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The History Of Heatherslaw Light Railway

The question we often get asked is what was the track used for before?  Well the answer is it was purely fields before Neville Smith came up with the idea. He was an engineer who had built locomotives in both 5 and 7 1/4 inch gauge, but harboured the ambition of building a passenger carrying railway in 15 inch narrow gauge. It was obviously meant to be, as the late Lord Joicey was looking for a project to enhance tourism on Ford and Etal Estates. Plans were submitted and a route was chosen. The locomotive “Lady Augusta” (0-4-2 Tender Engine) was commissioned from the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, while the diesel locomotive Clive and the six original coaches were manufactured on site by Neville Smith and his business partner Mr. Sid Ford.


The Build

The station at Heatherslaw is built on the site of the old Ford and Etal sawmill, which had suffered a fire in the mid 1980’s, before being moved to a new site at Letham Hill. The site at Heatherslaw was cleared, new buildings, a turntable and station track work laid. The track bed was excavated and levelled by a contractor, with the ballast and track laid using a track gang made up of local labour who worked every weekend for six months to enable the railway to start running in the summer of 1989.  The original track was 1.25 miles long and cut directly across the Letham Haugh to Etal village. In the winter of 2003-2004, the track was 'extended' to its present length of 2 miles following the course of the River Till around the outside of the Letham Haugh. The original stock of six coaches was increased to thirteen coaches.

Following the successful extension of 2004, Neville began to plan the building of a new steam locomotive in 2005. He started on the production of various components and over the next few years, as finances would allow, he built up many of the major parts necessary for the project. Sadly, Neville was unable to complete his dream as he passed away in February 2009.

2008 Flood

On the first of September 2008, the railway was struck with the biggest flood on record. After a week of continuous torrential rain, the river Till burst its banks and water swept through the yard. Water poured over the top of Heatherslaw Bridge, carriages were swept off their tracks, some areas of the railway track were submerged by over 10 feet of water, and the only part of the railway line not submerged was the turntable at Etal Station. When the water subsided, we were left with devastation.  

Clive, the diesel locomotive, had been totally immersed in water, the “ Lady Augusta” was left covered in silt, and two of the coaches had been washed off the track, left on their side. The rest of the coaches were in a sorry state, covered in mud, to say nothing of the flooded ticket office and buildings. The railway had reached the lowest point in its history and the business would not have survived without the tireless efforts of the management, staff and friends who pitched in to help. When the river level had dropped sufficiently, the track was examined only to reveal that a large chunk of the bank had been washed away, leaving the track dangling six feet in the air. A new section of track needed to be laid a further ten metres away from the river bank at that point. However, after only a month of downtime, the railway resumed full service.

Refurbish and new builds

The need to refurbish the original wooden bodied coaches, which were showing their age and suffered damage in the flood. There was serious need for the new steam locomotive and new/refurbished coaches.  Alan Keef Ltd was invited to tender a design to complete the new steam locomotive. The design of a 2-6-0 tender tank “Bunty” was manufactured and introduced into service in July 2010, along with two new coaches in matching smart blue livery. These new coaches, like previous rolling stock, were built on site in the HLR’s own workshops. 

A new diesel locomotive, “Binky”, was built on site throughout 2014, with a Perkins diesel and hydraulics unit from Alan Keef Ltd. Binky was launched in Easter 2015 and is usually in service on wet weather days, when it is quiet or if the steam engines are undertaking repairs.