Bid to reinstate rail line through Monsal Dale meets opposition

BBC East Midlands Today - report on lobby group aiming to secure funding to reinstate the rail line between Matlock and Buxton - August 2020

A CONTROVERSIAL BID to secure millions of pounds in government funding to reinstate the Matlock to Buxton rail line, along what is now the Monsal Trail, has run into opposition from the public and the Peak Park authority.

The original rail line, which formed part of the connection between London and Manchester, was closed in the 1960s as part of the infamous Beeching cuts which devastated large section of Britain’s rail network. With the tracks removed and the rail tunnels sealed, the section between Buxton and Matlock fell into disuse.

It was in 1977, during the early years of this period of neglect (and before the tunnels had been sealed), that the Monsal valley was selected as an ideal filming location for the third series Survivors episode Mad Dog.

The Headstock Tunnel as seen in the Survivors episode Mad Dog
The Headstock Tunnel as it appeared on screen in 1977 in Survivors episode ‘Mad Dog’

Monsal trail

In recent years, after attracting extensive funding for rennovation, the rail tunnels along this section of the line were repaired and re-opened, and the Monsal Trail developed as a leisure and tourist attraction for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.

The Trail has proved to be an extraordinarily popular location, attracting large numbers of visitors year round, and has succeeded in becoming an important ‘jumping off’ point for those who’ve been encouraged by their experience to explore the Peak District more widely.

Lobby group MEMRAP (the Manchester and East Midlands Rail Action Partnership) has launched a campaign to secure funding for a reinstatement of the old line.

MEMRAP argues that allowing the Monsal Trail to exist solely as a recreational destination means wasting a valuable resource that could be harnessed to “reconnect isolated communities, provide additional capacity for the national railway network (both for passengers and freight), and help Derbyshire to meet its carbon emissions targets”.

MEMRAP are backing the work of the Peak and Dales Rail campaign, which claims that trains could be running over the Monsal viaduct once again by 2030.

Feasibility questions

The group’s proposals will, the Peak and Dales Rail campaign hopes, persuade central and local government to fund a full feasibility study and detailed construction plan.

If approved, MEMRAP hopes that the multi-million pound costs of the construction of the line (which would include bridge building, flood management, and major earth works) would come from “private investment […] or from national government, or indeed from some combination.”

If the project secured funding, access to the tunnels and to the viaduct by pedestrians and others would face the axe. MEMRAP chief executive Stephen Chaytow said he did not want to see “the Monsal Trail lost” entirely and its proposals would see the Trail retained in “some capacity”.

It’s clear however that, were the rail reinstatement to go ahead, leisure access to the Monsal Trail would be sharply curtailed and the experience transformed out of all recognition by the primacy that a live bi-directional train service would have to secure in the limited space available.

Peak authority sceptical

The Peak District National Park Authority remains entirely unconvinced by MEMRAP’s plans. A 2019 study by the Authority found that the easily-accessible trails available in the National Park played host to “more than half a million visits each year from walkers, cyclists and horse riders.” Of those 500,000 annual visitors, 330,000 made use of the Monsal Trail.

The organisation’s Conservation and Planning Director John Scott insists the railway line and the Trail are simply “incompatible”.

“It’s hard to see how you can have the railway back and have the Trail experience as it is at the moment,” he explained to the BBC.

Save the Monsal Trail petition banner

The proposals have sparked opposition from individuals and groups entirely unconvinced by MEMRAP’s cost-benefit calculations. A Help Save the Monsal Trail petition on the Change.org site has already (by 20 November 2020) attracted more than 10,500 signatures.

It’s difficult to tell at present, if MEMRAP’s proposals have any credibility or traction. An application has been submitted to the Department for Transport’s Restoring Your Railway ‘Ideas Fund’, with the backing of two sponsoring MPs Robert Largan (High Peak) and Nigel Mills (Amber Valley).

Train traction

The bid will, however, be in competition with other rail reinstatement proposals from across the country, many of which will not be accompanied with the same kind of eye-watering price tag, unproven economic rationale or impassioned local opposition that the MEMRAP plan will have to confront.

Countless major infrastructure ‘projects’ (particularly those which originate from private organisations and lobby groups) fail to secure funding or official backing and grind to a halt at the “feasibility study” stage.

The proposal can though count on some local rail-enthusiast support. A competing Re-open the Railway between Matlock, Bakewell, Buxton and Manchester petition on Change.org has attracted thousands of signatures. Tellingly, the statement accompanying the petition is silent on the fate of the Monsal Trail in the event that the line is brought back into use.

East Midlands Today – 18 August 2020
East Midlands Today (late evening news summary) – 18 August 2020
East Midlands Today – 29 August 2020

Earlier echoes

As the debate continues, it’s impossible not to reminded of the controversy that greeted the construction of the Monsal viaduct and the building of the rail line back in 1863. The celebrated critic and social commentator John Ruskin famously denounced what he saw as the witless desecration of the valley’s beauty in the name of “progress”:

“The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere.”

John Ruskin, 1871. Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain.

Once opened, trains ran across the viaduct and through the valley for around 100 years before the Beeching cuts led to the lines being ripped out. Over time, the viaduct that Ruskin had considered such a monstrosity blended into the landscape of the Monsal valley, and became an integral part of one of the Peak District’s most recognisable and acclaimed vistas. Within ten years of the line’s closure, its impressive spans and brickwork had secured Grade II Listed Building status.

Fans of Survivors might well find themselves torn in relation to the rail reinstatement plan. While the return of trains to the Monsal valley would almost certainly render key Mad Dog filming locations inaccessible once more, and compromise the gentle tranquility of the valley, there is one other consideration.

Charles Vaughan and Greg Preston were both enthusiastic advocates for the reactivation of dormant rail services across post-Death Britain (admittedly in legacy, steam-powered form). In Survivors, it was Charles and Greg who were most determined to “get a national network going”.

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