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Liverpool Overhead Railway, site of
Liverpool, UK
Liverpool Overhead Railway, site of
associated engineer
Sir (Charles) Douglas Fox
James Henry Greathead
Thomas Parker
date  October 1889 - 4th February 1893
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  SJ338903
photo  courtesy Bev Parker
As Liverpool Docks expanded during the 19th century, the growing vehicular and foot traffic on the long dock estate road led to congestion and delays for businesses moving commercial goods. For several years, operators ran modified road omnibuses on the goods railway that was there, but they were not the most satisfactory solution.
Steam traction had been considered, but was rejected as a fire risk. An elevated railway, to link the warehouses and docks, was first suggested in 1852 by John Grantham. However, it was not until 1888, that the Liverpool Overhead Railway Company was formed by Sir William Forwood (1840-1928) and other leading citizens, and obtained parliamentary consent for an overhead railway.
Engineers Sir Douglas Fox (1840-1921) and James Henry Greathead (1844-1896), who planned the new line, took note of the construction and operating methods of American overhead railways but developed a model of their own with greater regard for aesthetic qualities. The first (and main) section of their Liverpool railway to open ran from Alexandra Dock in the north to Herculaneum Dock in the south, via Pier Head (now part of the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City UNESCO World Heritage Site) — about 8km.
The elevated structure was made of wrought iron girders placed at a distance of 7m, centre to centre, supported on columns built up from steel plates and girders, with a normal span of 15m. The rails were mostly 5m above road level but this also varied in places. The rails, of flat-bottomed section, were laid on longitudinal timbers fixed to the decking.
Work started in October 1889 at the northern end, with part of the North Mersey goods yard of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway established as a base. Individual bridge spans were assembled here and transported to their intended positions on the columns erected in advance along the roadside route.
Sections were brought from Hamilton Ironworks in Garston where they were manufactured. An ingenious jig, involving cranes mounted on a moveable gantry, was developed by Edward Ives to avoid disrupting dock traffic. Each span was moved on a trolley to the end of the line. After the cranes took hold of a span, it was moved into place by the gantry, and lowered and fixed into position on waiting columns.
Four special bowstring girder bridges were constructed for the railway to cross wider cross-streets, with a maximum span of 30m. Hydraulic lifting sections were provided at Brunswick, Sandon and Langton docks to enable goods access. To allow shipping access to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Stanley Dock, a combined lifting and swing bridge was installed, the lower lifting section carrying the road and goods railway.
The decision to go with electric trains was a brave one because the technology was still very much in its infancy. The Electric Construction Corporation (ECC, see the biography of Thomas Parker) won the contract to design and carry out the electrical work, and agreed to provide and maintain engines, boilers, electric lights, conductors, signals, carriages, switches and indeed all appliances. It took responsibility for the running of the system for two years, and was thanked at the end of that period for the railway's smooth operation.
Bramley-Moore Dock was chosen as the location for the generating station as it could receive coal from the overhead branch line via hoppers and conveyors. Electric current was generated by six Lancashire boilers and four steam horizontal engines by Messrs Musgrave of Bolton, each driving a separate Elwell-Parker dynamo capable of jointly working up to 2,000hp. The generating station remained in use until its closure in 1927. Electricity was then obtained from Liverpool Corporation Electric Supply Department.
From the dynamos, the current was carried along copper conductors through switches into the railroad. Hinged conductors of cast iron, sliding on the main conductor, made the connection between the 60hp motor on the two-carriage trains and the dynamos at the generating station. The carriages were mounted on four-wheeled bogies, one of which carried the motor. At one end of each carriage was a driver box and switch and brake gear, so there was no need for shunting at the terminal stations — the driver just had to change ends.
The trains accommodated 16 first class and 40 third class passengers (later, three-carriage trains carried up to 140 people). The carriages were supplied by Brown, Marshall & Co. They featured low curved roofs, with those of the motor units curved downwards at the front end. The interiors were of the open or saloon type, with centre aisles and seats back-to-back — plain wood in third class, leather covered in first. First class ceilings were decorated, third class plain white with brown ribbing.
The first section of railway included a total of 567 spans. The route was not straight. Some sections had severe curves that placed a restriction on the length of carriages and caused wear to the wheels. This was overcome by a system of automatic lubrication developed by Mr E Neachell.
Standard gauge was used, and there were initially 13 stations (later 17). The railway was double track, with crossovers at each intermediate station, and double crossovers at the terminals. The maximum distance between any two stations was 365m, and the minimum distance 92m. The journey took about 30 minutes, including station stops. All the stations (except one) were located on the elevated structure and, in general, consisted of an up and a down platform complete with timber waiting shelters. The chief station was Pier Head, which had a more elaborate timber and iron structure. It was the busiest as it connected people with trams, buses and ferries.
Liverpool Overhead Railway was opened officially by the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903, Lord Robert Cecil, later Prime Minister) on the 4th February 1893. Public services commenced on the 6th March. The project cost £510,000 and used a total of 23,000 tonnes of iron and steel.
In April 1894, a northwards extension opened to Seaforth Sands, serving the residential districts of Seaforth and Waterloo. In December 1896, a southward extension opened to Dingle, completing the 10km line. Constructing Dingle Station involved building a 61m steel lattice girder bridge and digging an 800m tunnel beneath the streets to get to the terminal station in Park Road, Dingle.
The railway introduced a number of innovations over the years, including automatic signaling and electric colour light signals (which replaced the automatic semaphore system in 1921). It was also home to the first railway escalator, which was installed at Seaford Sands in 1901, and was known as the "Reno Inclined Elevator". It was replaced in 1905 by a lift — apparently it had an unfortunate reputation for tearing clothing.
The Overhead Railway became very popular with Liverpudlians and was referred to locally as the "Dockers' Umbrella". By 1919, it carried an estimated 22 million passengers a year.
The line was badly damaged by bombing during the World War II (1939-1945). James Street Station was totally destroyed, and at Canada Dock two complete spans were blasted off their columns and the line covered in rubble. However, the railway was considered so important to the workings of the docks that every effort was made to repair it after each air raid.
In 1955, a report revealed that the decking had developed serious corrosion and major repairs. The estimated cost was more than £2m, which the company could not afford. Despite a public outcry, the railway closed at the end of 1956 and its structures were dismantled in the following year.
Liverpool Overhead Railway was Britain's first and only elevated electric line. An original carriage is on display in the Museum of Liverpool.
Wrought iron: Hamilton Ironworks
Electrical engineering: Electric Construction Corporation
Steam horizontal engines: Messrs Musgrave of Bolton
Carriages: Brown, Marshall & Company Ltd of Birmingham
Research: AR
"Seventeen Stations to Dingle" by John W Gahan, Birkenhead Press, 1982
"The Liverpool Overhead Railway" by Peter Grant, PCP UK, 2011
"Battery Trams of the British Isles" by David Voice, Adam Gordon, 2011
"The Dockers Umbrella – A history of the Liverpool Overhead Railway" by Paul Bolger, The Bluecoat Press, 1992

Liverpool Overhead Railway, site of