The Bowes Railway, the first part of which opened on 17 January 1826, was designed by George Stephenson (1781-1848) to carry coal from Monk Moor pit at Black Fell and other coal mines in north-west Durham across the Team Valley to staithes at Jarrow on the south bank of the River Tyne, where it was loaded into sea-going ships. After several extensions its total length in 1855 was 24 km. Its central section, about 8 km. in length consisted of two rope-worked inclined planes crossing the valley of the River Team. The system passed into the control of the National Coal Board when mines were nationalised in 1947, and was scarcely altered until the late 1960s. Coal ceased to be carried over the two inclines in 1974 after the closure of the Springwell Colliery, although some use was made of the Jarrow end of the line until 1986. The two inclines were acquired for preservation in 1976, and the workshops of the Springwell Colliery, which provided a base for preservation activities in the following year. The line was designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and was granted museum status in 2002.
The railway has suffered from arson attacks and the withdrawal of local authority funding. Its future is uncertain but it remains open at some weekends. Visitors can travel a short distance by a steam- or diesel-hauled train from the Springwell workshops to the top of the west incline and view the 300 h.p. electric winding engine, supplied in 1950 by Metropolitan-Vickers. Buildings at the Springwell site include a lofty wagon shop, originally built in 1854 as a coal bunker for the colliery.