From 1936 onwards under instruction from the Air Ministry’s Sir Kingsley Wood many key industries in London and the industrialised Midlands, had created a shadow factory infrastructure to enable production should war break out. Many of these shadow factories, plus a number of Royal Ordnance Factories, had been purposefully located in Cumbria and the Northwest coast, out of range of the bombers of the Nazi Luftwaffe. When the Second World War did broke out these facilities required additional staff and there was additional raw materials going in and requirement of distribution of output, the transport result was a relative boom in both freight and passenger traffic.
With the United States involved in the war from 1941, planning for Operation Overlord the invasion of Europe began. The Port of Liverpool and the west coast ports of Scotland were key to importing war machinery and supplies from North America, as well as distributing US Army and Canadian Army troops across England for training, again initially in the northwest and northeast.
The combination of these factors put a huge strain on local locomotive servicing facilities at Carnforth and therefore in late 1942, the Government agreed to fund the construction of a new shed at Carnforth, to allow for the new and planned level of locomotive servicing requirement.
It was built on the site of the old London & North Western Railway depot by Italian prisoners of war. It was built to replace three existing depots at Carnforth. The Furness Railway shed was demolished in 1938-39 followed by the London North Western Railway shed a few years later. The Midland Railway shed was retained as a warehouse.
The new depot had a six-road shed which held a wheel drop, workshop and forge. The new facilities included a 70 foot vacuum operated turntable plus a 150 ton capacity coaling plant capable of loading four locomotives in 10 minutes. An ash plant was built next to the coal tower which allowed locomotives to drop the ash into pits from where it was hauled up the side of the ash plant and emptied into wagons beneath the plant and then taken away for disposal.On nationalisation in 1948, British Railways inherited an almost brand new depot, which was bigger than was now required. This allowed them to initially close a number of other local and older/less efficient sheds, and secondly to keep the shed open longer than many when the decision to modernise traction to electric and diesel came. As a result, Carnforth MPD remained relatively undeveloped from its reconstruction in 1944, by the time it closed in August 1968. It was one of the last three depots to close to steam operations – the other two being Lostock Hall and Rose Grove.
A group of enthusiasts chaired by Dr Peter Beet formed the Lakeside Railway Estates Company, with the idea of preserving both the line and Carnforth MPD, to provide a complete steam operating system. Negotiations with BR resulted in an agreement to buy the majority of the Lakeside branch, and at Carnforth rent out: the former wagon works; west side sidings; and 3-roads of the former MPD. Beet formed Steamtown Railway Museum Ltd, and the resultant visitor attraction Steamtown Carnforth became a mecca for steam enthusiasts, then facing a national ban on steam traction on the BR network. With the assistance of the Lancaster Railway Circle, an increasing number of steam engines arrived at Steamtown from 1967 onwards.
However, although backed by then transport minister Barbara Castle, the need to build a number of motorway bridges and re-routing of the A590 road from Haverthwaite via Greenodd to Plumpton Junction, meant that the complete vision was unsuccessful. This caused a split within the Lakeside Railway society in 1970, with one part of the group forming the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway to operate the residual line, taking four of the engines with them.
Steamtown continued under the leadership of Dr Beet, who developed it as a major regional visitor attraction. This included the purchase of both SNCF Chapelon Pacific No.231k22, Deutsche Bahn oil fired 012 Pacific No. 012-10, and the development of an extensive 15 in (381 mm) miniature railway.
In 1974 Sir Bill McAlpine became a shareholder in the company, allowing his LNER A3 Pacific 4472 Flying Scotsman to make Carnforth its home for many years. Subsequently McAlpine acquired a controlling interest in the company, in order to fund the purchase of the complete site including the track from BR.
Even after the mainline steam ban was removed in the early 1970s, the site remained a hub for both enthusiasts and major servicing point for steam locomotives and associated rolling stock. The museums own stock developed with the purchase of some ex-industrial shunters, and three hulks from Woodham Brothers scrapyard at Barry Island: GWR 6959 Class No.6960 Raveningham Hall; SR Merchant Navy class 35005 Canadian Pacific; GWR 5600 Class 5643.
McAlpine’s interest declined, and resultantly so did Steamtown through lack of investment. In 1990 McAlpine’s controlling stake in Steamtown Railway Museum Ltd was sold to David Smith, who over the following years has bought out the majority of the minority shareholders.
With increasing Health and Safety Executive regulations, and an increased reliance on revenue from supplying and servicing steam locomotives to power enthusiast trains, the commercial decision was taken not to reopen Carnforth as a museum or visitor attraction for the 1998 season.
Steamtown Railway Museum Ltd still exists today as a holding company, and operates an extensive railway repair and operating facility on the site. Smith later set up the West Coast Railway Company Ltd, which operates heritage steam and diesel trains across the national UK railway network.