THEY were dubbed The Crackpots. In reality they were the Magnificent Ten: the pioneers – founders you might say – of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

It was 50 years ago this month that the group gathered for the first time in the front room of house at Ruswarp, near Whitby.

The Whitby-Pickering Railway, as the Moors line existed in its original incarnation, had fallen victim to Dr Beeching’s infamous axe in March 1965. But well within a decade trains were again running along the 18 miles of its track from Grosmont to Pickering. The Moors Railway had been born – an astonishingly fast achievement in those putative days of preserved railways.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway has become one of the world’s busiest steam heritage routes

Few had supposed the line could be saved – hence that unflattering sobriquet slapped on the handful of locals deluded enough to believe otherwise. But in the mere six years to the line’s reopening, their efforts had not only secured the track, obtained sufficient locos and rolling stock, and trained volunteer staff up to BR standards but had wiped off a debt to British Rail of almost £100,000. The Crackpots had turned out to be The Saviours.

The first, and outstanding, Crackpot was an unlikely figure – Tom Salmon. He was a quietly spoken, almost diffident, civil servant, who travelled each day on the Esk Valley railway from his Ruswarp home to his work as an employment officer in Middlesbrough. Midlands-born, he had happy memories of boyhood journeys on the Whitby-Pickering railway while staying with his grandparents at Thornton-le-Dale.

Tom’s modest manner concealed an iron determination that the line, opened in 1836, the first in Yorkshire apart from the Middlesbrough extension of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, should not die. “It was historic, highly scenic and far too good for the scrapheap,” he once told me. Doubtless he said the same to the nine people he invited to the crucial meeting in his home on June 3, 1967. There and then, they and Tom formed the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Preservation Society, each paying in the first subscriptions.

“Our first hurdle was to persuade British Rail to deal seriously with us,” Tom recalled. Their success was due to Tom’s masterstroke. Five of his founding group were railwaymen – a former driver, two signalmen, the Whitby stationmaster and the closed line’s former rail inspector, Joe Brown, who knew every nut, bolt and sleeper.

Impressed with the range of expertise, BR immediately deferred the imminent lifting of the track for six months. A public meeting at Goathland, at which Fred Stuart, the former driver among the founders, was elected chairman, launched a public campaign.

“We pulled out all the stops,” Tom told me. Stomping around Yorkshire he and his colleagues inspired the formation of area groups, which soon raised £8,000.

In November 1968, British Rail granted access to the line. Symbolically, the preservation group’s first task was repainting the crossing gates at Grosmont – prominent evidence of the line’s rebirth. “It was a wonderful feeling,” Tom remembered.

Chiefly on long-term loan, locos and rolling stock soon, er, rolled in, and in 1970 permission was gained to operate works trains throughout the line. Stretching the rules, BR permitted the first steam gala – for preservation society members only. These now numbered thousands, forming Britain’s fastest-growing railway preservation society. The small army of volunteers among them was organised into sections: locomotives, buildings, signalling, etc. Area groups took responsibility for different lengths of track.

Behind the scenes, negotiations had to be conducted not only with BR but bodies including the Forestry Commission, the NFU, local councils and insurance companies. Hard work fundraising (another section) paid off the £42,500 bill to British Rail for the six miles of track to Goathland. Hitherto cautious to risk public money, North Riding County Council stumped up £57,250 for the remaining 12 miles of track, which it leased back to the railway. A generous grant from the English Tourist Board, convinced of the line’s tourism potential, was icing on the cake.

I hope I am not too boastful in saying I am proud to have been closely associated with the Moors Railway during those critical early years. I wrote numerous articles, interviewed several of the Crackpots, notably Tom Salmon (twice), signalman Charles Hart (in his Sleights signal box) and Joe Brown, the rail inspector. Over lunch with the chairman who succeeded Fred Stuart, Richard Rowntree, I accepted an invitation to write the first guide to the newly-opened line.

Today, whenever I see the busy scene at Grosmont station I think back to a day shortly before the reopening in May 1973 when, with scarcely anyone around, I and a Northern Echo photographer (Rodney Wildsmith) were given a preview trip to Goathland in a diesel car. Earlier, I had enjoyed a privileged rare journey down the entire line, accompanying a film crew assessing the line as a stand-in for a journey across the Russian Steppes. Though nothing came of that, it anticipated the railway’s frequent use as film location, most memorably in Heartbeat and the Harry Potter films.

Thought to be the world’s most popular heritage railway, the Moors line now carries around 350,000 passengers a year and pumps an estimated £30m a year into the North Yorkshire economy. Tom Salmon died in 2013, but he and his fellow Crackpots are honoured with a plaque at Pickering station. Joe Brown told me: “I thought it would be grand to hit back at that beggar Beeching.” The Crackpots floored him.