The 1950's was a decade of huge social and economic transformation both in Britain and in the wider world. The underlying cause was the emergence of a new international economic order based on the post-war Bretton Woods system. This encouraged the development of growing consumer demand, but a consequence was that many traditional British industries such as steel making and shipbuilding, faced severe international competition from low wage economies in east Asia. The ever growing ownership of private vehicles and the availability of cheap household 'durables' from refrigerators to television sets changed everyone's lifestyle. People had money in their pockets.
The consequences of all this on railway services that had been devised for a different era quickly became apparent. The first services to be withdrawn were local freight operations at a number of small stations along the route in 1952 and 1953, victims of the availability of cheap commercial vehicles. Once these facilities, which had required clerical oversight, had been withdrawn it made sense to operate these stops as unstaffed halts. Nevertheless capital investment in new track and signaling continued and in 1956 Belah Viaduct was repainted. Conspiracy theorists now argue that this was simply a management tactic to inflate costs so strengthen a case for closure later, and there may well be an element of truth in this. But the sadder truth is that probably most of it was down to completely inadequate leadership, and that civil engineers, traffic managers and planners just never talked to each other. That this was a familiar pattern everywhere on British Railways at the time is well documented by Matthew Engels in his book "Eleven Minutes Late"
References are often made to the closure of the Stainmore route as a 'Beeching' cut but this is not correct; the line was already closed before the Beeching study was ever made. The formal proposal to close the lines between Tebay and Kirkby Stephen, Hartley and Tees Valley and Barnard Castle and West Auckland was made by the British Transport Commission (BTC) on 2 December 1959, and took most in the affected areas completely by surprise. A joint meeting of the North Eastern and North Western Transport Users Consultative Committees (TUCC) to hear objections was held three months later at Carlisle, and they made a joint recommendation accepting a proposal from the BTC that freight should be re-routed on a trial basis from July along the Newcastle to Carlisle line (adding around 70 miles to haulage). They also suggested that the BTC should look at ways of increasing passenger receipts by developing the tourist potential of the line.
Of course nothing meaningful was attempted in respect of traffic building, and in November 1960 the North Western TUCC reported that they believed the freight re-routing was acceptable and that the line should be closed. However the proposal was a more political issue in the North East and remained hotly contested for several months more, with the local TUCC refusing to sanction closure until June 1961. The Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, eventually authorised abandonment on 7 December 1961 and the line closed on 20 January 1962.
With the benefit of hindsight it seems extraordinary now that objectors half a century ago placed such implicit trust in what was a central government funded 'consultative' process carried out by its own appointees. At that time few also seem to have found it strange that the government minister responsible for signing the legal orders to close railway lines was a man whose wife was a major shareholder in a company he had founded (Marples-Ridgeway) that was making huge profits out of the construction of new roads often along the route of former railway lines. However if opposition to the closure of the Stainmore route proved ineffective this was certainly one of those milestones which in the end proved to be a 'wake-up' call for those interested in retaining a rail network in Britain. It is no accident that many who were involved in objecting to the Stainmore closure went on to fight and win the later campaign to avoid closure of the Settle-Carlisle route.
The underlying malaise here was the unimaginative management of Britain's railways at that time by the BTC and regional managers. The need in respect of Stainmore was clearly a downsizing of infrastructure and operations. Operating costs could easily have been slashed by reversion to single track, dieselisation and a complete overhaul of working practices just as they were being curtailed on similar routes in France and Germany at that time. If the line had been managed as a component in a simplified cross-country network connecting Newcastle and Durham with Manchester and the Lake District it could have survived as a useful and profitable link in a modernised system
But tragically a century of investment in infrastructure and the public asset of a right of way was abandoned for what were trivial savings. And the really unforgivable act of institutional vandalism was the subsequent destruction of those unique Victorian iron viaducts to realise a few thousand pounds in scrap value. In the early 1960's there appeared to be no institutional understanding at all of the potential development value of British industrial heritage. Belah viaduct was destroyed in 1963 just eighteen months after the demolition of the Euston Arch in London had angered architects and building conservationists around the world, an act of Philistinism which at last began to mobilise opinion in favour of conserving historic structures.
But sadly not in time to halt the demolition of one of Britain's classic examples of iron bridge building technology hidden in the northern moorlands.
The last train departs from Kirkby Stephen East as the 'Penny-Farthings' from Potters Garage are lined up to make the point that local public transport has been set back by a century.