NWR Main Line - A History

The North West Railway Main Line as it stands today was an amalgam of three pre-existing independent Victorian railways, each built to serve different areas of the Island of Sodor and unconnected until 1914.


The earliest of the standard gauge railways on Sodor was the Sodor & Mainland Railway, opened in 1853, which, despite its name, was never actually linked to the British Mainland at all.  Despite numerous attempts by the company, they were denied a bridge over the Walney Channel, and when their tunnel collapsed in Ballahoo Ridge, they opted to run trains solely between Ballahoo and Kirkronan instead.  The company operated until 1901, when the last of their three steam engines was scrapped, bringing the railway’s operational life to an end, but leaving the company extant.


The second line to open was the Wellsworth & Suddery Railway in 1870, which ran between the town of Crosby to Brendam on the coast, this line now forms part of what is more commonly known as Edward’s Branch Line.  It started out in life primarily as an industrial route, but later developed a large passenger clientele.  However, there came a period when problems arose with Suddery and Brendam ports, which led them to merge later with the third and final standard gauge railway company to establish themselves on the Island of Sodor.


The Knapford and Elsbridge Railway was opened in 1883 to exploit the minerals around the Elsbridge area, but required a means of transporting the goods out, which saw the company, A.W. Dry  become involved in creating embankments and other means of solving the drainage problems associated with the marshland where they wished to dig.  Access to Knapford also enabled them with a port to export their goods, which was later replaced as the primary by Tidmouth, in 1905 when A.W. Dry extended their road-side tramway along the coastal route to Tidmouth, under the instruction of Topham Hatt the First.  This was destroyed in 1908 during a gale, and later rebuilt in 1910 with A. W. Dry engineering a new route between Tidmouth and Knapford, under Topham Hatt’s direction and employing miners who had been thrown out of work, owing to the problems associated with the severance of the route.  In 1912, the Tidmouth, Knapford and Elsbridge Railway connected with the Wellsworth and Suddery, forming the Tidmouth, Wellsworth and Suddery Railway, which lasted until 1914.

With the outbreak of World War One in 1914, the British Government sponsored the amalgamation of Sodor’s standard gauge railways to act as a strategic coastal defence against a possible invasion from Ireland. The three companies became known as the North Western Railway Company, and established their Administrative Headquarters and Motive Power Depot at Vicarstown in 1915. The route was double-tracked throughout, which meant major engineering works, and was eventually completed in 1916.


From 1996 onward, Sir Topham Hatt III has been focussed upon competing more effectively with road transport, providing a faster service and longer trains. To that end, larger locomotives were brought in from the Hatt Steam Trust for restoration to fulfil this requirement. Express services from Tidmouth to Barrow run frequently throughout the day, with regular services between Tidmouth and London running at peak times.

Tidmouth Station returned to the Pilot system in 1997, when Jinty was brought in to shunt coaches for the bigger engines, marking the end of the roster-system which had been in place since Duck began running the Little Western in the 1960s. Additional shunting work continues to be carried out by Donald and Douglas. Jinty was relieved at Tidmouth by Ted the Class 14 Diesel when he was moved to work on the Wellsworth Branch on commuter duties.

Goods traffic on the Main Line is handled largely by the NWR’s dedicated Freight division, NW Freight, which also moves supplies from Sodor directly along the other railway using Class 66 and Class 60 Diesel locomotives.


Sir Topham Hatt III was quick to seize the opportunity to bring tourism to the Island of Sodor through the railways. Since 2006, the NWR has held several Enthusiast Gala events, celebrating ten years of independent running and 40 years since the abolition of steam among other events aimed at the enthusiast market, which have encouraged the public to get involved with the day-to-day running of a ‘Truly Modern Steam Railway’.


Tidmouth was originally the NWR’s western terminus. It owes much of it’s prosperity and rapid growth to the railway, and has become the Island of Sodor’s commercial capital, boasting the island’s largest Harbour and Docklands, as well as the railway’s main marshalling yards. Tidmouth became the Administrative Headquarters of the North Western Railway following the 1925 agreement with the LMS, where Barrow-in-Furness became the NWR’s main eastern terminus, rendering Vicarstown surplus to requirements.

Tidmouth Yard has boasted the NWR’s main Motive Power Depot since 1927. The main shed has been rebuilt throughout the years to cope with the expanding fleet of locomotives and the roundhouse was placed inside the main shed around 1952. In the mid-2000s, the decision was made to provide facilities specifically for Diesel traction, and a Diesel Depot was opened in 2007 to meet the needs of the NWR’s growing Diesel fleet.

The five-road Tidmouth Station still retains the same characteristics that it always has done, with a magnificent glass roof and period features reflecting the steam heritage and popular culture contribution made by the Island of Sodor and the North Western Railway in television and books. Tidmouth continues to boast four terminal roads and a through road for the Little Western branch.

Knapford Junction

The current Knapford Junction is the third on the site, and the existing station dates from 1956 when the Harbour was expanded under plans set out by Sir Topham Hatt I, and completed under the tenure of Sir Topham Hatt II, to ease the congestion being felt at Tidmouth Harbour. Unlikeits predecessors, the new station sits north of the River Tid, as opposed to south, and acts as a junction for the Ffarquhar Branch Line. Very little has changed at Knapford Junctionin the years since privatisation began.


Little has changed at Crosby over the years and has really not made much impact on the stories - the most famous incident here, however, was when Duck was chased by runaway trucks, and crashed into a Barber's shop in the station yard. But for the most part, Crosby has been more of a quiet seaside town, an attractive location for visitors.


