As a boy I often went 'on shift' with my grandfather during his spells as 'relief' signalman at Stainmore, and one of the features that I remember about the draughty place was a large wooden box on a shelf near the door. It was stoutly constructed to discourage mice and painted red and stenciled on the front were two words. 'IRON RATIONS'. I never explored in detail its dusty contents - doubtful looking packets of dried food and tins of corned beef I think. But it was concrete evidence if any were needed that this was a place where the dangers of being marooned by sudden and savage winter weather had to be taken seriously. The fearsome blizzards which could close the line in an hour became part of the mythology of Stainmore railway history, although a detailed account of the impact of weather on services over a century of operations has yet to be written.
The line was vulnerable to blizzards not only because of the altitude of the Stainmore crossing and the sub-Arctic winter climate found at that elevation, but also because on the Westmorland side of the summit the line was peculiarly exposed to weather from the west. Serious snow blockages to the east, in the upper Greta valley, were uncommon. But once the line began to dip and bear south west down the fells towards Kirkby Stephen there were many places that could fill up with drifting snow as soon as a winter storm headed in from the Atlantic. First of the trouble spots was the deep rock cutting at Bleathgill, and then came the cuttings before and after Barras station. West of Belah came more cuttings towards Rookby Scarth liable to deep drifts in storms, and then finally the deep rock cutting at 'Big Cut' which, with a gale blowing from the right direction, could quickly fill with sufficient snow to entirely bury a train.
How often did such storms occur? WIthout detailed examination of local newspaper reports and surviving operational documents it is difficult to be sure. 1879 and 1886 are known to have been severe winters cross the whole NER system, and in the early twentieth century the years 1905, 1916/7 and 1937 to 1941 were also very snowy.
The storms that are best documented though are those still just within living memory, or at least the oral history of local families. These were 1942, 1947 and 1955. 1962 was actually the worst winter of the twentieth century but the line had closed the year previously
In ordinary snowy weather the line was cleared by small buffer ploughs on train or pilot engines but if severe weather was expected big independent snow ploughs like the one in this picture would be sent out to charge the drifts and sometimes to rescue stranded trains. However if the weather really deteriorated then even they would get stuck in snowed up cuttings.
When conditions had reached this critical stage the only option was to wait for the blizzard to abate and then send in gangs of men to dig trains out manually. As seen in these pictures they could often be buried under 20' or 30' of snow. In the winter of 1947 conditions were so bad that the line was closed for the whole of February and March despite assistance from the military which even ran to a novel attempt at trying out rail-mounted Rolls Royce Derwent jet engines. These proved excellent at rearranging loose track ballast but largely ineffective against hard packed snow and ice.
During February 1955 a mineral train became stranded in heavy snow at Bleathgill between Barras and the Summit, and a British Transport Film documentary entitled 'Snowdrift at Bleathgill' was filmed recording the rescue of 78018 and its train. Luckily that production is now available on the internet and you can link to it below to see what was really involved in digging out trains fifty years ago.