This weekend (20-21 June 2020) was supposed to be the glittering gala centrepiece of Middleton Railway’s year-long celebration of its 60th anniversary, until the Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to it.
However, the amazing team of volunteers who run the railway couldn’t let the moment pass unmarked and a so a private, socially distanced, event was held. At 4:45pm on Saturday afternoon, sixty years to the minute since the first service ran, the diesel engine that pulled that first service pulled out of Moor Road station.
The Middleton Railway was built in 1758 and is the first railway authorised by an Act of Parliament and the first to have commercially successful steam locomotives, in June 1812. It has operated trains every year since opening in 1758.
Middleton Railway also celebrates the role Hunslet played in building steam and diesel engines for the world. So as well as the diesel, an older, Hunslet-built steam engine, Matthew Murray, was in full steam for the ceremony.
The railway was one of the first heritage railway lines in the country and the first standard gauge preserved railway, opening in June 1960. It was started by a group of volunteers led by Dr Fred Youell, who taught Physics at Leeds University. Youell was a formidable character, inspired by work done on the Talyllyn and Ffestiniog Railways in North Wales and by the classic Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt. His son Matthew told me that he was keen to join the railway preservation movement and Middleton Railway became his project as it the oldest railway in the world and it was on his doorstep.
Another story from the early days paints a picture of Fred Youell’s determination. In the 1960s the M1 motorway (as it was then) was being built through South Leeds and the planned route ran across the line of the railway. The engineers really didn’t want to have to build a tunnel for the railway and at a final meeting asked “Isn’t there any other way?”
“Yes” replied Fred, “We’ll settle for a level crossing!”
To this day the railway is still run by a dedicated team of volunteers. Matthew also paid tribute to his mother Susan who was the railway’s first secretary and served for many years.
“This area has changed massively, but one thing they managed to preserve is this railway” Matthew said. “First it was in a wasteland, now there’s roads, greenery. Before my father died twenty years ago, he was amazed at how it looked and how much South Leeds had changed, but it still has its heritage.”
Both Fred and Susan Youell wanted their ashes scattered at the railway, but at opposite ends of the line. It’s perhaps appropriate that to visit both sites the family have to take the train.
In 1960 the railway could only operate on a short section of track and passengers rode in an old tram pulled by the diesel engine. But seven and a half thousand turned up take a ride in its first week. The short ride was free but for a donation you got a commemorative ticket. The proceeds went to Leeds University’s RAG Week charity drive.
Although the railway lost its line running up to the end of Dewsbury Road, to the motorway, the line up to Park Halt was secured in 1969 after Broom Pit closed. The group explored preserving the pit, but with hundreds of working coal mines in the country there was little interest.
Yesterday’s train run served a second purpose. No trains have run since 1 January this year and so volunteers had to be certified that they could run a train service safely. Middleton Railway is governed by the same laws as the East Coast Mainline and every other railway in the UK. Now the railway will be ready to open once government restrictions permit.
Speaking about the anniversary, Middleton Park Councillors Judith Blake, Kim Groves and Paul Truswell commented:
“We congratulate MRT on reaching this historic anniversary. We take great pride in having such an internationally significant piece of history on our doorstep. It is a powerful reminder of our area’s rich industrial heritage and a tribute to the generations of dedicated volunteers who have made it such a valued part of our community. It is not only a brilliant educational asset, but also great fun!
“We have been delighted to support to MRT over the years and look forward to a continuing that close working relationship. We want to help it to cement its place as one of the city’s great attractions, and perhaps one day even extend the line to its original starting point in Middleton Park.”