EARLY RAILWAYS , 1834 - 1854
The development of the railways in Yorkshire began with the opening of the Leeds and Selby Railway on 22/9/1834. The York and North Midland Railway Company (Y&NMR) appointed George Hudson as Chairman on 10/8/1836, and aimed to join York to the Midland Railway and thence to London. The Y&NMR achieved its aim by opening the final section to York on 30/6/1840. Hudson then set out to gain control of an impregnable railway empire in Yorkshire and the North-east.
The autumn of 1844 saw the beginning of the "Railway Mania", when numerous new lines were promoted and many were built and opened. The bubble burst and sanity returned after 1845 but Hudson survived until his dubious business dealings led to his downfall. There were, however, several threats to his monopoly. The Manchester and Leeds Railway (later L&YR) proposed to invade Y&NMR territory with a line from Leeds to York via Seacroft, Thorner, Clifford Moor and Thorp Arch (the Leeds, York and Midland Junction Railway). This was the first proposal to build a line through the area between Leeds and Wetherby, though it was derailed by Hudson. The only successful invasion of Hudson's territory was the Leeds and Thirsk Railway line from Leeds via Horsforth, Pool, Huby, Starbeck and Ripon to Thirsk, which opened on 9/7/1849.
In 1846 the Y&NMR obtained an Act of Parliament for a direct line from York to Leeds from a junction at Copmanthorpe via Tadcaster and Stutton to a junction near Cross Gates. This line would have sliced through the middle of Aberford village and crossed the Great North Road very close to the terminus of the Aberford Railway, though this little line was apparently beneath the notice of the Y&NMR. It would then have passed through a tunnel under Parlington Park, crossing the Barwick - Garforth road at Stank House, about 1¾ miles south of Barwick before joining the Leeds and Selby line near Manston House, 1 mile east of Cross Gates station.
Construction of the York end of the line duly commenced and Tadcaster viaduct was completed in 1848, but the line was a casualty of the end of the Railway Mania and the fall of George Hudson, and was abandoned in 1849. A CD copy of plan of the Tadcaster to Manston section of this line is now in the possession of the Society. A branch line from Church Fenton to Wetherby and Harrogate was opened by the Y&NMR on 20/7/1848.
THE GREAT AMALGAMATION AND AFTER
In 1852 the conflicting interests of the Leeds Northern Railway (formerly the Leeds and Thirsk), the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway and the Y&NMR led to a price war. This was resolved by an amalgamation of the three companies, creating the North Eastern Railway on 31/7/1854. The new NER was in the enviable position of having a virtual monopoly in a large part of north-east England, but this would not go unchallenged.
In the early 1860's two long distance lines that would have passed through our area were proposed by the NER's rivals. In 1865 to counter these, the NER proposed a Leeds - Scarborough "direct" line, passing through Wetherby, Harrogate, Knaresborough, Boroughbridge and Coxwold, joining the York - Scarborough line at Malton. It would have involved linking together various lines already in existence or under construction. Two significant lengths of new line would be required, from Cross Gates to Wetherby and from Knaresborough to Boroughbridge. An Act of Parliament was granted in 1866. The rival schemes having been defeated, the NER attempted to abandon its own Act for the Wetherby and Boroughbridge lines, but faced much local opposition. Having been forced to agree to build the lines, the NER then obtained a further Act permitting a delay in construction.
CONSTRUCTION, THE WAY AND THE WORKS
Due to the reluctance of the NER to spend any more money on this unwanted line than necessary, the Cross Gates - Wetherby line was specified as a single-track branch with the junction at Wetherby facing towards Church Fenton. The line opened to traffic on 1st May 1876 from Cross Gates to the new junction at Wetherby station on York Road, just to the north of the town centre.
The line was relatively steeply graded, rising from about 250' at Cross Gates station to a summit just north of Scholes station at 371', 2.5 miles at an average gradient of 1 in 110. From Cross Gates junction the line curved sharply to the left on a gradient of 1 in 81, and this frequently caused difficulties for heavily loaded northbound trains. Beyond the summit the line descended through Thorner and Bardsey to a height of 80' at Collingham Bridge, 5.5 miles at an average gradient of 1 in 100, causing similar difficulties for southbound trains. There was then a slight rise to Wetherby East junction where the line joined the Harrogate to Church Fenton line.
