A narrow gauge railway was opened in 1875 to bring iron ore from the mines in Eskdale to the Furness Railway at Ravenglass. The line is now a major tourist attraction, run by an enthusiastic “Preservation Society”:https://rerps.co.uk/the-society/
The seven mile long mile track climbs 210’ from the coast at Ravenglass to the foot of England’s highest mountains in Eskdale. It follows the valleys of the River Mite and Esk to its terminus at Dalegarth.
This was the first public narrow gauge railway to be built in England. In 1875, a 3’ gauge railway was opened to carry iron ore from the Whitehaven Iron Mines Co mines near Boot to the Furness Railway standard gauge line at Ravenglass. It was known as ‘Rat Trod’ in the Cumbrian dialect.
Following requests from residents along the valley, the line was upgraded to meet the requirements for running passenger services and the first passengers were carried in 1876. Buying another loco, hiring coaches and building stations made the company bankrupt in 1877.
Trains continued to run under the control of a series of receivers. Within ten years, all but one of the mines had closed. There was not enough traffic from other sources (local goods, passengers and farms) to cover running costs. The track and locos were neglected and passenger service stopped in 1908 after the Board of Trade declared the track to be unsafe for passengers. Goods trains continued to run whilst attempts were made to raise money to rebuild the track. These failed and the railway closed completely in 1913.
In 1915, the abandoned railway was taken over by the model maker W.J. Bassett-Lowke and his business partner Robert Proctor Mitchel. They converted the line from 3’ to 15” gauge and began running a daily service, using Bassett-Lowke built locos, including Synolda, Little Giant and River Irt. The regauged railway was soon known as ‘La’al Ratty’
As well as passengers, the line carried goods and mail, as well as granite from a newly opened quarry at Beckfoot to the crushing mills at Murthwaite. A new loco, River Esk, was built. From 1929, the section of track between Murthwaite and Ravenglass was converted to dual gauge with a standard gauge track straddling the 15’ rails.
The station at Ravenglass was rebuilt to better handle the increasing traffic. Older locos were either withdrawn from service or rebuilt and new locos arrived.
Passenger services were suspended in 1939, although granite trains continued to run. In 1949 the railway was sold to the Keswick Granite company who wanted to gain control of the quarrying side of the business. However, due to the lack of investment since the 1920s, much of the equipment in the quarry and crushing plant was worn out and in need of replacement. Rather than make the required investment, Keswick Granite chose to close the quarry in 1953, but kept the passenger trains running in the summer months.
Passenger services were losing money and from 1958 attempts were made to sell the line as a going concern, but the asking price was too high. Finally in 1960, Keswick Granite announced that the railway would be sold by auction. If a buyer could not be found, the railway would be sold off in separate lots.
Locals and railway enthusiasts formed a Preservation Society to save the line, with backing of local business men, Sir Wavell Wakefield (owner of Ullswater Steamers) and stockbroker Colin Gilbert. Their efforts were successful and control of the railway passed to a new private company with the backing of the Preservation Society, an arrangement which still exists.
The railway was in poor condition, suffering from a lack of investment since the late 1920s. There were only two steam locomotives, River Esk and River Irt, who were in need of a complete overhaul. Money was raised to build a third loco, River Mite
As passenger numbers grew, more locos were built, including diesels. A new locomotive, Whillan Beck arrived in 2018. This was built in Germany and worked in Spain for many years.
The track has been completely relaid and regraded to improve gradients, with a new cutting near Spout House Farm. New station buildings were constructed.. As well as building and repairing their locos, the workshops also carry out external contracts for Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
Radio based signalling was introduced in 1977, a system which was later adopted by British Rail for some of its minor lines to cut costs.
The line is single track with passing loops at Miteside, Irton Road and Fisherground. Trains operate by radio communication between drivers and Ravenglass signal box. There are no semaphore signals apart from Ravenglass station.
Daily steam trains runs from March to November with a one way trip taking 40 minutes. Trains are run with a mix of enclosed or open compartments. Each seat four people but it is a tight squash and views are restricted. On a dry day, try and choose one of the open compartments!