Bowes Railway was originally a colliery railway built to carry coal mainly from pits in north west Durham to the Tyne at Jarrow. The earliest section was designed by George Stephenson and opened on 17 January 1826, making it one of the world’s first modern railways. It was 15 miles long when completed in 1855. Each end was locomotive worked; the six mile middle section consisting of rope worked inclines with very steep gradients.
At its peak, the Railway handled over 1 million tons of coal per year and remained virtually intact until 1968. Between 1968 and 1974, most of the line was closed until only the last 3.5 miles between Monkton and Jarrow staithes were operated by the National Coal Board. However, the original 1826 section between the Black Fell bank head and Springwell bank head was acquired for preservation in 1976 by Tyne and Wear County Council. This comprises Blackham’s Hill West and East inclines, which are operated by a stationary haulage engine. It is the only working preserved standard gauge rope hauled railway in the world. In 1977, the Railway’s Engineering and Wagon Shops at Springwell were added to the scheme, providing the facilities needed for maintenance.
PONTOP & JARROW 1826 – 1932
The Bowes railway was first proposed by the Grand Allies (a group of local coal owning families) to connect their new Springwell colliery and the older Mount Moor colliery with their Jarrow staiths. Originally a 11 1/2 mile railway was proposed by John Buddle including six rope worked inclines. However they later handed the project to colliery engine wright George Stephenson who designed the present railway from Mount Moor pit (Black Fell) to Jarrow via Springwell using three incline planes and a locomotive worked section.
The line opened on 17th January 1826 using the inclines and horses until the new steam locomotives were delivered in April 1826. The railway was extended to Kibblesworth in 1842, Marley Hill in 1853 and Dipton in 1855, this was as far as the line stretched (15 miles long). The line continued to operate in the same methods using six inclines (two gravity worked and four powered inclines) and two locomotive worked sections at either end of the railway.
Springwell colliery closed in 1932 and the colliery buildings were converted into the railway workshops after this date.
BOWES RAILWAY 1932 – 1975
The Pontop and Jarrow company was taken over by other large coal owners and the railway was re-named the Bowes Railway, this was in honor of the Bowes-Lyon family (ancestors of the Queen mother) who were major shareholders. Despite the change of management the operation of the railway remained unchanged.
From 1947 the line became part of the National Coal Board this saw investment in the railway to improve efficiency, for example the replacement of steam winding engines with modern electric hauler – such as Blackham’s Hill in 1950. The final adaption to the railway was the link constructed to the neighbouring Pelaw Main railway. This line forms our current passenger line and was constructed in 1955. The line closed beyond Kibblesworth in 1969 with Kibblesworth now being the only colliery sending its coal via the Bowes railway. The closure of Kibblesworth pit on the 4th October 1974 brought to an end most operations, with closure finally coming in November 1974.
PRESERVATION ERA POST 1975
The final section of the line remained between Springwell Bankfoot and Jarrow Staiths was used as the Monkton railways – this served a coal washery but the final rail traffic on this remaining section was on the 10th January 1986 when it was closed by the National Coal Board, leaving only the preserved sections of the railway in operation.
The 1½ mile section between Black Fell and Springwell was saved by Tyne and Wear County Council as well as the Springwell workshops and 40 wagons from the railways fleet were saved for the nation. The site preserved three original locomotives for use as well as demonstrating the two remaining inclines. The railway was later made a scheduled ancient monument, the preserved workshops later helped build a replica of Stephenson’s rocket. In 1979 the Pelaw Main spur was re-laid for passenger use and finally in 2002 the site was granted museum status.
As well as the Bowes Railway two other parts of the railway have been preserved the Marley Hill shed forms part of the Tanfield Railway and the Springwell Bankfoot locomotive shed is now the home of the North East Bus Preservation Society.