards underpinning a lot of the RSR’s subsequent success, enabling it to pay off the loan for building the museum building, relay parts of the line with 120ft lengths of continuously-welded rail, and above all, operate completely debt-free. Even the lease is fully paid up for the next 99 years!

The Ribble Rail operation has undoubtedly been a major bonus for the RSR, but the prime driver for coming to Preston in the first place was always the operation of steam-hauled passenger trains. The first such workings commenced on September 17 2005 with Robert Stephenson & Hawthorns 0-4-0ST Agecroft No. 2 performing the honours. Today’s operation is relatively unchanged from that of 2005, with some passenger trains being top-and-tailed from Preston Riverside to Strand Road. A typical journey takes the passengers along the banks of the River Ribble, leaving the industrial estate behind as the railway crosses Lockside Road and then curves south-eastwards and crosses the entrance to Preston Marina on a road/rail swing bridge on Navigation Way. The passage of trains across the bridge requires the road users to give way once the warning lights begin to flash; the rails being laid through the roadway along the length of the bridge.

Past the bridge the railway turns eastwards again and runs alongside the north bank of the Ribble – the photographers’ favourite vantage point – paralleling Navigation Way and Port Way, passing through the exchange sidings and on to Strand Road. In cases when trains are not top-and-tailed, the locomotive will then propel the train back to the exchange sidings in order to run round prior to the return to Riverside.

Maintaining the service is a group of around 100 loyal and active volunteers who cover all aspects of the railway’s operation, from train crews and engineers to shop and refreshment room staff. Overseeing them all is the railway’s board of directors, headed by Chairman and Treasurer, Dave Watkins, a former banker with a keen head for figures.

“We can have about 20 or 30 volunteers on a good day, but are happy to welcome more,” explains Dave. “We could do with a few more railway experienced volunteers to help bolster our up and coming younger members who are taking a bigger role in the running of the railway.”

Like many of the industrial preserved lines, the RSR has a healthy crop of younger volunteers working their way through the ranks. This is particularly evident in the catering department where the average age of the café staff is about 18.

“What the youngsters are doing in the café is fantastic, but we’d like to see some younger blood coming through in the engineering department too,” adds Dave. “What we’re lacking though are the natural teachers; those who can pass on their knowledge to the next generation.”

Although Dave was not in the chairman's seat in the early Steamport days, he has been actively involved in all the negotiations involving the Southport developer and Preston City Council.

As such a ‘young’ railway in the grand scheme of things, visitors from the early days in the late 2000s may not notice a vast amount of difference in the visual face of the RSR today. However that does not imply that the railway has not developed in ten years; it most certainly has.

One of the most significant areas of development has been in the locomotive department, which has been greatly added to since the Steamport era. For example the museum building today plays host to the Beet family’s BR red Ivatt ‘2MT’ 2-6-0 No. 46441, while the National Railway Museum has also placed locomotive’s in the railway’s care. These include former LNWR Ramsbottom 0-4-0ST No. 1439 and the prototype English Electric ‘Deltic’, which has been at the railway since the Preston Guild events of 2012.

Following the departure of the Furness Railway Trust from the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway in 2009, the group has made its home in Preston and has recently erected a new building which is shared with RSR and Ribble Rail. Consequently this industrial stronghold is also the official home of GWR ‘Hall’ 4-6-0 No. 4979 Wootton Hall, ‘56XX’ 0-6-2T No. 5643, Furness Railway 0-4-0 No. 20 (currently based at Locomotion, Shildon) and ‘Austerity’ 0-6-0 ‘Cumbria’, along with a variety of coaching stock.

Add to this the numerous private owners who have moved their locomotives to the RSR too, notably Andy Booth (owner of L&Y ‘A’ class 0-6-0 No. 1300 and Bagnall 0-6-0ST ‘Courageous’) and Dave Watkins’ own growing fleet, and you can see that this ‘little’ railway attracts some ‘big’ players in the preservation movement.

So does this mean that the RSR plans to move away from its industrial steam roots?

“Not at all!” confirms Dave Watkins. “We are an industrial railway and will remain that way. We’ve no plans to have a fleet made up of panniers, ‘Jinties’ or other BR types, but that doesn’t mean we can’t evolve. There are plenty of things still to do on the agenda, as and when the money becomes available.

“For example I’ve been impressed with the Foxfield Railway’s ‘Knotty’ train and would like to see a Victorian train running here, perhaps using the Grant Richie [0-4-0ST W/No. 272 of 1894] and the Furness Trust’s North London Railway four-wheelers, to help increase our educational offering.

“Coupled to this we have a plan to create a classroom for school use, put heating into the museum building, rotate the exhibits and ultimately see us grow in the market. Last year [2014] was our best year to date, and I don’t want us to sit on our laurels. We can grow from this, by improving the visitor experience further and consequently their dwell time at the railway.”

These aims may appear to be a touch unambitious, but as Dave says: “We never try to aim too high as you can fall to earth with a big bang.”  That said, the vision for the railway is getting clearer, including the notion of an extension to the line. There are currently two possibilities for extending the RSR, one being the more straight forward but less appealing, and the other having stronger appeal but triple the work.

The first would be to extend beyond the current limit of operations at Strand Road, and follow the existing line towards Preston Station. The logic in this is obvious, but as Dave says: “It would effectively be running through a green tunnel and would add nothing to the passenger’s overall experience.”

The second and more preferred option would be to extend the line westwards from Riverside to join up with the Millennium Canal, Preston’s newest, but underutilised, tourist attraction. This would take the railway beyond its current boundary and bypass the former PCC locomotive shed where the Sentinel diesels were housed.

“The problem with this scheme is that there was never a railway here,” explains Dave. “Consequently we would have to create everything from new and it would be a very big job, especially for a railway like ours.”

There is obviously a very long way to go before any form of extension can be embarked upon, but the RSR’s track record proves that it is more than just a pipe dream. It is a fair bet to say that the Ribble Steam Railway will extend one day in the foreseeable future.

In the meantime there are projects already on the boil to keep the railway occupied, such as the installation of a wagon turntable at the west end of the museum building to allow locomotives to be turned during galas etc, a plan to run freight trains during gala events, and ultimately run occasional brakevan rides using a BR ‘Shark’ (which is about to head under cover for extensive repairs) and one of the ex-LMS brakevans. Not to mention a proposal to run periodic shuttle services onto the RSR direct from Ormskirk.

So has the move from Southport to Preston lived up to expectations?

“Absolutely!” says an emphatic Dave Watkins. “We’ve come a long way in a very short period time and we are all immensely proud of what we’ve accomplished. I’m not being conceited, but our success has not been down to luck but down to good management, good planning and most importantly having a brilliant skilled and dedicated team of volunteers. 

“I’d like to think that we have achieved everything we said we would when we left Southport and came to Preston. In my opinion it was the best thing we ever did!”

© Ribble Steam Railway 2017

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