This is what it's like to drive trains on the iconic Settle to Carlisle Railway

A Northern service on the Settle to Carlisle line during heavy snowfall
A Northern service on the Settle to Carlisle line during heavy snowfall
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The Settle to Carlisle line is frequently described as the most scenic railway in Britain.

It traverses the hostile, remote terrain of the Yorkshire Dales, passing famous peaks such as Ingleborough and carrying trains across the dramatic Ribblehead Viaduct and through tunnels that defy the limitations of Victorian engineering.

A Freightliner train on Ribblehead Viaduct

A Freightliner train on Ribblehead Viaduct

Saved from closure in the late 1980s, the line’s subsequent revival as a passenger route is an inspiring story of public pressure winning over government policy makers.

So what is it like to drive a train across the most picturesque route in Yorkshire?

Thirty years on: The battle to save the Settle to Carlisle line from closure
"It's like stepping back in time"

Kevin Allen has driven heavy haul trains for Freightliner since 2001. Twenty years ago, much of the freight traffic along the Settle to Carlisle line was coal being taken to the Yorkshire power stations from Scotland - but as its use has declined, so have the regular trains.

Dent is the highest mainline station in the country

Dent is the highest mainline station in the country

Now he is more likely to drive light engines and empty wagons from Leeds to Carlisle as freight usage of the route dwindles.

“It is such a varied line, and very scenic. There is always a lot to see, and I often notice something I haven’t spotted before.

“The best point is probably the highest summit, Ais Gill. You can see the valley beneath you and it’s all mountains, farmland, brooks. It looks beautiful when it snows," says Kevin.

Yet the line is not always benign and bucolic - in winter it can be treacherous. Heavy snowfall, gales and poor visibility put trains at risk. There have been several crashes and derailments on the highest stretches throughout its history and before modern safety improvements.

A Northern service over Ribblehead Viaduct at dusk

A Northern service over Ribblehead Viaduct at dusk

“It can be challenging in winter. At Dent, which is the highest mainline station in the country, you have to be very watchful of the snow depth.

“Precautions have to be taken - they can stop the trains running when visibility is bad. Sometimes you can’t see the rails.

“You can see the little huts all along the way where the track workers who used to keep the line clear used to shelter. You can just imagine them with their fires and kettles going.

“I remember breaking down once when it was snowing - I had to get out of my train and walk four miles to get help! I put detonators down on the rails but the location was so remote that I had no signal to contact anyone. I had walked about halfway down to the signal box when a train coming the other way slowed down and let me on.

“It’s unusual to get a breakdown but my train had just had enough that day!"

Kevin's diesel freight locomotives may not have the romantic appeal of the steam engines which haul special charter trains over the route, but he still enjoys the effect they have on the enthusiasts who gather at the lineside.

“It’s a very traditional line - it’s like stepping back in time. The stations are so well looked-after, even down to the lamp-posts.

Michael Portillo interview: How I saved the Settle to Carlisle line
“You get a lot of rail enthusiasts and photographers looking out for the steam specials - you definitely know when one is following behind you. I like to pretend they’re there for me!

“Freight is not as busy as it used to be but passenger traffic has grown. We do the occasional ballast or engineering train, and Colas run a timber train for the woodyard at Ribblehead. It’s been in decline since coal use dropped.

“Settle to Carlisle is the most picturesque route, but it’s a lot steadier than others and the line isn’t as built-up - it operates at a more leisurely pace and there is no rush to get anywhere. It’s never boring and there is always something to look at.

“It’s not just signal after signal - there are valleys and tunnels. It must have been so difficult to actually build the line - I don’t know how they did it, as some of it is really remote. It’s amazing that they manage to build mile-long tunnels through mountains back then.

“It really is like stepping back in time - it’s such an odd feeling.”

Twenty viaducts and 14 tunnels across 72 miles

Settle to Carlisle is a unique line in many ways.

