Cowlairs Incline

Location type


Name and dates

Cowlairs Incline (1842-)

Opened on the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway.


The Cowlairs Incline is a double track mile and a quarter long uphill gradient running north from Glasgow Queen Street High Level to the former station at Cowlairs. The southern half of the route is within the Cowlairs Tunnel.

Departing trains climb out of the station at 1 in 51, then 1 in 43, and 1 in 41, gaining 150ft before the line levels out at Cowlairs. For those trains continuing to Edinburgh Waverley the rest of the line is almost level, marking out the incline as a peculiarity of the route.

The original Glasgow terminus was to have been further out of town, more like the Glasgow (Townhead) terminus of the Garnkirk and Glasgow Railway, with an approach on a gentle gradient. This was to have crossed the Forth and Clyde Canal by a bridge. Their opposition to the railway required that the line pass under the canal, necessitating a new alignment which led to the long incline and tunnel.

Operation of the incline has been a constant burden on the line. It was a rope worked incline with a steam engine at Cowlairs, the rope also known as the cable. Early attempts at banking were not successful and rope operation continued. Trains descended under the control of a brake truck, also placed on ascending trains in case of difficulties. Stopping of trains, underpowered engines, rope slippage and rope replacement all placed burdens on operation.

Rope operation ceased in 1908, banking taking over, and the rope was removed in 1909.

With diesel operation banking became rare, although older DMUs were slow and smokey on the climb. The arrival of a train at the northern portal of the Cowlairs Tunnel was often proceeded by clouds of blue smoke.

The tunnel floor was placed on slabs in 1976. These were lowered in preparation for overhead electrification in 2016.



Nearby stations
Glasgow (Townhead)
St Rollox [2nd]
Buchanan Street
Cowcaddens [Subway]
Glasgow Queen Street Low Level
Glasgow Queen Street High Level
Buchanan Street [Subway]
Eastfield Platform
St Georges Cross [Subway]
High Street
Pinkston Iron Works
Pinkston Mineral Yard
Springbank Foundry
Coxhill Iron Works
Port Dundas East Goods [NB]
Port Dundas West Goods [CR]
Pinkston Bog
Pinkston Power Station
St Rollox Girder Works
Port Dundas Distillery Sidings
Port Dundas Basin
Buchanan Street Tunnel
Port Dundas Mid Wharf
Buchanan Street Tunnel East Signal Box
Port Dundas Distillery
Location names in dark blue are on the same original line.

Enthusiast in a Top Hat

A well known photograph by Dr Tice Fisher Budden, a pioneer railway photographer, depicts NBR No 598 acting as a pilot to an express being drawn northwards up the incline with the rope. The location is close to the summit and the fireman is walking forward to drop the rope.

On the left a gentleman in a top hat watches, leaning on the lineside wall.

Early Electric Locomotive

In September 1842 the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway experimented with a battery powered locomotive built by Robert Davidson of Aberdeen. The then hemp rope used on the incline suffered in the inclement weather of Glasgow and the possibility of electric haulage appealed.

Based on earlier work with electrical power, including the very first electric locomotive of 1837 which was a small locomotive capable of carrying two people, he built a new locomotive for the E&G.

This locomotive, 'Galvani', was four-wheeled and weighed five tons (around seven with extra batteries). It was fitted with reluctance type motors and the batteries were non-rechargeable zinc-iron acid.

The trial was to draw a train weighing 6 tons over a mile and a half.

Unfortunately it was unable to exceed 4mph and the idea was not pursued.

The locomotive was destroyed, perhaps by Luddites or perhaps with those with vested interests in steam locomotives, and Davidson was unable to recover it from the railway.

Electric banking locomotives using overhead wires, powered by the Pinkston Power Station, were considered but not proceeded with in 1901.

The line into Glasgow Queen Street High Level was electrified in 2017.

The Rope

The haulage rope was initially hemp, wire after 1848. Also known as the cable. It was a continuous rope over two and a half miles long and five inches thick. From the main rope were short ropes which were hooked onto locomotives, the Cowlairs stationary engine being started after the rope was attached. At the top of the incline the stationary engine was stopped and the rope would drop off (and brake vans be disconnected).

Ropes required replacement every 12 to 17 months with the work carried out over a weekend to remove the old rope and put the new one in position.

The engine house, with 90ft chimney and large bay window overlooking the line, was at Cowlairs, located on the east side of the line just south of the station. A coal siding stood to its east, approached from the line to the north.

Chronology Dates

  /  /1841Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway
Cowlairs Works opens at the north end of the Cowlairs Incline at a site with space to expand. At this time the works site included the locomotive shed (for locomotive operations at the top of the incline). The shed was on the west side of the line and incline engine on the east side.
  /  /1844Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway
Banking engines Hercules (loco no 21) and Samson (no 22) tried on the Cowlairs Incline between Glasgow Queen Street High Level and Cowlairs. Rope haulage was used to assist locomotives pulling trains up this incline. The rope was dropped at the top of the incline. Brake vans were used going down into Glasgow Queen Street High Level.
04/03/1847Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway
Cowlairs Incline engine brought back into use, having been fitted with larger cylinders.
  /  /1848Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway
Give up using banking engines on the Cowlairs Incline.
26/08/1909Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway
End of cable haulage on the Cowlairs Incline.


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