The line between New Holland and Grimsby was opened by the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR) in 1848 as a link between the embryonic port of Grimsby and the major city and port of Hull via the New Holland ferry across the river Humber. The main line from Manchester, via the important towns of Sheffield and Doncaster, and another from the county town of Lincoln, were completed the following year as was a branch line to the major market town of Barton. A main line linking Grimsby to London via Louth was simultaneously opened by the Great Northern Railway. The MS&LR also developed substantial dock facilities at Grimsby and New Holland.

As demand for seaside recreation grew the MS&LR extended a line from Grimsby to Cleethorpes in 1863 and transformed the fishing hamlet into a major resort. Work started on massive new dock facilities at Immingham in 1906. A connecting line from Ulceby to Immingham Dock was opened in 1910, and another from Goxhill to Killingholme and Immingham was opened in 1911.  Rail spurs were later also provided to a tilery near Barrow Haven and a fertiliser plant at Barton. An extension from Barton to what is now Scunthorpe had been mooted from the start, the land for the alignment being bought in the early years of the 20th century, but was abandoned following the lean times of the inter-war years. The railway was of strategic importance during World War Two in serving the bomber airfields at Goxhill and at Killingholme near Ulceby.

The ferry link to Hull always was a significant success but, as in the rest of the nation, the railway element began to suffer in the 1950s from road competition. Following the Beeching report of 1963 the line, but not the ferry, was the subject of proposals for closure. However it survived two public enquiries - in 1963 and 1967. Apart from some 70 expressions of hardship from members of the public, the chief reason for reprieve was to facilitate the pending substantial industrial development of the area served by the line. This development has only materialised in part although there are now renewed and significant plans and opportunities for further substantial growth. Two other lines in the area did, however, succumb to closure; the light railway between Goxhill and Immingham in 1963 and the main line from Grimsby to London via Louth in 1970. The freight-only line between Ulceby and Immingham Dock remains and is now one of the busiest in the nation. The substantial dock facilities at New Holland had been a great success for over a century and a sizable railway colony had developed in the town. But these too were allowed to deteriorate to the point that by the late 1960s only the ferry service survived.  In 1969, in an attempt to cut costs, most of the stations along the line were de-staffed and paytrains were introduced.  Then in 1973, under British Rail's Operation Eyesore, many of the station buildings were demolished.

When the Humber bridge was opened in 1981 the ferry service was simultaneously withdrawn and replaced by a new Humberlink bus service over the bridge. This was with the express purpose of connecting with the trains at Barton to maintain the link with Hull for all the communities down the line to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. The demand for this connection has remained buoyant and an added advantage is that the end stop in Hull is now adjacent to the principal Paragon railway station and bus interchange. The railway facilities at New Holland were reduced to just a single wooden platform with a bus-type shelter but the dock and pier saw renewed vigour at the hands of two importing companies.

Although the train service remained hourly it became increasingly unreliable to the point that it was considered better to reduce it in 1990 to a more stable two-hourly service. Finally the winter Sunday service was withdrawn in 1999 when the recently formed unitary authorities (North Lincolnshire Council and North East Lincolnshire Council) felt that they could not afford the subsidies that had hitherto been funded by the superseded Humberside County Council. When bus deregulation was introduced nationally in 1985 the connection with the trains at Barton was no longer mandatory. This unsatisfactory state of affairs was not mitigated until 2009 when the Humberlink service was re-branded as the Humber FastCat and the frequency was doubled during the daytime.

Since 1981 the railway has become known as the Barton Line and from December 2012 it was named the Humberlinc Line.  Somewhat miraculously, with the exception of New Holland Pier, none of the 14 stations between Barton and Cleethorpes has been closed. It is the endeavour of the Friends of the Barton Line to ensure that it stays that way.