The Manchester & Leeds Railway Company (M&LR) was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1836 which authorised the construction of line from Manchester to Leeds, joining with the existing North Midland Railway at Normanton, near Wakefield.
The route, which was superintended by George Stephenson, ran northeast from Manchester to Littleborough before passing through the 1½ mile long Summit Tunnel to enter Yorkshire along the Upper Calder Valley through to Cooper Bridge.
A rival scheme, the Huddersfield & Leeds Railway, that proposed to build a line from Huddersfield to Leeds, via Cooper Bridge and Normanton, was withdrawn in February 1836. As part of the settlement, the M&LR agreed to survey a branch line from Cooper Bridge to Huddersfield, although this was later abandoned after strong local opposition in Huddersfield to a low-level valley line with a terminus station. Instead, local support was eventually given to the rival Huddersfield & Manchester Railway & Canal Company who proposed to build a through line from Cooper Bridge to Stalybridge, to connect through to Manchester via the Ashton, Stalybridge & Liverpool Junction Railway.
The line opened in three stages: from Manchester to Littleborough in 1839, from Hebden Bridge to Normanton in 1840, and finally the line through Summit Tunnel in 1841.
On 17 November 1846, the company acquired the West Riding Union Railway (WRUR), which itself was an amalgamation of three earlier companies:
The Manchester & Leeds Railway became the major constituent part of the newly formed Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway (L&YR) in July 1847, along with: