Rope Haulage

The present system of haulage used on the Railway is a development of the earliest methods of hauling coals to rivers for shipment.

These early methods used horses to pull a wagon on the flat and uphill. For going downhill the horse was attached to the rear of the wagon and the man who accompanied the horse rode on the wagon using the brake to control the descending speed.

The first rope haulage systems were gravity inclines. These sections used a long rope attached to two sets of wagons at opposite ends of the incline. The rope went around a large horizontal wheel – known as the return wheel – at the top of the incline. The loaded wagons would be at the top and the empty wagons at the bottom. The loaded wagons would run downhill and they would pull the empty wagons up the hill. Speed would be controlled by a Brakeman applying a brake to the return wheel at the top of the hill. This system could not transport loaded wagons uphill as more empty wagons than full ones would be needed to balance the weight of the full ones and pull them up.In order to transport full wagons uphill a power source was required. This came in the form of the stationary engine. This was an adaptation of the engines which were used at the collieries to pump water and draw coal to the surface. A stationary engine would be built at the top or on the side of a hill, and it would wind the rope onto a drum to haul wagons up. From that point, another rope wound by an engine further up the hill could be used to move the wagons on. The return trip could be made by gravity with the rope attached to the rear of the train, the haulage engine left out of gear and a Brakeman controlling the speed of the train – not unlike a gravity incline. This required the engine’s power to be used in only one direction and was therefore very efficient. In the Durham coalfield, stationary engines were referred to as haulers.


The remaining hauler at Blackham’s Hill on the Bowes system is, in effect, two haulage engines in one as it sits at the summit of two inclines. Originally in 1826, Mount Moor (later Black Fell) colliery was the end of the line. Full wagons were drawn up from Black Fell to Blackham’s Hill using a single rope. Empties were let down to Black Fell on the same rope. At the summit, the second (Springwell) rope was used to lower the full wagons down to Springwell and to draw up the empties from Springwell under power to Blackhams Hill. This system remained essentially unaltered until the railway was abandoned by the NCB in 1974. 

The present hauler uses electric power (3 phase AC at 2750 volts) instead of steam. The wagons have long since changed from Chaldrons to the wooden box hopper type. In fact, some relatively modern steel wagons are also used. However, the line and its method of working would be still recognisable as similar to his original design if George Stephenson was able to view it today. During the line’s working life the method of transporting coal was said to be so efficient that the first train through in the morning, and its coal content, would be sufficient to pay the wage of every man working on the railway for that day.