The four intermediate stations (Scholes, Thorner, Bardsey and Collingham Bridge) were brick-built to a standard NER design, Thorner being a mirror-image of the other three. Each had a parcels office and a small goods yard for local traffic with coal-drops, goods shed and a couple of sidings. As the public railways had the legal status of "common carriers", they were duty-bound to accept any goods within reason that could be carried. Special vehicles were to be provided for perishable items, livestock, large loads, etc. The NER also expected its station masters to engage in private commercial enterprise that would generate extra business for the railway. Coal was the first and most obvious necessity that arrived by rail, and the station master often was the local coal agent, selling coal to local coal merchants. He would also seek to provide other goods and services as required, and to convey local produce to market.
OPERATION, 1876 - 1902
For the whole operational life of the line Lord Leconfield (of Petworth House, Sussex) had a right to stop any passenger train, including expresses, at Collingham Bridge station when he wished to board them. Presumably this was in return for some concession the second Lord Leconfield had granted to the railway.
Initially there were four passenger trains per weekday each way, but there were complaints that the service was inadequate. The first train did not arrive in Leeds until 9.40, which was too late for businessmen, and the 5.30 departure from Leeds was too early. There would also have been a daily pick-up goods train that would have made a return trip along the line, calling at each goods yard as necessary to deliver and collect local supplies and produce. By 1887 the passenger service had improved considerably, with 5 trains running from Church Fenton to Leeds via Wetherby and a further 2 trains starting from Wetherby. Horse-racing was well established in Wetherby in the 19th century and the present Wetherby racecourse was opened in 1891. Special trains ran from Leeds and Bradford to Wetherby (York Road) station on race days. There would also be additional trains before and after the race meetings to transport the horses, their entourage and their equipment. The trains would be stored in any available sidings at nearby stations until it was time for the return trip.
IMPROVEMENTS TO THE LINE
By the turn of the century the increase in traffic was causing congestion on the main line north of York, which carried heavy goods traffic between the major industrial centres, local goods and passenger services and the prestige express services between London, Newcastle and Edinburgh. The line at that time consisted of the usual two tracks as the present 4-track layout between York and Northallerton was not opened until 1933. In order to alleviate the congestion it was decided to upgrade the Cross Gates - Wetherby line and the connections at Wetherby so that trains could run through Leeds to Harrogate and onwards without reversing, as envisaged in the original 1866 Act, enabling trains from the trans-Pennine routes and South Yorkshire to reach the north-east without passing through York.
In 1901 the line was widened from single to double track between Cross Gates and Wetherby, new junctions and a new section of line were built at Wetherby to form a triangular layout, and a new station was built at the southwest apex of the triangle near Harrogate Road, half a mile to the west of the town centre.
The new line opened to through traffic on 1st October 1901, though the new Wetherby station was not ready to open until 1st July 1902. The doubling enabled the line to carry many more trains.
It also allowed through trains to run at higher speeds, as they did not have to slow down at every signal box to exchange the single-line tokens that were necessary for the safe operation of single track lines. A consequence of the new layout at Wetherby was that trains between Harrogate and Church Fenton would not now pass through Wetherby station, but this seems to have been of little importance as the original Y&NMR line to Harrogate had lost its significance as a through route.
OPERATION, 1901 - 1964
From 1/10/1901, 5 express trains each way per day began running between Leeds, Harrogate and Newcastle over the new line, though the service was disrupted on 3/12/1901 by the derailment of an express near Bardsey. On 1st July 1902 Wetherby (Linton Road) station and the junction to the Harrogate line opened to local passenger traffic. York Road station was then closed to passengers and used for goods traffic only. There were no goods facilities at the new Wetherby station other than one short siding.
Bradshaw's April 1910 timetable shows that the number of stopping trains using the improved line had increased to 14 southbound and 11 northbound, but of these 8 in each direction served Church Fenton and 3 in each direction served Wetherby only. There were no stopping trains from Leeds to Harrogate and 3 from Harrogate to Leeds.
