A Brief History of the South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway

The South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway was a courageous transport initiative of the 1850s. Conceived as a vital transport artery to bring essential supplies of coke to the new iron furnaces of Barrow-in-Furness, it was planned to cross the Northern Pennines at Stainmore Pass (1370 feet above sea level), since Roman days an important highway – as it still is, now as the A66 trunk road. Initially the railway was also to haul the rich red hematite iron ores of Furness back to the iron furnaces of Teesside, but this traffic was soon displaced when rich ore deposits were discovered in the Cleveland Hills, only a few miles south of Middlesbrough.

Supported by the industrialists of Barrow and Teesside, and by the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway, the company obtained Royal Assent for its Act of Parliament, without opposition, on 13th July 1857. It had a total authorised capital of £550,000.

The Company was incorporated immediately, with John Wakefield, a Kendal banker as its chairman and Thomas Bouch as its engineer. Six contracts for construction of the line were let in 1859 and 1860. Three further contracts were let a little later for the construction of three iron viaducts: over River Tees just west of Barnard Castle, at Deepdale one mile south of Lartington and at Belah one mile south-west of Barras. The total cost amounted to £214,523 for 46 miles of single line railway between Barnard Castle and Tebay. From Tebay the mineral traffic was to be worked south on the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway as far as Carnforth, the Furness Railway then taking over haulage over the recently completed Ulverston & Lancaster line to Barrow.

The line opened to mineral traffic on 4th July 1861, and for passenger services on 8th August 1861, with two trains a day in each direction worked by the Stockton & Darlington Railway. From 30th June 1862 the SD&LUR was absorbed into the Stockton & Darlington Railway, this in turn merging into the North Eastern Railway from 13th July in the following year. Traffic was soon putting heavy demands on the route, as the Furness iron & steel industry mushroomed. The special suitability of Cumbrian ores for the early Bessemer steel production gave it a short-term dominance of the industry, and works were also established at Millom, Askam, Ulverston and Carnforth. Via the Eden Valley Railway from Kirkby Stephen to Penrith, and the Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith Railway, coke was also supplied over the Stainmore line to the multiplying works around Workington. In total, around one million tons of coke a year were being carried over Stainmore in the 1880s. Progressively, between 1870 and 1889 authority was given by the North Eastern Railway board for the line east from Kirkby Stephen to Barnard Castle, and from Sandy Bank near Ravenstonedale, to Tebay, to be doubled to carry this immense traffic. Loaded trains had to be hauled to Stainmore Summit from Barnard Castle up gradients as steep as 1 in 67, 1 in 69 and 1 in 68 successively over a distance of 13 miles. The ten mile descent to Kirkby Stephen was even steeper, long stretches having gradients of 1 in 59 and 1 in 60, with 1 in72 over Merrygill and Podgill Viaducts.

Well before the end of the 19th century the dominance of Bessemer steel was over, and a long slow process of decline had begun. New coke-making plants around Workington made inroads into the West Cumberland coke traffic from about 1910, and it ceased altogether by the mid-1920s. The coke traffic to the remaining Furness area works at Millom and Barrow was diverted to run via Carlisle from July 1960, and the Barrow works ceased making iron and steel soon afterwards, Millom lasting a few more years until 1968. With little more than a very sparse passenger traffic remaining, closure of such an expensive route, in terms of both maintenance and operation, was inevitable, and the end duly arrived on 22nd January 1962, though the line was retained from Appleby through Kirkby Stephen to Merrygill for quarry and local coal traffic, until the mid-1970s.


“The Stainmore Railway” by K. Hoole, published by Dalesman Publishing, 1973.

“A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain, Volume XIV The Lake Counties” by David Joy, published by David & Charles, 1983.

“Tomlinson’s North Eastern Railway, Its Rise and Development”, republished by David & Charles, 1967.

“The Stainmore & Eden Valley Railways, A Pictorial History of the Barnard Castle to Tebay and Penrith lines”, by Peter Walton, published by Oxford Publishing Co., 1992.

“North Eastern Railway, Historical Maps” by R.A.Cook and K.Hoole, published by the Railway & Canal Historical Society, second edition 1991.

“A Biographical Dictionary of Railway Engineers” by John Marshall, published by David & Charles, 1978

“Conserving the Railway Heritage” edited by Peter Burman and Michael Stratton 1997