The Railway Over The Stainmore Pass

We were joined by Chris Rowley, Network Rail’s Capacity Planning Director at our November meeting who took us on an engaging journey on the railway across the north Pennines from County Durham to Cumbria. Setting both the geographical, economic, and political context of the line’s construction, changing fortunes, and ultimate demise, this was a detailed and fascinating account of a railway through rugged, inhospitable terrain. Surveyed by Thomas Bouch, the engineer who became notorious for the Tay Bridge, the line was built economically, avoiding tunnels, and following the natural contours of the land, leading to punishing gradients. At its highest point, at Stainmore, the line climbed to 1,370ft above sea level. It also boasted impressive viaducts to cross the terrain including three wrought-iron examples that crossed the Tees, Deepdale and Belah rivers.

As Chris explained the railway was constructed to convey iron ore from Furness and Cumbria to what was then the largest iron and steel production in the world on the Durham coast. The return commodity was coking coal. Initially built as a single line, doubling of the whole route was complete by the early 1890s.

The regular freight traffic was supplemented by a sparse passenger service with additional summer specials running through to Blackpool. Post World War 2 the Stainmore line enjoyed a boom in traffic, and we saw some of the wonderfully evocative railway posters designed by Frank Mason, encouraging tourism to the Lake District. The line received the best of the new steam locomotives and double-heading was a regular occurrence on the through summer trains.

A changing financial climate in the late 1950s, with a global downturn in iron and steel production coupled with the western half of the Stainmore line transferring to the London Midland region, spelt the beginning of the end. Closure was proposed at the end of 1959 and despite a campaign to save the line, it closed in 1962. The last passenger train over Stainmore was an RCTS special that year.

This was an enjoyable evening and a fascinating story of the rise and fall of the Stainmore line, a history that is perhaps not as well known as it should be.