Introduction | The Ribblehead Viaduct | North to Carlisle | Tebay to Ingleton


The Leeds - Settle - Carlisle railway line and the Waverley Line (that ran between Carlisle and Edinburgh via Hawick) are probably the two most enigmatic railway lines in Britain. They both have had very chequered histories and have both been threatened with closure. The Waverley Line was indeed axed in January 1969, a decision that British Rail would later come to regret. The Leeds - Settle - Carlisle line survived by the skin of its teeth.

But never mind closure, the Leeds - Settle - Carlisle line was a line that should never have been built. Even its own promoters were to petition for its abandonment, before a stone had been laid.

The Midland Railway had delusions of grandeur. It wanted to be everywhere and to do everything. But by the time it had outgrown its provincial roots, it was a late arrival on the national railway scene, and all the best routes had been taken. I write elsewhere about its efforts to establish itself in London, but that was just one problem among many. Fulfilling its ambition to reach Scotland was quite something else.

The Midland's rapid expansion had been based on route-sharing with other lines. This was how it originally arrived in London. And route-sharing was what it had in mind for Scotland. This was because there are really only two obvious routes to Scotland, that of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) from Crewe to Carlisle via Shap, and the other via Darlington, Newcastle upon Tyne and Berwick operated by the North Eastern Railway.

The company had negotiated itself from Clapham (Yorkshire) to as far north as Ingleton by a 1000-year lease granted by the "Little North Western Railway", and was relying on further negotiation to enable it to proceed further. This proved to be the big stumbling block. A small provincial railway company, the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway, was building the line onwards from Ingleton to Tebay on the LNWR's West Coast main line north to Carlisle and Scotland. The Midland had high hopes of the arrangement that it had made with this company to give itself access and running rights to Carlisle and control over what would then become the shortest route between London and Scotland. But the LNWR, in dispute with the Midland over inter alia running rights into London, quickly absorbed the Lancaster and Carlisle in order to block the Midland's ambitions.

The Midland and the LNWR engaged in a futile dispute that blocked up the line. It is said that on one occasion the Midland's manager, James Allport, was conveyed in a "Midland" carriage attached to an LNWR coal train. Determined not to be thwarted in the attempt to reach Scotland, Allport, in what has been described as a "fit of pique", looked around for another alternative. And the only other alternative was for the Midland to build its own railway line northwards over the bleak and inhospitable North Yorkshire Moors where as yet no other railway company had dared to tread.

In August 1865 the Midland's directors authorised the survey a route to Carlisle from their Morecambe line at a point just south of the town of Settle, and by early 1866 they were able to present a bill to Parliament for a request for powers to construct their line. Consent was given in June 1866.

The estimated cost was enormous - £2,200,00, which was an enormous sum for the day. And matters weren't helped by a financial crisis in the UK that made the cost of borrowing money on this scale exhorbitant. In the face of all of this, the directors conceded that a wiser course of action would be to make peace with the LNWR and exploit the full potential of the Ingleton line. Eventually an agreement was reached and the directors petitioned Parliament to allow them to abandon their proposed line, but such was the excitement that had built up in the area (not least by several other railway companies who saw an opportunity to exploit this barren region at almost no cost to themselves) that the petition was turned down.


Construction of the line, 72 miles and 1728 yards long, finally began in November 1869. The first sod was cut just outside Settle at Anley House, the home of the Birkbecks who were a Quaker banking family and who incidentally had fought against the construction of the railway. So important was the line to the Midland's future that the company's engineer, John Sydney Crossley, who had been appointed in 1857, delayed his retirement until 1875 to give the line his constant attention. He died in 1878.

The line crossed some of the worst terrain in Britain and also some of the most spectacular scenery in England and took almost 7 years to build, opening to passengers on 1st of May 1876.

 ribblehead viaduct leeds settle carlisle midland railway north yorkshire moors avril april 2007 copyright free photo royalty free photo

Working conditions were atrocious. It was probably the last main line in Britain to have been built by hand, with 6000 navvies being employed. Accidents - and deaths - were frequent. Outbreaks of disease such as smallpox were not uncommon amongst the navvies, and churchyards along the route contain numerous graves and memorials to the victims. There are said to be particularly fine memorials at St Mary's Church, Outhgill and St Leonards' Church, Chapel-le-Dale, the latter not too far away from the famous Ribblehead viaduct.

One thing that ought to be said for the company that despite its reluctance to build the line and the difficulties that it encountered during construction, it didn't go in for half-measures. The line was built to full express main line standards so that trains could travel at 90 miles per hour. To achieve this, a maximum gradient of 1 in 100 was specified, and this led to the building of 325 bridges, 21 viaducts and 14 tunnels. Even so, 1 in 100 is an incredible gradient to sustain over any distance, and there is one stretch of the line, from Crosby Garrett Tunnel to the summit of 1169 feet (357 metres) at Ais Gill, which is said to be nine miles of almost continuous 1 in 100.

