HomeRail NewsReturn to the Settle and Carlisle: 25th Anniversary of the reprieve

Return to the Settle and Carlisle: 25th Anniversary of the reprieve

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The Settle and Carlisle line stands today as an enduring testimony to railway engineering and perseverance, ingenuity and determination. Writes Andy Milne

This April marks the 25th anniversary of the saving of the railway that runs over the roof of Britain. The Settle and Carlisle line was slated for closure in the 1980s by a BR board desperate to save cash. However, this was no mere branch line but an integral part of the railway network.

After a long, hard fought, six year battle, the line was saved for posterity by government order. The reprieve was issued on 11 April 1989 and signed by Michael Portillo, a transport minister at the time.

The line had always been controversial. The Midland Railway set about building it in the 1870s determined to provide an alternative high speed railway to Scotland. Charting hills, moors and chasms, the Midland Railway company quickly came to the conclusion it was soaking up too much money and tried to stop the project.

Pressured by Scottish railway companies, the government of the day refused permission and the Midland had to keep going. In a bizarre echo of railway history it was BR’s London Midland Region that issued closure notices over a century later.

Smallpox epidemic

Work started in 1869 and at one time the line had 6,000 navvies working on it – many of them from Ireland. The navigators lived in huge, badly serviced camps. A smallpox epidemic killed 80 of them. Many more died of disease as the seven year project progressed. Whole families died in the camps and are buried in country churchyards – often in unmarked graves.

The 72 mile line remains a marvel of graceful, Victorian railway engineering. The track contours moors and fells and is trestled across valleys deep with myth and mystery.

Far above the normal preserve of railways the line rides over the Pennines utilising a 1/100 gradient for 16 miles – the maximum allowed for the safe passage of an express train. At its highest point it rises to 1,169 feet (356 m) at Ais Gill – north of Garsdale. The line crosses 20 viaducts and sweeps through 14 tunnels.

No one should forget the suffering of the ill-equipped railway navigators who built the line. That it should be so lightly tossed aside a mere century later did British Rail and its treasury masters little credit. As the line was being built, critics derided the length of time the project was taking and the burgeoning costs involved.

In the drenching rain

Even then it caught the imagination and respect of the press. A London newspaper correspondent bluntly slapped down the armchair whingers: ‘Let them go over it in the drenching rain of October, or let those who complain of its slowness in the making wade through the mire, clay and water and see the slurry slipping away from the metals and, add to those difficulties, the cuttings through boulder clay and rocks of excessive hardness, the roving habits of the workmen and the wild inhospitable district through which it passes – and then the wonder will not be that the works are incomplete but at the possibility of completing them at all.’

Eventually the line was finished and the Midland Railway had its own route to and from Scotland via Carlisle. The Midland Railway had a reputation for excellence which served it well. However the First World War hit the company badly. Thousands of railwaymen joined up and many, in the Midland’s case, never returned.

After the war, in 1923, the various railway companies were amalgamated into four. The Midland Railway became part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway, reluctantly wedding its long term competitor, the London and North Western Railway. One result of this was that the competitive route between Settle and Carlisle was no longer needed as a commercial alternative. Nevertheless the S and C continued to function and was an integral part of the isolated communities it served.

Pressure to drive down costs

The remorseless pressure to drive down costs after nationalisation in 1948 spelled doom for the Settle and Carlisle. Although the line survived the Beeching cuts, by the 1970s BR had come to the same conclusion as the Midland Railway a hundred years before.

The line was too expensive to keep going and should be closed. To make the process easier most of the stations were shut and the service reduced. Cut down a service drastically enough and the passengers switch out altogether. Maintenance faltered.

In December 1983 BR’s London Midland Region put out posters announcing the discontinuation of passenger services. Although long expected the announcement came as a shock. It seemed there was little time left to do much about it.


Public outcry

Then sharp-eyed supporters spotted errors in the legal closure posters.

The meaning, they submitted, was unclear. Cheerful north country lawyers agreed which meant the posters had to be pulped and reprinted. The delay enabled supporters to harness the public outcry. The Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line had been set up two years before. Seizing the initiative, a full scale campaign was launched to save the line.

The press, a long term supporter by this time, caught on to the campaign and was happy to reproduce pictures of what must rank as one of the most photogenic railways in Europe. Claims that the cost of repair and upkeep were ruinously high were disputed, not least by railway staff themselves.

BR Midland Region’s chief engineer, Tony Freschini, set about examining Ribblehead Viaduct. Initial estimates had put the cost of repair at around £9 million pounds. Freschini believed he could get the job done for a third of the estimate. Even £3 million seemed excessive but by now the whole project had a dynamism of its own.

Grants were available from English Heritage, Railway Heritage Trust, Rural Development Commission and The Settle and Carlisle Railway Trust. Popular support continued to grow. With inspired marketing, a little commitment from local leaders and the rail industry, revenue on the line could be increased and additional sources of funding pressed into service to keep open what many now regarded as a valid and inspiring example of Britain’s industrial heritage.

