The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway is a 15 in (381 mm) minimum gauge heritage railway in Cumbria, England. The 7 miles (11.3 km) line runs from Ravenglass to Dalegarth Station near Boot in the valley of Eskdale, in the Lake District. At Ravenglass the line ends at Ravenglass railway station on the Cumbrian Coast Line.
River Esk, with her driver, Peter van Zeller, on the turntable at Ravenglass station
Intermediate stations and halts are at Muncaster Mill, Miteside, Murthwaite, Irton Road, The Green, Fisherground and Beckfoot. The railway is owned by a private company and supported by a preservation society. The oldest locomotive is River Irt, parts of which date from 1894, while the newest is the diesel-hydraulic Douglas Ferreira, built in 2005.
The line is known locally as La’al Ratty and its 3 ft (914 mm) gauge predecessor as Owd Ratty.
Nearby attractions include: the Roman Bath House at Ravenglass; the Hardknott Roman Fort, known to the Romans as Mediobogdum, at the foot of Hardknott Pass; the watermills at Boot and Muncaster; and Muncaster Castle, the home of the Pennington family since 1208.
The original Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway was a 3 ft (914 mm) line opened on 24 May 1875 to transport hematite iron ore from mines around Boot to the Furness Railway standard gauge line at Ravenglass. A tramway separated from the line just after Beckfoot along the route of the current railway and up to Gil Force.
There has been dispute about the gauge. It is shown as 3 feet in records but is quoted as 2 ft 9 in (838 mm) in some books such as the ABC of Narrow Gauge Railways. This figure was believed for many years until the present company discovered a sleeper from before the line closed, with spacings between holes made by track spikes confirming the gauge was the wider one. The confusion probably stems from the fact that the line was built under the condition that it was “of a gauge not less than 2′ 9” “.
Passengers were permitted from 1876 and were carried until November 1908. It was the first public narrow-gauge railway in England. The line was declared bankrupt in 1897 although it operated for many years afterwards. In 1905, a passenger train was derailed at Murthwaite due to a combination of a defective locomotive and defective track. It was forced to close in April 1913, due to decline in demand for iron ore and small volumes of passengers in summer.
In 1915 Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke and Robert Proctor-Mitchell, two model makers, converted the line to the 15 in (381 mm) gauge that it is today. The first train operated over the regauged line on 28 August 1915. By 1917, the entire line had been converted and trains were running along the whole length. Initially, services were operated using the Bassett-Lowke-built, to-scale 4-4-2 Sans Pareil. Rolling stock was augmented by Sir Arthur Heywood’s Duffield Bank line, following Sir Arthur’s death in 1916. These included the 0-8-0 locomotive Muriel, whose frames and running gear were rebuilt as River Irt.
As well as passengers, the line transported granite between Beckfoot Quarry and Murthwaite crushing plant. From Murthwaite to Ravenglass the track ran as dual gauge for a time, with 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge track straddling the 15 in (381 mm) gauge rails. A diesel locomotive was obtained in 1929 to work this section and details are in Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway locomotives. The line carried much of the goods and produce for the valley. By the mid-1920s, the line had been extended to its present terminus at Dalegarth Station. Passenger trains did not run during World War II.
In 1946, the line was purchased by the Keswick Granite Company, but quarrying at Beckfoot finished in 1953, leaving the line dependent on passenger traffic. From 1958 attempts were made to sell the line, and it was expected that if these failed then the line would close at the end of the 1960 season. In the event, the railway was sold by auction in September of that year.
Locals and railway enthusiasts formed Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway Preservation Society to save the line, with financial backing by Sir Wavell Wakefield, MP for Marylebone and owner of the Ullswater Steamers, and Colin Gilbert, a stockbroker. The railway was owned and operated by a private company, with the backing of the preservation society, an arrangement that is still in place.
Despite construction of the 2-8-2 locomotive River Esk in 1923 and the rebuilding of Muriel into the 0-8-2 River Irt in 1927, the line was short of motive power. To allow for an expanded timetable, the preservation society raised funds to build a third steam locomotive. River Mite (2-8-2) entered service in 1967 and, although owned by the society, has been on permanent loan to the company ever since.
In 1968, the death of Colin Gilbert led to the railway company becoming the property of Sir Wavell Wakefield, who by that stage had become Lord Wakefield of Kendal. In the early 1970s it became apparent that, with passengers rising, another locomotive was required. This time the company constructed the locomotive itself. Northern Rock (2-6-2) was complete in time for centenary celebrations in 1976. A further addition was made in 1980 when the company constructed the B-B diesel locomotive Lady Wakefield.
Other significant locomotives include Bonnie Dundee, built in 1900 as a 2 ft (610 mm)-gauge tank locomotive before being donated to the R&ER by a member and converted to 15 in (381 mm)-gauge, later converted again from tank to tender configuration; Synolda, a twin to the original 15 in (381 mm) loco Sans Pareil, built in 1912, saved from Belle Vue Zoo in 1978 and now in the railway museum; Shelagh of Eskdale, a 4-6-4 diesel built in 1969 incorporating parts of the Heywood loco Ella; Perkins, a rebuilt 0-4-4 diesel locomotive, which started as a quarry shunter before being rebuilt into the steam-outlined Passenger Tractor and then again in 1984 into its current guise; Douglas Ferreira, a B-B diesel loco constructed in 2005 and named after the general manager of the R&ER from 1961 to 1994.
Since the 1960s, the railway has improved and visitors have increased. Between 1961 and 1994, Douglas Ferreira was the general manager and he is one of the people who have left the biggest legacy on the Ratty. Today, there are 120,000 passengers each year with up to 16 trains daily in summer. Trains run most of the year; the railway is only closed in January.