News that the government has decided to confirm the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway Order under the terms of the Transport & Works Act 1992 is excellent news for supporters of the line and highlights the progress made on the development of this Derbyshire-based railway.
The origins of the railway to Wirksworth date back to the mid-1830s and the desire of the residents of the Ecclesbourne Valley to have a connection to the North Midland (later Midland) Railway. This ambition was, however, thwarted for almost three decades by the unwillingness of the MR to support the branch. However, in the early 1860s, the MR’s attitude changed as the route through Wirksworth might provide an alternative route through to Rowsley on the main line from Ambergate through Matlock towards Buxton.
The route was surveyed in 1862 and parliamentary approval for the 8½-mile line was gained the following year. The line linked Wirksworth with Duffield, on the Midland main line from Derby to Ambergate and, perceived as a potential alternative to the main line should the extension to Rowsley be completed, the structures were built to accommodate double track, although initially only a single line was laid.
Following an inspection of the completed line on 26 September 1867 by Colonel J. A. Rich of the Royal Engineers, the line opened on the following 1 October. There were three intermediate stations — Hazelwood, Shottle and Idridgehay — all of which opened with the line on 1 October 1867.
Although the original intention had been to extend the line to Cromford and thence to Rowsley, the imperative to construct this cut-off route disappeared when the London & North Western involvement with the lease on the line from Ambergate ceased. As a result, although a short section beyond Wirksworth was built (to serve a quarry, opening on 17 November 1877), the through route was never completed and Wirksworth was destined to be served by a branch alone.
Operated by the Midland Railway, there were three passenger services initially per weekday although this was later increased to six with one on Sundays. In 1910, of the six return workings per day, two were described in the timetable as ‘motor train’. Trains were permitted a minimum of 21 minutes in the down direction and 20 minutes in the up; however, journeys could take up almost twice as long with certain workings; on Sundays, for example, the only departure from Wirksworth — at 5.20pm — was allowed an impressive — and very relaxed — 40 minutes to reach Duffield.
Along with the rest of the sprawling Midland Railway empire, the Wirksworth branch passed to the LMS at Grouping in 1923. By 1939, the Sunday service had been lost but there remained a service of six return workings on weekdays with an additional two on Saturdays. Passenger traffic declined during World War 2 and the LMS timetable for 16 June to 5 October 1947 records ‘Service Suspended’ between Derby and Wirksworth. The last passenger trains operated to Wirksworth on 16 June 1947 although the service was only officially withdrawn on 1 January 1949.
Thereafter the line remained open for freight traffic, although it was used both in the early 1950s — for the Derby lightweight units — and the early 1980s — for the Class 150s — for the testing of new passenger stock. The primary freight over the route was the movement of limestone from quarries to the north of the station (the quantity of traffic in the aftermath of the closure of the Cromford & High Peak line resulted in the demolition of the station at Wirksworth in 1968 to accommodate it); such was the traffic that some of the branch was relaid with cwr in the 1980s. However, the line was to close completely in 1989 following the take-over of the quarries.
This could have been the end of the branch, but preservation beckoned through the establishment of Wyvern Rail in 1992 and the creation of the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway. The line’s survival was aided by the fact that the terminus at Wirksworth was deemed a strategic freight site and was thus protected whilst there was also the possibility of the resumption of limestone traffic.
Wyvern Rail Ltd was established as the vehicle to take over the operation of the line in 1992 as a community-owned business. Initially it was thought that the open access provisions of the Railways Act of 1993 would permit it use of the line, but this was not the case. Thus began the process of negotiating for a lease and for a Light Railway Order.
In 1996 Wyvern Rail negotiated a lease for the entire line from Duffield to Wirksworth and was granted a Light Railway Order for it. The new Ecclesbourne Valley Railway Order permits Wyvern Rail now formally to purchase the freehold of the line from Network Rail and to negotiate with Lafarge Tarmac over the private siding at Wirksworth. In April 2002 Wyvern Rail became a plc following a successful share issue.
0n 1 October 2002 Wirksworth station was officially reopened; in 2004 a shuttle service from there for half-a-mile southwards to Gorsey Bank was launched and, the following year, the route north from Wirksworth to a new station at Ravenstor was opened. This was the first time that passenger services north from Wirksworth had operated. Services were extended south to Idridgehay on 8 March 2008; following work to the line, services now run through to Duffield (Idridgehay to Duffield reopening on 8 April 2011). Services between Duffield and Wirksworth are generally formed by diesels, primarily DMUs, whilst the periodic shuttle from Wirksworth to Ravenstor using the 1 in 27 gradient is steam-operated.
The intermediate stations at Idridgehay and Shottle — the latter reopened on 24 June 2012 — are open, although the latter is only a request halt. The line’s hosts an impressive collection of DMUs, including one of the few surviving Derby Lightweight units that were tested on the line in the early 1950s.