Penrith and the Railways

Penrith’s location on the West Coast main line gives it an important role in British railway history. Robert Stephenson’s invention of the first locomotive steam engine to run on public rail lines in 1825 was a major boost for industrial sites all over Northern England. There was now the possibility to link the coal mines, iron works, quarries and factories where the terrain had been prohibitive for horse drawn transport and the canal network.

This led to a massive boom in railway building in the mid 19th century involving tunnels, viaducts, bridges and cuttings. The haunting railway tunnels that you walk through here at Skirsgill are a reminder that the tools of the time were bricks, mortar and manual labour. No reinforced concrete or earth moving equipment.  

Achieving the impossible

Four routes coming into Penrith were built in the 19th century but the most dramatic was the building of the line between Lancaster and Carlisle in the 1830s and 40s. It was a major engineering feat: the Lakeland mountains being seen as an impossible haul for steam engines that could only be expected to manage a gradient of 1 in 100 or 1 in 125. There is nothing an engineer likes better than a challenge however, especially with a bit of competition thrown in: ‘The Race to the North’ as dubbed by British newspapers was between the East and West Coasts, to see who could get a continuous rail journey from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh first.

There were three different routes proposed for the West Coast by the top railway engineers of the day:

By Afterbrunel - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Lancaster and Carlisle Railway was incorporated in 1844 with capital of £1.3million, by far largest sum of money poured into any Cumbrian enterprise.  A government commission was put to the task of choosing between the 3 routes. The commission favoured a combination of options 2 and 3 above – starting with Job Bintley’s route towards Kendal then taking a turn, and a climb, towards Grayrigg to join Locke’s line to Tebay.


Locke was appointed chief engineer. He overrode the commission’s plan and boldly decided to save time and costs by taking the line straight over Shap Fell instead of tunnelling as in his original plan. 

Joseph Locke’s routes tried to minimise the gradients as far as possible, following contours whereas Stephenson preferred a straight line with tunnels, viaducts and embankments. Hence Locke’s line bypassed Kendal to the East to avoid high ground and had a station at Kendal East (now Oxenholme). This did not please many of the industrialists in Kendal and they demanded a branch line, which they duly got – the extension from Kendal to Windermere opened in 1847 and is the last surviving branch line in Cumbria.

Shap Summit - a challenge for drivers and firemen

After Oxenholme came the big climb up to Shap summit - 916 feet above sea level with just three short viaducts and no tunnels.  Locke kept the gradient up to Shap to 1 in 75 a true feat but still a challenge to the drivers and firemen of the steam locomotives, such that a large express train from London would often need to take on assistance in the form of an extra engine at Tebay or Oxenholme. This was probably the first railway in the world to tackle gradients of up to 1 in 75 and inspired awe and legend in railway enthusiasts in far flung parts of the old British empire. 

There is also a long gradient when going south from Carlisle to Shap; although ‘only’ 1 in 125, the drivers and firemen of the day talked of it being a ‘killer’ if they had to start with a cold engine from Carlisle, or one whose fire had not been well maintained north of the border.

1951 – Just south of Penrith – a ‘banked’ engine preparing to tackle the 10 miles from Penrith to Shap.Attribution: Ben Brooksbank: Creative Commons AttributionShare-alikelicense2.0

The race is won

The 69 miles of railway were completed in 30 months by 10,000 ‘navvies’ (brought in workers – Irish, Scottish and English). That had quite a social effect, good and bad on the nearby villages and communities. At one point military intervention was required to quell a riot.


Disputes and complications over the siting of the station in Carlisle and connecting with the Caledonian Line into Scotland caused further delays but by February 1848 the connection from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh was continuous. The race with the East Coast had effectively been won as the LNWR and Caledonian were able to advertise a direct service between England and Scotland without change of carriage. The East Coast route had been in operation for over a year, but passengers had to change trains twice to cross the Tyne and the Tweed.

The Golden Age of Steam is over

The ’golden age of steam’ lasted over 100 years but the engines were, heavy, polluting and expensive to maintain. Diesels replaced steam in the 1960s and the Tebay sheds that had provided all that banking assistance for the run up to Shap closed in January 1968.


Diesels didn’t last long on the West Coast main line (the name it took on after Nationalisation in 1948) because government funded an electrification project from Crewe to Glasgow which opened in 1974. Privatisation followed in 1994 and the first franchise for the West Coast main line was won by Virgin Trains who introduced the Pendolino ‘tilting train’ in 2004. They lost their franchise to Avanti trains in 2019 but this service has been beset with problems from the covid pandemic, rail strikes and staff shortages and the franchise is currently (March 2023) under threat.


Train times Preston to Carlisle:

Steam:       101 minutes in 1939

Diesels:     94 minutes in 1972

Electric:     72 minutes in 1979


Today’s timetables quote a time of 55 minutes, and you hardly feel the gradient, only a change in scenery from Oxenholme to Shap and then down again to Penrith. There are very few signs left of all those early toils – just the photographs. For more information about Cumbria’s railways – visit


An Introduction to Cumbrian Railways by David Joy

Railways of Cumbria by Peter W Robinson

Roaming the West Coast Rails by Derek Cross

Cumbria Railway Association

by Cecilia McCabe, Friends of the Ullswater Way Charity No. 1185056

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