The difficult gradient created problems. The Midland Railway had a "small engine" policy, using less-powerful engines than their rivals and doubling up where necessary throughout the network. Even so, on the long drag out of Settle and out of Carlisle up to the "big hump" at Ais Gill summit, it was often necessary to employ banking engines to provide yet extra power. These would separate from their mother train at Ais Gill summit and collect in groups ready to return light to their depots. It was no surprise that signalmen would sometimes become confused with these packs of light engines roaming all over the line, overlook their presence entirely, and despatch expresses straight into their rear.

In the search for the easiest (if you can call a gradient of 1 in 100 "easy") route through the Pennines was that it did not necessarily follow the easiest route for the local inhabitants. The railway station at Kirkby Lonsdale, a small town of about 2,000 inhabitants, was about a mile and a half away from the town.

dent railway station leeds settle carlisle midland railway north yorkshire moors avril april 2007 copyright free photo royalty free photo

Even worse, the village of Dent was well over three miles away and across the other side of a valley from its station. A story, doubtless apocryphal but often quoted, illustrates the situation perfectly.
An American tourist in Dent asks one of the locals in the village pub "why is it that the railway station is so far away from the village?"
The local pauses for a while, and then replies "they thought it would be a good idea to build it next to the railway line".


The building of the line was to cost the company dear in the long run. The final cost of the line was 3,407,000, well over 1million more than the original estimate (substantial cost overruns are not a modern phenomenon) and stringent economies were called for. At times, the quality of coal purchased was substandard and on one occasion a train stalled on the climb up from Carlisle to Ais Gill due to insufficient steam pressure, and was hit in the rear by a fast-moving express following on behind.

Lack of funds led to yet another incident. The company was unable to find funds to keep up with the programme to fit the new continuous brakes to its trains. A high-speed accident in 1873, which could have been prevented had modern brakes been fitted to the train, resulted in 8 deaths.

Nevertheless in the early part of its existence the line was quite popular due to some imaginative advertising by the Midland Railway, describing it, with a considerable amount of justification, as "the most picturesque route to Scotland".

modern 8 car diesel multiple unit ribblehead viaduct leeds settle carlisle midland railway north yorkshire moors avril april 2007 copyright free photo royalty free photo

If you had said back in the 1960s and 1970s that you'd be seeing trains like this - 2 modern 4-car diesel multiple units coupled together - running on the Leeds - Settle - Carlisle route, everyone else would have thought that you were off your head. Back in those days the line was said to be poorly-patronised, with less than 2,000 passengers per week, and it was seriously threatened with closure. A desperate battle was fought for its future. According to one book that is well-worth reading, many of British Rail's tactics in trying to close the line were totally underhand. These are underlined in yet another thoroughly readable book.

British Rail used what is known as "the Cooper Brothers formula" (Cooper Brothers being a firm of accountants now part of Coopers and Lybrand) to calculate the income of railway lines threatened with closure. This formula takes into account inter alia only the income of travel within the length of the line itself (hence the 2,000 passengers per week), and ignores all long-distance traffic using the line, and ignoring the income that is earned from journeys along the line that were started and/or finished beyond the line's termini. The expectation (more often than not in vain) is that every one of the travellers from closed railway lines wishing to travel further would find an alternative method of transport to reach the terminus and then continue the journey by rail.

Of course, they all might do so. But they might equally
 i.... travel the whole length of their journey by the alternative method of transport
 ii... not travel at all, and stay at home instead
It's hardly surprising that the UK is in such a mess if this is a prime example of joined-up accountancy thinking.

Now that the line has been saved in the medium term, and much more effort is being put into marketing it, much more rolling stock is required as the volume of passengers has increased five-fold.

Something else that the Cooper Brothers formula failed to take into account is the value of this line in its capacity as a diversion for the West-Coast main line to Scotland.

There's a huge bottleneck on that line between Lancaster and Carlisle over the fells at Shap. The weather is bitter and much of the line is totally isolated. A mechanical breakdown or a broken power cable can immobilise traffic for days and bring Anglo-Scottish traffic to a halt, and this happens more often that it should. When that happens, traffic can be routed from Lancaster via Clapham (Yorkshire) and Skipton and then over the Ribblehead Viaduct and Ais Gill summit to Carlisle that way.

Brush 47 pulling electric high speed train ribblehead viaduct leeds settle carlisle midland railway north yorkshire moors avril april 2007 copyright free photo royalty free photo

This photo was taken in April 2007, when the West Coast main line was closed due to a major railway accident. All of the high-speed electric trains had to travel down the Leeds - Settle - Carlisle line, hauled by whatever spare diesel locomotive that might be available - in this case an old "Brush 47".

When the closure of the line was debated, it transpired that should the main line over Shap be closed, the proposed alternative route would be via Manchester, Leeds, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For passengers travelling by train from Liverpool to Carlisle, it would probably be quicker to go by sea.

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