There’s no doubt that its building in the 1870s was a feat of engineering brilliance - 6,000 men were needed to work on the project and it was constructed entirely by hand.

The dangerous techniques used to bore tunnels and cut into the landscape cost many lives - but what is so poignant is that the Midland Railway needn’t have made conditions so challenging for themselves.

They deliberately designed the railway to follow the natural pathways through the hills of the Pennines so that it could be used for high-speed express trains running through to Scotland.

This meant that serving the local population wasn’t a priority - the shareholders simply wanted to compete with rivals running Anglo-Scottish services on other routes. In time, fewer trains from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh used the line, and the last survivor of the express days was an overnight sleeper which ran for the final time in 1976.

As a result, many of the stations were located away from the communities they now serve. Dent Station is four miles from the village of Dent and 600ft higher in altitude.

The steam expresses of the day required a gradient of less than 1 in 100, and local traffic was a secondary consideration. Nevertheless, there is still a 16-mile climb from Settle to Blea Moor called the ‘long drag’.

There are 14 tunnels and 22 viaducts. The 24-arch Ribblehead Viaduct had to be sunk into the swampy terrain using huge piers eight metres below the peat.

Water troughs were laid between the tracks at Garsdale to allow engines to take on water without stopping.

Weather-related hazards mean that many protective features have been installed along the line. The wooden snow fences to stop drifts are still preserved at Dent Station.

Accidents were usually the result of harsh weather conditions or the unforgiving steep climbs. Sixteen people died in 1913 when two passenger trains collided, both having struggled with the gradient at the Ais Gill summit. The first train had halted while the crew tried to generate more power, while the second train - which was also hauling a load that was too heavy for the engine - ran into difficulty behind it. The driver and fireman were so distracted that they missed the danger signals warning them of the obstruction ahead and ploughed into the rear of the stationary train.

In 1960, there was a crash on the Ais Gill descent in snowy conditions and a gale. An express from Glasgow to London shed several parts, including a connection rod which damaged the track in the opposite direction. The driver had stopped at Garsdale as he heard strange noises coming from the train, but later continued at an unsafe speed. A goods train travelling north derailed at the damaged section and collided with the express, killing five people.

In the 1990s, there were two derailments involving the Class 156 Super Sprinter diesels that are still used on the route today. In January 1995, the line had been badly affected by flooding. A Carlisle to Leeds service had to turn back at Ribblehead as the section to Settle was blocked by water, and was forced to return to Carlisle.

Near Ais Gill summit, the train hit a landslide in heavy rain. It derailed across both tracks and injured the driver. The guard escorted passengers into the rear carriage, but not enough action was taken by the crew to warn other trains of the obstruction. Another Carlisle to Leeds service had set off from Kirkby Stephen and saw the derailed Sprinter’s lights. The train was unable to stop and collided with the first train, killing the guard and injuring 30 others.

In 1999, a similar incident occurred at Crosby Garrett, north of Kirkby Stephen, when another Sprinter was derailed by a landslide. A southbound goods train hit it but nobody was hurt.

During a storm in the 1980s, a transporter train carrying cars was buffeted by high winds and several Ford Anglias fell onto the moorland beneath Ribblehead Viaduct.

The signal box that’s the most remote in Britain

Where there were once over 10,000 signal boxes in Britain, today that figure has dropped to less than 500 as digital signalling and central control centres take over.

One relic of the Victorian era of manual signalling is Blea Moor box on the Settle to Carlisle, the most remote in Britain. It stands half a mile from the nearest road.

Meet the man who operates Blea Moor signal box
The signallers at Blea Moor and Garsdale boxes have a traditional Morse code-style system to communicate with each other about train movements and use interlocking levers to operate the traditional ‘swinging arm’ signals by hand.

Around 30 trains pass Blea Moor box every 24 hours, but within 30 years its primitive technology is expected to become obsolete. It’s hoped that traditional signal boxes can be listed and preserved.