The History of the Settle Carlisle Railway

The History of the Settle Carlisle Railway

The Settle-Carlisle Railway was built by the Midland Railway company, after a dispute with the London and North Western Railway over access to Scotland over the LNWR’s route.
The main East and West Coast Main Lines were in place serving the key Anglo-Scottish market, but the growing Midland Railway was encountering substantial problems in gaining co-operation from its rival companies. The Midland Railway came north as far as Ingleton, but requests that its goods and passengers be carried by the London & North Western from there to Carlisle and Scotland were not carried out particularly helpfully.
By 1865, the Midland had thought of the concept of the Settle-Carlisle, applied to Parliament, and a Bill was passed to enable the line to be built. Construction work started in 1870, and was completed in 1876.
It was not a branch line, but was engineered for high-speed running throughout, following the natural pathways through the hills of the Pennines to compete for Anglo-Scottish passengers. As a result, the local population were not as well served as they might have been – for example – at Dent the station is some 4 miles and 600 feet higher than the village it purports to serve, and Kirkby Stephen station is 1½ miles away from the market town.
It consisted of 72 miles of tracks, with 17 major viaducts and 14 tunnels blasted through the seemingly impossible hillsides, the line was constructed by men with little to supplement muscle power other than dynamite and temporary tramways. It was advertised as the most picturesque route to Scotland, and the Victorian and Edwardian travelling public took it to their hearts, helping to play a profitable and important role in the fortunes of the Midland Railway.
Construction began in 1869 and lasted for seven long years with about 6,000 men working on the line – the last main line railway in England constructed almost entirely by hand. Hundreds of railway builders (“navvies”) lost their lives building the line, from a combination of accidents, fights, and smallpox outbreaks. In particular, building the Ribblehead (then Batty Moss) viaduct, with its 24 massive stone arches 104 feet (32 metres) above the moor, caused such loss of life that the railway paid for an expansion of the local graveyard. Memorials along the line, especially that at St Leonards’ Church, Chapel-le-dale, near Ribblehead, commemorate the lives of some of the men who died building the line.
The Midland Company wanted a fast line and specified gradients no greater than 1 in 100, giving the line its nickname of “the Long Drag.” On a heavy train, a fireman could use up to five tons of coal, and the line was occasionally used as a test track to compare the motive power of various locomotives under consideration by the railway. The S&C is a challenging line for the driver and fireman in any weather, but its challenges are multiplied during spring and autumn windstorms and winter snows.
The Midland Railway strove to have an identity in its buildings – the distinctive ‘Derby Gothic’ with grand creations at Derby and London St Pancras, and this features in the buildings along the Settle Carlisle line. The work of the Company architect John Holloway Sanders is easily recognisable in the design of stations buildings and houses, and the line is unique among main lines in having a large proportion of its original buildings intact. There are stations, small medium and large, embellished with decorative features, intended to impress. The station building group was completed with a waiting shelter on the opposite platform, a cattle dock with pens, a Station Master’s house, and sometimes a signal box, goods shed, engine shed or water tower. There were also, sometimes, workers’ cottages, grouped in four or sixes.

Kirkby Stephen Station.
Kirkby Stephen Station

The line opened on the 1st of May 1876 and since then has stood the test of time – the key problem being Ribblehead viaduct, the poor condition of which was cited as the main reason for closing the line, however repairs were made and the structure is entirely safe now. It is properly seen as the symbol of the line, and its resilience to closure.
After nearly a century of uneventful existence in the 1960s, as a part of the ‘Beeching Axe’, the Settle and Carlisle had many of its minor stations closed in 1970 and its stopping passenger service cut to just two a day, leaving only freight and a handful of passenger services operating on the line. The main Expresses, ‘The Waverley’ from London to Edinburgh via Nottingham ended in 1964, while the ‘Thames-Clyde Express,’ from London to Glasgow via Leicester, lasted until 1974.
From the 1960s until the 1980s the line suffered a lack of investment, and much freight traffic was diverted onto the West Coast Main Line, and so the condition of many of the viaducts and tunnels on the line deteriorated.
In the early 1980s, the S&C was carrying only a handful of trains per day, and British Rail decided that the cost of renewing the viaducts and tunnels would be prohibitively expensive, given the small amount of traffic carried on the line.
In 1984 closure notices were posted at the remaining stations. However, local authorities and rail enthusiasts joined together and started a campaign to save the railway, pointing out that British Rail was ignoring the line’s potential for tourism. The campaign uncovered convincing evidence that British Railways had mounted a dirty tricks campaign against the line, exaggerating the cost of repairs and deliberately diverting traffic from the line in order to justify its closure plans.
British Rail eventually agreed to keep the line open in 1989, and to repair the deteriorating tunnels and viaducts.
Ribblehead Viaduct.
Ribblehead Viaduct.

Stations: [closed station are indented]

  • Carlisle
    • Scotby
    • Cumwhinton
    • Cotehill
  • Armathwaite
  • Lazonby and Kirkoswald
    • Little Salkeld
  • Langwathby
  • Appleby
    • Ormside
    • Crosby Garrett
  • Kirkby Stephen
  • Garsdale
  • Dent
  • Ribblehead
  • Horton-in-Ribblesdale
  • Settle

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