Wellsworth Station is the mid-way point on the NWR Main Line, and the spur for the Brendam Branch Line and Oil Refinery. The yard continues to be an important link in the chain on the NWR, and the yards have been expanded to cope with the additional demand from the Oil Refinery, China Clay Works and Brendam Harbour traffic respectively. It also boasts a Motive Power outpost where BoCo, Edward and Jinty are housed to run the branch line, and Emmeleia to actas a banker for Gordon’s Hill.

As the mid-way point, Wellsworth continues to be the site where the main Rescue Equipment is kept in case of emergency, boasting a Steam Crane, Jebadiah, and full breakdown train. Also housed here is a Brake-Tender for use on Gordon’s Hill by lighter Diesel engines who may require it.

Suddery Junction

The line spurs here for the Brendam Branch Line and is often referred to as‘Edward’s Junction’. A former junction connecting the Tidmouth, Wellsworth & Suddery and the Sodor & Mainland Railways, the station has been long closed and demolished, with passenger smaking use of Wellsworth Station to join the trains for the Brendam Branch Line.

Gordon’s Hill

The steepest part of the NWR Main Line originally connected the Tidmouth,Wellsworth & Suddery and Sodor & Mainland Railways. Best known as Gordon’s Hill owing to the fact that Gordon the Big Engine stalled here in 1923. Over the years, spare engines have been placed here to bank heavier trains over the hill in times of need, a position now filled by Emmeleia on a more permanent basis. It was the site of high drama in 2009 when a train of oil tankers caught fire whilst being hauled by Class 60, Procor. Luckily, the crisis was averted and no harm was done thanks to quick thinking and expert handling (ERS 168 - STDE).


In years gone by, Maron was a necessary stop for all trains to stop and "pin down" their brakes, this is no longer the case as all Goods Trains on the NWR are now 'fitted'.  It continues serves as a crossover for Bank Engines to return to Wellsworth. The local villages boast of a beautiful view from high up the summit, and its church is the second to be dedicated to St Ronan (the first being Kirkronan).
It has also been witness to several misadventures - the first being Warrior's heroic rescue in stopping Henry when he lost his Driver (ERS 78 - WTCE). The second was more devastating, where Dick, during a harsh winter, lost control on the hill and derailed spectacularly with much damage to both the station and himself (ERS 170 - DOW).


Cronk Town Council set about marketing the town as the ‘Ideal base to explore Sodor’ with huge success to local hotels and businesses, and thrives as a location for tourists coming to visit the railways in particular. The town’s Crown of Sodor Hotel is known to book-up very quickly during Sodor Rail Gala events, and is highly regarded as a favourite among local tour operators who specialise in marketing the events.


Killdane is one of the larger station sites on the NWR, handling goods traffic to and from the Aluminium Works at Peel Godred. Not only is Killdane is the junction for the Peel Godred Electric Branch Line, it is also the home of the Arlesdale Ballast & Granite Co’s processing and distribution centre and site of the island’s Motorail Terminal,which carries vehicles across the Walney Channel to the British Mainland via rail.

Kellsthorpe Road

The junction for the Kirkronan Branch Line sees a lot of traffic for the Boat Trains, which run out of Kirkronan Harbour throughout the year hauled by Squaddie. It was also from this site that Henry performed his famous "Super Rescue" by moving two failed diesels and both their trains (RS 24 - EE).

Crovan’s Gate

Site of the NWR’s Main Locomotive Works, specialising in all-manner of Steam, Diesel and Electric repairs, modifications and from the 2000s, locomotive construction also. Formerly an agricultural market town, economic focus changed to the export of slate when the Skarloey Railway Co. set up its mining operations at Ward Fell and in the Skarloey Valley in the1860s. Crovan’s Gate is also the site of the Skarloey Railway’s junction with the NWR.

Ballahoo Tunnels

The tunnel was first cut in 1915 as a means for the Sodor & Midland railway to run from Kirk Ronan to Vicarstown. But the single bore tunnel proved inefficient when a section midway collapsed, creating two separate tunnels - the second became known as "Henry's Tunnel" where Henry stalled during a rainy day and refused to come out (which resulted in him being bricked up inside for a time). Following that, a second bore was dug out to provide a double line.

The line now serves as a junction for the Ballahoo Branch Line, which branches off to Norramby and connects the Main Line again via Crovan's Gate. The link between Sodor and the Mainland was cut off yet again when a landslide occurred at Henry's Tunnel, and almost disrupted plans for the Rev. W. Awdry's centenary celebrations in 2011 (RS 42 - T&HF).


Vicarstown was the original Headquarters of the North Western Railway, acting as the main terminus and Motive Power Depot for the locomotives. When the NWR finally obtained running rights into Barrow Station in 1925, under the agreement with the London Midland and Scottish Railway, Vicarstown was no longer needed to fulfil its original role. The locomotive sheds and Administrative Headquarters were moved west to Tidmouth, with the existing station and sheds downsized, and the turntable moved to Barrow instead.

The original Administrative Buildings were leased and later sold by Sir Topham Hatt II to A.W. Dry when the smaller shed, which replaced the original, closed down. A.W. Dry retained them for several decades prior to moving to new purpose-built premises elsewhere, when the buildings were sold on again in 2008 to the Vicarstown Railway Museum group, who have since restored them to their former glory.


Sudrian Engines don't venture any further than here - apart from those adapted for long-distance running on the Mainland, such as the Goods Link Diesels. After an agreement with the LMS in 1925, the NWR have set up their own section in the yards to accommodate facilities for their steam locomotives such as water and coal.