The Stainmore line was built primarily for the transport coke and minerals, and over a century of operation around 100 million tons was moved from coast to coast of northern England via this route. The mainstay of the business was the coke manufactured in the Bishop Auckland and Crook areas and elsewhere in east Durham, and required for use in steel making in Cumberland. Until the widespread introduction of 'open hearth' steel making processes in the twentieth century there was an heavy traffic of hæmatite ore in the opposite direction. In addition to these two staple traffics there were shipments of trainloads of limestone, and domestic and 'bunker' coal. Finished steel products were also carried on the line, and there was business in general freight and livestock. All these loads represented a formidable weight to be carried over the summit.
From the beginning the operating department struggled to find ways of working the railway to create sufficient capacity to cope with these loads on a single line. Despite the later 'doubling' of tracks that took place over forty years the problem became even more difficult because new safety regulations for 'absolute block' working meant that as 'one train in section' became the norm, trains could no longer follow each other in procession 'over the top' . The only way to cope with this on steep gradients which limited the speeds of trains was to make the trains longer - to move 'double loads' of wagons with two locomotives handling the the haulage. This became standard practice on the line from around 1880
Mineral trains never had 'continuous brakes' operable by drivers. Even in 1960 wagons were still 'loose coupled' with three link chain couplings and had only simple handbrakes. As a train moved off the engine had to carefully take up the 'slack' in the consist and a 30 wagon train being pulled was about 40' longer than one 'buffered up'. Similarly a train coming to rest would concertina up against the braking locomotive. Not to break coupling chains by jerking the load was an essential skill.
On less hilly lines the locomotive brakes would hold and stop the load but on the steep descents from Stainmore gravity might take over and the wagons could run away pushing the engine in front. To give the locomotive extra help a proportion - usually one in four - of all wagons had their hand brakes 'pinned down' and 'locked on' at the start of the descent. As the train gathered speed there would be a sound (and smell!) of red hot brake blocks screeching on steel wheels. At the bottom of the hill the train had to stop while the brakes were unpinned and cooled down.
The guards van was always at the rear of mineral trains because the guard had a powerful hand brake of his own to use. If the couplings snapped as a train was bring pulled up a bank he had to quickly screw this brake down before the wagons rolled back and became a 'runaway'. But on heavy 'double loads' on steep hills the guard's brake wasn't strong enough, and so the second locomotive had to be at the rear of the train to push uphill and also to restrain loose wagons if a coupling snapped. This is how the method of working on Stainmore evolved. But the two drivers - working 200 yards apart at each end of the train - had to be very skilled in working in tandem to push and pull together and avoid snapped couplings or derailing wagons.
On arrival at the summit the 'banker' would be detached, the wagon brakes pinned down and the train would descend on the other side with just one engine to provide braking. The other locomotive followed 'light engine' a few minutes later. However at some point, perhaps around 1950 with the more powerful locomotive brakes on the 2MT and 4MT locomotives, this procedure was changed and at the summit signal box the 'banker' was shunted from the back to the front of the train to work as as a 'pilot'. With two locomotives in front there was no need to pin down wagon brakes and they could also risk higher descent speeds too, and the time required for working loads was reduced.
In this lovely picture of Kirkby Stephen 'down' yard (now the site of our SRC car park) taken around 1945 many old wooden 21 ton mineral hopper wagons full of coke can be seen. The J21 in the foreground, fitted with a wartime 'blackout' curtain, is ready to 'bank' a long train towards Tebay.
A westbound frieght train prepares to move off from Kirkby Stephen.
NER Q5 No.443 brings a string of eastbound 'empties' into Kirkby Stephen.
Two J21 locomotives, one 'banking' at the rear, shift 21ton coke hoppers towards Tebay.