Britain's railway companies struggled hard to muster sufficient capacity to provide the level of service needed during the First World War. Employees not in 'reserved occupations' were 'called up', capital projects and maintenance were deferred and railway workshops turned over to the manufacture of weapons and munitions. Routine train services were disrupted to handle military priorities for moving men and materials. In a few cases (including the North Eastern at Hartlepool) railways occasionally even came under naval bombardment. Responsibility for managing day to day operations was handed to the government's Railway Executive Committee and so effectively the railways were run as a nationalised industry between 1914 and 1921.
It soon became clear after the war that due to the financial consequences of deferred maintenance and investment, and the development of competition such as civic tram and early bus services, that there could be no return to the old pre-1914 ways of railway operation. In 1921 the Lloyd George government passed a Railways Act which forced the amalgamation of nearly all Britain's smaller railway businesses into one of the 'Big Four' companies created by the new law. The North Eastern Railway was amalgamated with six other companies to form the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) with a network covering the whole of eastern Britain from London north to the Moray Firth
In this new world the Stainmore line was far from the new Company's headquarters at Marylebone. But as box cameras became more affordable after 1918 and glass plate formats gave way to 120 roll film the number of photographs taken of the line and especially stations like Kirkby Stephen increased, and for the first time we can see back into this rural branch line world in LNER days in detail. Also there are still a few retired railwaymen alive that have memories of working on this system in the 1940's.
This is a country railway that had a charm all of its own which we can still experience through the images of this 'world of lost content'. Antique steam locomotives simmering on shed in the afternoon sunshine of yesteryear, the baskets of pigeons and the milk churns cluttering the platforms, and comfortable if dusty trains of nineteenth century clerestory coaches. But all somehow located in a wider setting still so familiar to us now - the same dry stone walls, and the same familiar fells on the skyline. The line still supported a significant coke traffic although during the Great Depression of the 1930's it was only half the business that it had represented in the 1890's. As 'open hearth' steel making became the common producton process, the requirement for Cumberland hæmatite on Teeside tailed off. General merchandise, agricultural supplies and domestic coal provided substantial goods traffic and livestock was still moved by rail but passenger revenue fell year by year with the appearance of motor cycles and cars
The outbreak of war in 1939 disturbed this pattern. Traffic across Stainmore was once again heavy and required three shift 24 hour operations as the steel industry produced at capacity and the shipyards of Barrow toiled around the clock. Barnard Castle was an important military district with army camps and training ranges, and with tank regiment train movements to be dealt with.
The locomotives used to handle all this work during LNER days were often those that had worked the line during the Worsdell era. But to try and find less antique engines to handle passenger trains two 'foreign' classes were tried that had previously worked on distant parts of the LNER system. First of these were seven of the former Great Northern Railway 'D3' Class which were moved north from their former haunts in Lincolnshire in 1930. Despite their deep unpopularity with ex-NER footplate crews who found them sluggish and temperamental machines they lingered in service over Stainmore until 1935 when they were replaced by Great Eastern Railway Holden E4's from East Anglia. These engines proved much more popular with footplate crews, once they had been fitted with substantial cabs to cope with Stainmore weather. Perhaps this was unsurprising as they had been designed by James Holden, T.W. Worsdell's successor on the GER.
An E4 on the turntable at Kirkby Stephen on a summer evening in 1937
With Tailbrigg Hill in the background a J21 heads west for Penrith on a sunny afternoon about 1935
Two J21's stand in the clear at Kirkby Stephen as an E4 arrives on a passenger train from Darlington