The new Wetherby station was much further from the racecourse than the old one, and in 1924 a station was opened on the Church Fenton line adjacent to the course, enabling the race specials from Leeds and Bradford to run via the east side of the triangle and deliver their passengers directly to the course. The racecourse station closed on 18th May 1959 and thereafter the race specials terminated at the town station as before 1924.
Construction of a new development of 750 houses adjacent to the line began in the 1930's and the developer allocated land for a new station to serve it. Construction of Penda's Way station began at 10 am on Saturday 3rd June and was completed by 6 pm on Sunday. The station opened to traffic on Monday 5th June 1939 and was served by 12 trains per weekday in each direction and 13 trains on Saturdays. There was no Sunday service.
In addition to local pick-up goods services along the line, there were overnight through freight trains in both directions between the West Riding and Teesside during World War 2 and these continued until September 1959. About 15 through freight trains per day used the line in the 1950's, and some right up to the 1960's. The war brought more traffic to the line when the new munitions factory was built at Thorp Arch. It is said that 10,000 workers were employed at the height of production, and special trains brought them from Leeds, Bradford, Hull and Doncaster. There would also have been raw materials going in and finished products coming out. The last workers’ trains ran in 1957.
Public passenger services in the post-war period were never as numerous as in the 1930's, but for the first time more trains ran to and from Harrogate than Church Fenton. In the early 1960's diesel multiple unit trains were allocated to the branch service but these did nothing to revive its fortunes.
From 1961 to 1963 Liverpool - Leeds - Newcastle trains were routed via Wetherby to Harrogate, but these did not stop between Leeds and Harrogate. By 1961 there were only 6 stopping trains per day between Wetherby and Leeds, including 2 from Harrogate and 1 from Church Fenton. In the reverse direction 2 trains terminated at Wetherby, 1 terminated at Tadcaster, 2 ran to Harrogate and 1 ran to Harrogate and Northallerton.
THE BEECHING REPORT AND THREAT OF CLOSURE
The statutory requirement for the railways to be "common carriers" that had been included in the railways' Acts from the beginning was rescinded in 1957. Thus local parcels offices and goods yards could be closed, and passenger numbers became the sole justification for keeping branch lines and wayside stations open. Then Dr Beeching's infamous report "The Reshaping of British Railways" was published in 1963 and despite the storm of protest, most of the closure proposals were carried out as planned.
Most of the Wetherby line stations had seen a big decline in passenger numbers since their heyday before the First World War. The exception was Scholes, which had grown and acquired more commuters. However, Penda's Way station accounted for more than half of the total number of passengers in the early 1960's.
Unfortunately, their effect on the revenue was relatively small, as most of them travelled only the 5 miles to and from Leeds, and less than a mile of that was on the branch line. As there was a competing bus service from Penda's Way, the station could be closed without a second thought.
CLOSURE AND AFTER
The Wetherby lines, i.e. Cross Gates to Wetherby and Church Fenton to Crimple Junction were the first to close under Beeching, on 6th January 1964, though a goods service was maintained until 27th April 1964. Apart from Scholes station, which was sold for conversion to a pub and restaurant, the stations were cleared of anything of value and left empty to await demolition.
Removal of the track began in 1964 and the junction at Cross Gates was removed, leaving just a single line for the works trains. The demolition work proceeded very slowly, and the buildings and much track was still in place in July 1965 when I photographed the stations along the line. Little is left, but much of the route is now a public footpath.
Act of Parliament for the construction of the York and North Midland Railway - Leeds Extension, 1846. House of Lords Archives.
Tomlinson's North Eastern Railway, David & Charles, 1967 facsimile edition, originally published in 1915.
Bradshaw's Railway Guides, August 1887, April 1910, July 1922.
Railways Around Harrogate, Martin Bairstow, 1986.
The Railways of Harrogate and District, James Rogers, North Eastern Railway Association, 2000.
The Leeds - Cross Gates - Wetherby Railway, The Barwicker No. 85, March 2007.
First Lamb to the Beeching Slaughter, Geoffrey Skelsey, Back Track magazine, January 2009.
Brief History of the Church Fenton - Harrogate Railway and the Cross Gates to Wetherby Railway,Dis-used stations web site