The Newcastle & Carlisle Railway was opened as a through route on 18th June 1838, marking the culmination of over 40 years effort to connect the River Tyne with the Solway Firth.
The first suggestion, made by Ralph Dodd at a meeting in Newcastle on 1st November 1794, was for a broad canal to Hexham on the south bank of the Tyne, as the first section of “An Inland Navigation from the East to the West Sea”. In the following year, William Chapman surveyed an alternative route high above the north side of the river, and there then followed two years of controversy between the different routes. Nevertheless, in 1797 a Bill based on Chapman’s plans reached the committee stage in the House of Commons before being withdrawn due to the strength of the opposition.
A canal from the Solway to Carlisle was opened on 12th March 1823 and Chapman was asked the following year to report on the cost and separate advantages of a ship canal and of a railway from “Newcastle to Carlisle”, and he estimated that even a minimal ship canal would cost at least three times as much as a railway which could carry the same traffic. Josias Jessop confirmed the overall advantages of a railway in a report dated 4th March 1825, and a prospectus for the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway was issued only 24 days later, followed by a meeting of shareholders in Newcastle on 9th April. After various delays, notice of application for the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway Bill was made on 4th November 1828 and, after a stormy passage through the House of Commons, it received the Royal Assent on 22nd May 1829. The first section of the line was opened on 3rd March 1835, followed by three further sections in 1836, two sections in 1837 and the official opening of the entire line connecting the River Tyne at Redheugh with the Carlisle Canal on 18th June 1838.
Following consolidation and doubling of the main line by 1844, the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway turned their attention in 1845 to the South (and North) Tyne Valleys. Plans were prepared by their engineer, John Bourne and deposited on 29th November for a branch line to run for 17 miles from Haltwhistle to Nenthead.
Although the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway had obtained authorisation to build their Nenthead Branch, nothing was done for over two years. Then, on 29th November 1848, plans were deposited for various modifications to the route, including the construction of a short branch to Lord Carlisle’s Railway at Lambley and the abandonment of the route from Alston to Nenthead. This route map shows the final route taken by the branch line.
In 1851, the first 4¼ mile portion of the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway was opened from Haltwhistle to Shafthill, later known as Coanwood, for goods traffic in March and to passengers on 19th July. The southern section of 9 miles from Alston to Lambley Colliery was brought into use for goods and mineral traffic on 5th January 1852, and the whole branch was finally opened to all traffic on 17th November 1852, with the completion of the half mile link over Lambley viaduct, from Shafthill to Lambley station.
During the early years of the line being opened it was probably worked by former main line engines, but by the turn of the 20th century North Eastern branch line classes appeared, which included the E. Fletcher designed Bogie Tank Passenger 0-4-4Ts including № 319.
The initial service consisted of two trains per day in each direction which had increased to three per day in the 1870s and then to four per day by the turn of the century, with trains leaving Alston at 7:10am, 10:00am, 2:15pm and 6:30pm returning from Haltwhistle at 8:20am, 11:50am, 4:15pm and 7:33pm with a total journey time of 35 minutes.
Following the First World War the government embarked on a re-organisation of the railways and proposed that the main line railway companies would be merged into four large regional organisations, the so called “big four” as a way of generating investment without nationalisation. And so it was that in 1923, the North Eastern Railway became a part of the London & North Eastern Railway company (LNER).