The revelation that it might be not until the 2030s that Ripon regains its railway connection means that the North Yorkshire city will remain one of only two cathedral cities in England — the other being Wells in Somerset — not to have a railway service.
Ironically, however, Ripon, which currently has a population of just under 17,000, was to be on a main line for virtually 120 years until the line’s closure in the 1960s. The origin of the line lay with the Leeds & Thirsk Railway, which was authorised on 21 July 1845, to construct a line north from Leeds. Work commenced on the line on 20 October 1845 and freight traffic commenced operation between Ripon and Thirsk on 5 January 1848. Public passenger services over this section commenced on 1 June 1848, following the official opening the previous day. The section from Weeton, through the L&TR’s station serving Harrogate (which was actually in Starbeck), opened to passenger services on 1 September with the short section from Wormald Green to Ripon, which included the viaduct over the River Ure, followed on 13 September 1848.
However, construction of the southernmost section of the line was difficult as it included the 3,761-yard long Bramhope Tunnel. Work on the tunnel commenced on 20 October 1845 with Thomas Grainger as engineer and James Bray as overseer. The construction work was difficult due to the nature of the rock at the southern end along with problems of subsidence and flooding. During the four years that it took to construct the tunnel, no fewer than 24 navvies lost their lives; there is a monument in Otley Churchyard in the form of a miniature tunnel portal that commemorates the dead. The section of line south from Weeton through the tunnel to Leeds was opened on 9 July 1849.
The L&TR proposed a second bill for the 1845/46 parliamentary session to construct a line from Melmerby, north or Ripon, via Northallerton to Stockton. Under pressure from the ‘Railway King’ George Hudson, this was amended so that the line from Thirsk to Northallerton was used with the new line starting from Northallerton; this received the Royal Assent on 16 July 1846. The through route from Melmerby to Northallerton was to receive the Royal Assent on 22 July 1848. On 3 July 1851, the L&TR was renamed the Leeds Northern Railway; its lines from Starbeck to Knaresborough and from Melmerby to Stockton were opened on 4 August 1851 and 31 May 1852 respectively.
The Leeds Northern Railway was destined, however, to have a relatively short life as, following the North Eastern Railway Act of 31 July 1854, it was vested in the York, Newcastle & Berwick Railway, one of the constituents of the newly created North Eastern Railway.
In Harrogate, the York & North Midland opened a route from Leeds via Wetherby to the town; passing over the L&TR route, this line terminated at a new station — Harrogate Brunswick — that opened on 20 July 1848. The Leeds Northern Railway opened a line from Starbeck to Knaresborough on 4 August; this connected with the line begun by the East & West Yorkshire Junction Railway from York to Knaresborough, which had opened to a temporary station in Knaresborough on 30 October 1848. The opening of the bridge over the River Nidd in Knaresborough on 1 October 1851 completed the link between Harrogate and York. In Harrogate itself, the North Eastern Railway effected changes, resulting in the opening of a new through station and the closure of Brunswick on 1 August 1862. There was also a connection built between the two lines from Leeds from Pannal Junction to Crimple Junction that opened on the same date; this permitted through services over the line from Northallerton to Leeds to be routed through the new station in Harrogate. The original route from Pannal to Starbeck remained, however, although the signalbox at Pannal Junction was closed in 1927.
There were two branch lines off the main line. Just to the north of Harrogate, the 14-mile branch to Pateley Bridge opened on 1 May 1862. From 1907 until 1937 there was a connection with the Bradford Corporation-owned Nidd Valley Light Railway. Passenger services on the ex-NER branch to Pateley Bridge ceased on 31 March 1950 but freight was to last until 30 October 1964. Secondly, the 7¾-mile Masham branch from Melmerby opened 9 June 1875; passenger traffic was never great and ceased on 1 January 1931 but was to survive for freight traffic on 11 November 1963.
Newby Wiske station, just south of Northallerton, was temporarily closed due to World War 2 on 11 September 1939; it was reopened at some stage thereafter — the date isn’t recorded — but was to close finally to passenger services on 2 September 1946.
In 1948, with the Nationalisation of the railways, the Leeds to Northallerton line passed to British Railways (North Eastern Region).
The L&TR’s original alignment from Pannal Junction to Starbeck, which had effectively been freight only, was closed to all traffic on 7 October 1951. Passenger services over the original route between Melmerby and Thirsk ceased on 14 September 1959, at which date the line between Melmerby and Thirsk Town Junction closed completely. Thirsk Town, which had been freight yard only since the mid-1850s, survived until 3 October 1966, served by the spur that linked the L&TR to the East Coast main line. However, it was, as with so many other lines, the Beeching Report of March 1956 that resulted in the closure of the line from Harrogate to Northallerton with the closure of the stations at Arthington, Ripon and Melmerby. The other intermediate stations north of Harrogate had already closed; Wormald Green on 18 June 1962 and Sinderby on 1 January 1962.
Passenger services were withdrawn between Harrogate and Northallerton on 6 March 1967, at which stage the line between Melmerby and Northallerton was closed completely. The line from Ripon to Melmerby, where there was a Royal Ordnance Depot, closed completely in April 1969. Ripon’s final railway connection was severed with the withdrawal of freight facilities from the station on 5 September 1969 and the closure of the remaining section of the line to Starbeck.
The southernmost section of the L&TR, from Leeds to Pannal, was not threatened by closure and remains open, providing both local and main-line connections between Leeds and Harrogate.
In almost half a century since the closure of the route, much of the trackbed has been compromised between Harrogate and Northallerton. Most notably, the viaduct at Ripon has been demolished and, whilst Ripon station remains extant, it has been surrounded by new housing. Around the city itself, a new road uses the alignment of the closed railway and piecemeal developments elsewhere have further breached the line.
Despite this, research has indicated that reopening of the route is viable, both practically and economically, with suggestions that more than 1 million journeys per annum would be possible from a revitalised Harrogate to Ripon link and that a new service would remove a considerable amount of traffic from the main A61 road.
Whilst, clearly, there is considerable backing for the route to be reopened, it seems unlikely that the residents of Ripon are going to be celebrating a rail link any time soon.