One unlooked-for result was that passenger levels climbed steadily. People wanted to travel on the Settle and Carlisle while they still could. A bemused BR had to lay on extra trains.

Paw print signature 

Thousands signed a petition. Even Graham Nuttall’s border collie, Ruswarp, signed it – a valid paw print signature as he too had to buy a ticket . The press loved it. In a sad postscript to the campaign Graham Nuttall died out walking in Wales in January 1990. Searchers could not find his body. The dog disappeared too. Then 11 weeks later a walker discovered his body and the severely emaciated dog, Ruswarp, still alive, standing guard beside his master. A statue of Ruswarp stands at Garsdale Station.

If the myth and legends surrounding the line caught the imagination of the public, the flint eyed men of Whitehall were harder to convince. Conventional arguments were neatly encapsulated by Treasury Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, who opined that the regular users of the line could be safely accommodated in a mini bus.

Down in London at the DfT in Marsham Street, Michael Portillo had become convinced by the arguments for retaining the line. Says Portillo, ‘I felt emotional about it – a line that was so important to our heritage.’

Portillo now faced the daunting task of trying to convince his boss, Margaret Thatcher. Knowing there was still little financial basis for retaining the line, the transport minister slipped across Westminster Square one dark evening. With a courage doubtless inspired by the navigators on the line itself, Portillo approached the Iron Lady in her office.

Strength of purpose

It is perhaps ignoble to imagine the late baroness fixing the junior transport minister with a glare that could freeze paint at thirty feet. Nevertheless Thatcher heard him out in silence. Portillo did not waste time burbling about increased passenger volumes or the need for a diversionary rail route. Instead he described the line as a symbol of British durability, engineering excellence and strength of purpose. It symbolised all that had made Britain great, he argued.

Thatcher, by 1989, knew the defining achievement of her political career was winning the war in the South Atlantic. Securing a further testament to British grit and determination across the North Pennines seemed only right. ‘I thought Thatcher would understand because I knew she cared about British heritage,’ says Portillo recalling the meeting. Happily he was right and revelling in her barely perceptible nod of approval, returned to the ministry rejoicing.

British Rail set about repairing the tunnels, viaducts and bridges. Tony Freschini and his teams got to work on Ribblehead Viaduct. Supporters at the urging of Portillo redoubled their efforts to attract more passengers to the line. New trains were laid on and stations spruced up.

A quarter of a century later the Settle and Carlisle is once again an integral part of the network used to relieve the heavily trafficked West Coast Main Line and a huge success with local people, tourists and walkers alike. Over 1.2 million passengers now travel on England’s most scenic railway every year. Importantly, on a railway network desperate for extra capacity, the line has proved a real bonus and it is fair to say operators on the WCML would struggle without it. 40 freight trains a day now use it regularly. Businesses have sprung up along the line.

Says Richard Morris, Chairman of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line, ‘Even the most optimistic in 1989 could not have imagined how successful the line would be.’


Line capacity doubled 

Extra signalling equipment has almost doubled the line’s capacity and millions of pounds have been invested in new tracks. All in all, there are more passengers and freight than ever before in the line’s history. With its wide horizons and graceful buildings the Settle-Carlisle is recognised as one of the World’s Greatest Railway Journeys.

Highlight of the journey

Most of the intermediate stations have re-opened and the beautiful Victorian stations renovated – most are now looked after by an army of volunteers. The iconic Ribblehead Viaduct, once condemned, has been restored and is the highlight of the journey for many. The industry itself is right behind the Settle and Carlisle. Says Dyan Crowther of Network Rail, ‘The line is one of the most beautiful in Britain and will continue to be an important part of the railway in the north of England.’

Recently Michael Portillo returned to the line making a generous documentary on Britain’s railways. The one time transport minister greeted campaigners like old friends. Portillo likes to describe his part in saving the line as his greatest achievement in politics. Few on the Settle and Carlisle would argue.

Portillo made a point of talking to rail staff on the train he travelled on whilst filming and shaking hands with the driver of the steam engine used that day. He also visited the graves of some of the many railway people and their families who perished in the building of the railway. The graves are tended by local people – some of whom are descendants of the original navvies who came to the area over 100 years ago. The railway their forebears struggled to build is now an important part of the national railway network. Their great work and their sacrifice has not been forgotten after all.


  1. Official – the Shap route is unsafe, along with many others, according to Marc Johnson of RailStaff, since it has a maximum gradient of steeper than 1 in 100.

    “utilising a 1/100 gradient for 16 miles – the maximum allowed for the safe passage of an express train”. It’s not unreasonable to expect journalists writing for rail journals to have some idea of facts relating to the industry. In this case, as most others will know, lines have been safely built and operated with express trains on gradients far steeper (Shap 1 in 75, Salisbury – Exeter 1 in 80, Newton Abbot to Plymouth 1 in 38!) to say nothing of modern high-speed lines which can be as steep as 1 in 50. A bit more care needed on checking facts, I think.

  2. You have misspelt the name of the most important individual associated with the project: Tony Freschini not Pershini.
    An excellent article nonetheless.


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