The current East Lancashire Railway was originally opened in sections by two separate companies. The Manchester, Bury & Rossendale Railway built the first section in 1844, and in 1848 this was joined by a second branch operated by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. The latter company was responsible for both sections after they amalgamated in 1859, and every successive operator ran them as one.
In such an industrial area, the East Lancashire Railway was naturally very successful, and it also enjoyed high levels of passenger traffic. This continued after the Grouping of 1923 - when the line was absorbed into the London, Midland & Scottish Railway - and after Nationalisation, when it became part of British Rail.
In the 1950s passenger numbers began to decline, and following the Beeching Report of the early 1960s most of the line's passenger services were withdrawn. The final passenger trains were cancelled in 1972, by which time a preservation group had already formed. When freight services finally came to an end in December 1980, the way was finally clear for a heritage railway to operate.
In July 1987, the East Lancashire Railway opened as a heritage line, with regular passenger services between Bury and Ramsbottom. These were a great success, and in 1991 the line was extended a further four miles to Rawtenstall. The services extended even further to Heywood in 2003. Since its preservation, the railway has gone from strength to strength, and welcomed thousands of visitors annually - thanks in no small part to the beautiful scenery of the picturesque Irwell Valley.