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History of the Furness Line - Derek Walmsley

Rich iron ore deposits brought the railway to Furness in 1846, the isolated peninsula system extending up the Cumberland coast to Whitehaven in 1850 and east over the Leven and Kent estuaries to Carnforth in 1857. Barrow, headquarters of the Furness Railway, mushroomed from a village to a prosperous industrial town based on iron, steel and shipbuilding.   Branches were opened to Coniston and Lakeside in 1859 and 1869 and. when the iron ran out, the 20th century ushered in the growth of tourism.  At the 1923 grouping of the railways, the LMS took over and an early closure casualty was the Barrow to Piel branch in 1936.  Barrow station was very badly damaged in the 1941 blitz and historic Furness Railway locomotive No.3 “Coppernob” received shrapnel scars from within its glass case. It was moved for safe-keeping to Clapham and, since 1975, has been displayed in the National Railway Museum at York. 

In 1948 nationalisation formed British Rail and, within three years, both Furness Abbey and Lindal stations were closed. In 1958, still pre-Beeching, Coniston saw its last passenger. The Beeching Axe fell on the Lakeside branch in 1965, although the portion from Haverthwaite was re-opened eight years later as a preserved railway.   The 3 foot gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, opened for iron traffic in 1875 was converted to 15” for model locomotive running during the First World War and was rescued for preservation as a tourist attraction in 1960.  

Unlike the Workington to Penrith via Keswick route further north, the Barrow to Whitehaven line survived the aftermath of Beeching, its post-1956 Sellafield nuclear traffic being a major trump card.  The Marchon chemical works at Whitehaven was another major freight generator for the line from the mid-1950s until closure of the inclined brake in 1986. Another era had already ended with closure of the last ironworks at Barrow and Millom in the 1960s, the steelworks at Barrow struggling on to 1983.  The last mail train ran in 1991 and the last coal from the open-cast pit at Maryport in 1993. 

Nuclear freight traffic continues to run, since 1995 under the auspices of subsidiary Direct Rail Services who, with their large pool of locomotives, have since diversified into other freight and passenger activities, including their own Sellafield workmens' trains and a Maryport to Workington lifeline shuttle following the devastating floods of 2009.   

A last stronghold of steam in 1968, locomotive-haulage soon become confined to a handful of daytime and overnight Barrow/London services, and the service frequency deteriorated. Carnforth lost its main line platforms in 1970 as smaller stations were axed for the Crewe to Glasgow electrification completed four years later.  Services on the Furness line improved from 1977 with the introduction of 5-coach hauled trains to destinations like Liverpool, Manchester, Crewe and Nottingham.  Withdrawal of these in 1985 was a low point for the Furness line.  Ageing diesel units were confined to Lancaster/Preston runs and further track singling between Barrow and Askam had created a further bottleneck.  

Following a public meeting in Grange-over-Sands, FLAG was formed to protect, promote and improve services. The through daytime London services ceased in 1987 as new Sprinter units started to appear, the sleeper surviving until 1990.  However, in 1993 the modern era truly arrived with North West Regional Railways Barrow to Manchester Airport through services. 

In 1997 First North Western became our first Private operator and from 2000 brand-new Alsthom Coradia units took over the Manchester service. From 2003 the line south of Barrow became dual-operator when First TransPennine franchise took over the Manchester Airport services, introducing state-of-the-art Siemens Pennine units in 2006. Northern Rail continued with now-ageing Sprinters for the remaining Cumbrian coast services. 

The ageing Victorian infrastructure saw major improvements from the 1950s when major work was carried out on Dalton, Furness Abbey and Whitehaven tunnels. After 20 years of campaigning by FLAG, the Leven and Kent Viaducts were fully restored with double track in 2006 and 2011, when Lindal tunnel also received major attention. 

We now have a line fit for the 21st century with only electrification now standing in our way!


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FLAG The Rail User Group For Furness And West Cumbria
Email: FLAG_secretary@heversham.freeserve.co.uk