The Settle to Carlisle Railway

The history of the Settle to Carlisle Railway. When and how it was built, the number of people involved, Batty Moss camp and the battle over closure threats.

Settle to Carlisle Railway plaqueThe Settle to Carlisle Railway was the brainchild of the Midland Railway Company which wanted to get a slice of the lucrative Anglo-Scottish market but were finding it difficult to break the stranglehold of its rivals.

Building the railway line

By the 1860s the Midland Railway’s network came as far north as Ingleton. From there access was needed to the London and North Western Railway line to go further up the East coast to Carlisle and, thence, to Scotland. It seems, though, that LNWR were not particularly pleased to have the additional competition and caused Midland problems. By 1865, the Midland had had enough. They developed the concept of building their own line through Yorkshire to Carlisle and applied to Parliament for approval. The necessary Bill was passed and construction started in 1869. It would take 7 years.

This was not to be a branch line for local people. This was designed as a high-speed line taking a route through the breathtaking Pennines. When it was completed there was 72 miles of track, 17 major viaducts and 14 tunnels driven through the hills. And the line was, and is, a testament to the physical strength, bravery and determination of men for this was the last main line railway in England constructed almost entirely by hand.

6,000 men worked on the line. Hundreds lost their lives through the inevitable accidents, coupled with fights and outbreaks of smallpox.

Ribblehead Viaduct

Building the Ribblehead (then Batty Moss) viaduct, made up of 24 huge stone arches soaring 104 feet above Batty Moor, caused the heaviest toll in terms of lives lost. Such were the numbers killed that the railway paid to have the graveyard at the nearby village of Chapel-le-dale extended. There are memorials to the men who died building the line in several places, including at St Leonards’ Church in Chapel-le-dale.

Many of the men who toiled on the line lived at the Batty Moss construction camp and the remains can still be seen at Ribblehead today. Given the size of the engineering project, Batty Moss was large enough to contain a hospital, post office, library, shops, mission houses, schools and, of course, public houses.

The Long Drag

As the Midland wanted a fast line, the gradients had to be no more than 1 in 100. The line quickly became known, among railway workers, as “the Long Drag” – depending on the weight of the train, an over-worked fireman could shovel up to five tons of coal on the journey through the Pennines. Steam trains still run along the line occasionally and it’s tough enough for the train driver and fireman in normal weather. Things get much more difficult during spring and autumn windstorms and the winter snows.

A distinctive identity

The line was advertised as the most picturesque route to Scotland, and the Victorians and Edwardians took it to their hearts. It became a profitable and important part of the Midland Railway portfolio, justifying the cost of the building work in financial terms if not in the numbers of lives lost.

Given the nature of the route, the Midland Railway decided to complement the scenery with a distinctive identity in their buildings along the route. The fingerprint of company architect John Holloway Sanders can be seen in the design of those original station buildings and houses, and their decorative features, which remain intact to this day. There was usually a group of station buildings with waiting rooms, a cattle dock with pens and a Station Master’s house. In addition, there were sometimes a signal box, goods shed, an engine shed or water tower, along with workers’ cottages.

Closure threats

In the 1960s, as a part of the ‘Beeching Axe’, many of the minor stations were closed. Its stopping passenger service was cut to just two a day, which meant that, by the 70s, only freight and a few passenger services used the line.

Investment in the line was also restricted from the 1960s until the 1980s leading to much of the freight traffic being diverted onto the West Coast Main Line. The condition of many of the viaducts and tunnels deteriorated.

By the early 1980s British Rail decided to close the line claiming that the cost of renewing the viaducts and tunnels would be extortionate given the small passenger numbers. Local authorities and rail enthusiasts immediately got together to campaign to save the railway. During the campaign, investigations produced strong evidence that British Rail had exaggerated the cost of repairs to the line and had been deliberately diverting traffic from the line to justify the closure plans.

Eventually the campaign triumphed when, in 1989, British Rail agreed to keep the line open and to repair the deteriorating tunnels and viaducts.

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