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Mersey Railway
Liverpool to Birkenhead, Merseyside, UK
associated engineer
Sir James William Brunlees
Sir (Charles) Douglas Fox
date  December 1879 - 20th January 1886, , 1888, 1891, 11th January 1892
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  SJ336899
ICE reference number  HEW 1049
The Mersey Railway, now part of the Merseyrail underground network, was a huge undertaking. The creation of a rail line between Liverpool and Birkenhead involved constructing the first tunnel under the River Mersey. Indeed Mersey Railway featured Britain's second oldest sub-aqueous railway tunnel — after the Thames Tunnel of 1869. It was also the first complete line to change from steam to electric power.
Originally known as the Mersey Pneumatic Railway and intended to be air driven, the railway opted for steam power in 1868. Acts of Parliament in 1866 and 1871 incorporated the Mersey Railway Company and authorised a railway link between Liverpool and Birkenhead beneath the River Mersey. Subsequent Acts in 1882 and 1889 permitted extensions at either end.
Bedrock under the river is mainly Triassic sandstone but to establish its continuity and condition, between December 1879 and May 1881 a trial tunnel was bored. Permanent works commenced in August from both sides of the river and continued round the clock.
There are three tunnels in all — the 1.2km horseshoe shaped main tunnel and two circular ones 2.2m in diameter, one for ventilation and one for drainage. The running tunnel was excavated entirely by manual labour, between 9.1m and 21.3m below the river bed. The 244,700 cubic metres of arisings were winched to the surface through temporary shafts.
The main tunnel is lined with a 685mm thick layer of brickwork (six courses) set in cement mortar where it runs through sandstone. The brickwork is increased to eight courses where clay was encountered. It is 7.9m wide and 7m tall overall with 5.8m clearance between the rails and tunnel roof. There are recesses at 41.1m intervals on each side. The flanking tunnels are lined in four courses of brickwork. In addition to the double standard gauge tracks, telephone cables were laid in the running tunnel to improve cross-river communications.
Of necessity, the running tunnel has steep gradients, such as 1 : 27 and 1 : 30, to descend beneath the river. This governed the track design, which features steel bull-head rails weighing 42.7kg per metre with deep fish plates fixed into chairs of 24.5kg each. The 3m long sleepers are laid at 700mm centres on a ballasted bed of crushed sandstone topped with dry clinker ash.
The drainage tunnel falls from the centre to pumping shafts on each side of the river, 1.6km apart. The Liverpool shaft is 4.6m in diameter and the Birkenhead shaft 5.3m in diameter. Both are about 52m deep and lined with cast iron tubes where they pass through water-bearing strata. Each shaft has a sump of 364 cubic metres capacity at the bottom and pumps at ground level.
On 26th March 1883, a Beaumont Cutter — a tunnel boring machine powered by compressed air, invented by Colonel Beaumont of the Royal Engineers — was deployed at the Birkenhead drainage heading. This improved progress, and it met the hand-dug Liverpool drainage heading 585m from the Liverpool shaft on 17th January 1884.
The ventilation tunnel was also driven using the Beaumont Cutter and is 2.1km long between Whitechapel in Liverpool and Shore Road in Birkenhead. It connects with the running tunnel at intervals via sliding doors. Two fans — one 12.2m in diameter and 3.65m wide, and one 9.1m in diameter and 3.05m wide — each driven by a condensing engine, were placed at either end of the tunnel.
The running tunnel was completed by December 1885 and members of the public were allowed to walk through it before trains began operating. Though the 1,400 strong workforce had enjoyed electric light during construction, the public were conveyed through the tunnel in gaslight — and the station platforms illuminated by gas — as it was thought more reliable.
The two stations closest to the river — James Street and Hamilton Square — are deep level caverns 121.9m long, 15.2m wide and 9.75m high. There are staircases with more than 160 steps, but passengers are conveyed to the surface by lifts originally operated hydraulically. The hydraulic power came from 45 cubic metre capacity water tanks atop two of the tallest towers (52m high) ever built at British railway stations. Each station has three lifts capable of carrying 100 people, designed by William Edmund Rich, which were converted to electrical operation later.
James Street Station has a four-storey office building with hydraulic lifts travelling 23.4m from the train tunnel to the ground floor, but its water tower was destroyed during World War II. At Hamilton Square the lifts travel 26.75m vertically and the water tower is in place, dwarfing the station building.
The first 3.6km stretch of railway, from James Street to Green Lane, was opened on 20th January 1886 by the then Prince of Wales and passenger services began on 1st February. Both James Brunlees and Charles Douglas Fox received knighthoods for their work on the design of the Mersey Railway.
The line was extended west from Hamilton Square to Birkenhead Park in January 1888, where it connected with a branch of the Wirral Railway. In 1891 an eastern extension from Green Lane to Rock Ferry met the Chester & Birkenhead Joint Railway. On 11th January 1892, a further extension from James Street to an underground station below Liverpool Central was opened, increasing the total length of railway to 8.4km. This tunnel was constructed using the cut and cover technique and excavation was done manually (and mostly at night) because explosives were banned in the city centre.
Despite the four ventilation fans, the railway's tank locomotives filled the air below ground with smoke and soot. The high cost of running the fans and the drainage pumps contributed to a period of bankruptcy for the Mersey Railway Company between 1887 and 1900. The last steam train ran on 2nd May 1903 and the line was electrified by a third rail carrying 650V direct current, with electric trains operating the next day. This solved the ventilation problems and combated competition from the ferries.
By the 1930s the railway transported some 17m passengers per year. In 1938 it was integrated with the Wirral branch of the London Midland & Scottish Railway, followed by nationalisation in 1948. Merseytravel became transport authority for Merseyside in 1968 and the railway was rebranded as Merseyrail in 1971.
Between 1972 and 1977 the system was modified with a link tunnel and a loop line, closing Liverpool Exchange Station. The two Merseyrail lines — Wirral and northern — formed the basis of the modern network, with new rolling stock from 1978 and further extensions in 1985, 1993 and 1994.
Merseyrail Electrics was created in 1995 following the privatisation of British Rail. It is the busiest UK commuter network outside London and now has 66 stations. It is officially one of the country’s safest rail networks. Today’s journey from Liverpool Central to Rock Ferry takes 12 minutes — only three minutes quicker than in 1900.
Assistant engineer (1881-6): Francis Fox
Resident engineer (1881-6): Archibald H Irvine
Resident engineer (1892): Charles Arthur Rowlandson
Assistant resident engineer (1881-6): Ernest S Wilson
Assistant resident engineer (1892): John Fright
Main contractor (1879-86): Major Samuel Isaac
Subcontractor (1881-6): John Waddell & Sons
Pumping engines: Hathorn Davey & Co, Leeds
Hydraulic lifts: Easton & Anderson
Signals: Railway Signal Company, Fazakerly
Locomotives: Beyer Peacock & Co
Train carriages: Ashbury Carriage Company
Electrification (1903): British Westinghouse
Research: ECPK
"The Mersey Railway (Includes Plates and Cut)" by Francis Fox
ICE Proceedings, Vol.86, pp.40-59, London, January 1886
"The Hydraulic Passenger Lifts at the Underground Stations of the Mersey Railway (Including Appendix and Plate at back of Volume)"
by William Edmund Rich, ICE Proceedings, Vol.86, pp.60-79
London, January 1886
"The Bold Street Extension Tunnel and Central Low Level Station of the Mersey Railway" by Charles Arthur Rowlandson, ICE Proceedings, Vol.123, pp.357-368, London, January 1896
reference sources   CEH NorthBDCE2BRH

Mersey Railway