Don Valley Railway first formed as a heritage rail project in September 2003 to operate on the freight rail line between Stocksbridge Steel Works and Sheffield following the route of the former Woodhead Line between Deepcar and Sheffield, The project is developed by Don Valley Railway Ltd., a not-for-profitcompany and registered charity based in Stocksbridge, South Yorkshire. Original plans to operate heritage rail services for the dual purpose of providing infrastructure for tourism over the weekends, alongside regular commuter services have now shifted towards concentrating on the development of a viable commuter service – though with help of outside assistance heritage plans could be revised.
The proposed route runs along trackbed owned by Network Rail that was constructed in the 1840s by the Sheffield, Ashton-Under-Lyne and Manchester Railway (later the Great Central Railway) as part of their line between Manchester and Sheffield. This line, which became known as the Woodhead Line, closed to passengers in 1970. The portion of the Woodhead Line that the Don Valley Railway propose to use is currently used as a freight-only line linking the national rail network with tracks owned by the steelworks at Stocksbridge.
Stocksbridge resident David Goodison first conceived the idea of rehabilitating the line in 2003, and local authorities, politicians, and community groups have since voiced their support. The South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) included the proposal as a potential reopened route in its 2009 Rail Strategy & Delivery Plan, noting the ongoing investigation of the plan’s feasibility, and that the executive had been lending support and advice for the project. In early 2010, SYPTE reaffirmed its support for the project, contributing funds toward professional assessment of the business plan to reopen the line and the feasibility of the line itself; additional funding for the assessment was to be provided by Sheffield City Council and private supporters.
The railway project received a boost in late June 2010 when a feasibility study draft indicated that the cost to develop a weekday commuter service along the route would be several times lower than initially estimated. A local government official supportive of the project cited reduced traffic as a primary benefit, leading to shorter commutes and a smaller regional carbon footprint. However, the same official admitted that raising capital for the project remained difficult in the economic environment of mid-2010.