La’al Ratty, as the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway (R&ER) is affectionately known, is one of the greatest little trains in the World. It has given a glorious ride through the mountains of the western Lake District for over a century. In its adventurous history, it has faced closure several times and used three gauges of track.
In 1873 the R&ER was promoted by the Whitehaven Iron Mines Co. to carry iron ore from its mines in Eskdale. Haematite iron ore was especially valuable then for steelmaking at Barrow. A 3ft gauge track was laid seven miles to the Furness Railway at Ravenglass. It opened for goods in 1875, with a Manning Wardle 0-6-0 loco, Devon.
Buying another loco, hiring coaches and building stations to start a passenger service the next year, made the company bankrupt.
Managed by a Receiver, it ran on after the mines were closed. Alas the track and locos were neglected and passenger service stopped in 1908. Despite the formation of a new company, even goods trains had stopped by 1913.
The line would have been scrapped but for the whim of model-maker W.J. Bassett-Lowke and his railway enthusiast friends. They promoted the model railway hobby by selling models of all sizes – to run round a kitchen table or a pleasure park. They re-gauged the R&ER track to 15 inches for a scale model 4-4-2, Sans Pareil.
In August 1915 trains ran again on what was the World’s Smallest Public Railway. As the whole track was converted, a daily train service operated. Rolling stock including the 0-8-0 Muriel (later River Irt), came from the pioneer 15 inch gauge line of Sir Arthur Heywood.
The line flourished with the growth of granite traffic promoted by Sir Aubrey Brocklebank, the shipping magnate. A new loco called River Esk was built, steam and internal combustion locos rebuilt in the line’s workshops, and a standard gauge was laid as far as the stone crushing plant at Murthwaite.
After the second world war it was acquired by the Keswick Granite Company who closed the quarries. When passenger services continued to lose money, they decided to auction the railway in 1960. Railway enthusiasts, drawn together by the Parish Council, saved the line again. Colin Gilbert, Douglas Robinson and Sir Wavell Wakefield formed a new Railway Company to operate the trains, with a Preservation Society for the line’s supporters.
Because there were only two steam locos, the new R&ER Preservation Society responded by raising funds for a new steam loco River Mite. From 1967 it has worked a substantial proportion of steam hauled services on the line. After Colin Gilbert, the late Lord Wakefield of Kendal became Chairman of the Railway. The Society sealed a working agreement supporting the company, which endures because his family wished the Railway to continue to operate as it did before his death.
With improved revenues the railway has been progressively restored and the track has been completely relaid with new rails on hardwood sleepers. New buildings were constructed at Ravenglass, including awnings rescued from the local British Rail stations. The railway workshops constructed Northern Rock for the centenary year of 1976 and since then they have built new diesel locos and rebuilt steam locos for the R&ER. They have also worked on contracts including locos for Blackpool Pleasure Beach and the steam locos Northern Rock II and Cumbria for a Japanese leisure park.
Operation of the Railway was improved from 1977 by the pioneer use of radio based signalling, a system subsequently adopted by British Rail for some of its minor lines. The season of daily steam trains now extends from March to November and up to four steam locos can be in use on the line at peak times.