A MINIATURE railway which symbolises the North East’s proud coal mining heritage has been given a financial boost to help keep it on track for another 15 years.
Trains which run on the narrow gauge railway take about 18,000 visitors a year on a mile-long journey from Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland to the lake in the nearby Queen Elizabeth II Country Park and back.
Run by a dedicated band of retired, unemployed and student volunteers, the railway operates every Saturday and Sunday and has proved popular with visitors to Woodhorn.
Now it has been given a £4,400 donation from the legacy fund set up by Rio Tinto Alcan in the wake of the decision to close its 500-job aluminium smelter at Lynemouth.
The railway attraction was conceived more than 20 years ago when the local mining industry donated a former pit locomotive – the Leeds-built Hunslet – and three carriages to the museum.
Another loco, a Schoma from Germany, was bought in 2008 when problems with the Hunslet started to occur.
The Woodhorn railway volunteers face increasing maintenance problems with the Hunslet and access to spares is becoming more difficult.
They have discovered that a number of Hunslets were built in the mid-1990s, and are on sale in Hong Kong for about £11,400 each.
If the Woodhorn volunteers can buy one, it will extend the life span of the railway for another 15 years, but without third-party donations that would not be possible.
Stan Lawler, secretary of Woodhorn Narrow Gauge Railway Society, said: “It is a great relief to have received £ 4,400 from the fund.
“We are nearly there in securing a further 15 years for this magnificent railway. I am delighted for the people of south east Northumberland that they wont lose this link to their past.
“While we have another functioning loco in the Schoma, it is the Hunslet that was used at nearly every working pit in the United Kingdom.
“For that reason, it is really important that we keep this link to our heritage by obtaining a direct replacement. It’s also very nice to think that we can repatriate a piece of iconic British engineering and bring it home to Woodhorn.”
John McCabe, Rio Tinto Alcan’s regional economic development director, said: “The legacy fund was set up to benefit local people and what better way to do so than to secure the future of the railway which is an integral part of the area’s history.
“Mining was huge and many of those who were employed at the smelter over the years will have had generations of their families who have worked at the pits.
“For this reason alone, we feel we are supporting a project that touches the lives of so many of our former colleagues and the wider community.”