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The Liverpool Overhead Railway

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In the 19th Century, Liverpool was the second busiest port in the world. The roads up and down the dock were congested with people, carts and horses, and although there were sets of tracks along the roads, the horse-drawn carriages often had to take to the tarmac to avoid obstacles, making uncomfortable riding for the passengers. A mass transit system was needed to move people off the roads.

The Plan

A plan for a high-level railway in Liverpool's docklands had been muted by the engineer John Grantham as far back as 1853. These plans were blocked by the dock's engineer, Jesse Hartley, who knew that the railway would make his plans to expand the docks far too costly. It was Hartley who built the surface track along the docks, ironically causing the congestion which firmed up the case for the overhead railway.

In 1877 Alfred Holt, a ship owner, suggested that what the docks needed was an overhead tramway much like the then-recent New York Elevated Railroad, commonly known as the 'El'. The original plan was for a single track system with passing loops, but it was thought that a line of this design would not be likely to have sufficient capacity for the projected number of passengers. A new plan for a fully double trackline was proposed. The track was to run from the most northerly docks in Bootle, along the dock road past the Pier Head, and onto the most southerly dock, Herculaneum. The tracks would run over the top of the existing dock railway, with the total projected length of the line being just over six miles.

A report on the plan suggested that the system would need the revenue from eight million journeys per year just to break even, but the most immediate problem would be getting permission to build. The Mersey Docks & Harbour Board (MDHB) was not given permission to build the railway by the UK Parliament, with concerns being expressed that since the MDHB was a non-profit organisation, it would not be able to manage the railway. A new company, The Liverpool Overhead Railway Company, was formed in 1888. The land for the Railway was to be leased from the MDHB, but the Railway Company had the powers for compulsory purchase, so in effect the MDHB had found itself a nice way to pick up cheap land.

The Docker's Umbrella

Two features made the Liverpool Overhead Railway (LOR) different from other elevated railways that had come before it. The New York 'El' has gaps in between the rails where litter can fall down onto the street below, and it was decided that this was unwanted on the LOR, so the entire track bed was made of rolled steel sheets. The track ran across the tops of long blocks of timber which were themselves attacked to the track bed. The steel track bed sheltered everything underneath the railway, thus giving the LOR its nickname, the Docker's Umbrella.

The choice of motive power was the other thing that made the LOR unique it its time. Steam power was deemed unsuitable, as the builders did not want sparks flying off the line onto people below, and also steam locomotives were quite heavy. The line was being built to a tight budget and they couldn't afford to make a structure strong enough to support a steam locomotive and train. The solution was an electric multiple unit1, which would draw power from a third rail in the middle of the track. It would be quick, clean and it wouldn't ignite any cargo (or people) underneath. The decision to go electric was made in 1861, and may have been influenced by London's newly opened City and South London Line. The LOR was the first electric elevated rail system in the world, and one of the first rail systems anywhere with automatic signalling.

The Company had to raise £3,450,000 (the equivalent of around £329 million in 2006) to get the railway built, and also had to build their own power station. The MDHB were persuaded to invest heavily, but the other railway companies in the city did not invest, as they weren't really trusted. This would ensure that the LOR would remain independent throughout its life. The Company appointed Sir Douglas Fox and JH Greathead as consulting engineers, while JW Willans of Manchester was appointed the building contractor. Douglas's brother Sir Francis Fox and SB Cotterell did a lot of the work.

The whole line was built on bridges 16 feet2 in the air. It was planned that all the bridge spans would be of a standard length of 50 feet3, but in the end the spans could be anything from 30 to 70 feet4 long. They were lifted into place by a moving gantry crane, making it possible to lay up to 600ft5 of track bed per week. Once the bed was in place, the rails could be easily attached.

The railway was finished in January, 1893 and was opened by Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister at the time, on 4 February, 1893. The line had cost £3,466,000 (£331 million in 2006) to build. The first trains started running that March, with the LOR being the fourth metropolitan rail system to be opened in the world, after the London Underground and the USA's two elevated railways in New York and Chicago.

A Success Story

The railway was a success, although once the working day was over, very few people actually used the railway. Extensions were built into residential areas. Within a year the line had extended to Seaforth Sands in the north, two years later the line into Dingle opened.

1897 saw the railway hit the magic number of eight million journeys a year, meaning that it could begin making money. In 1906, the line extended to join the Lancashire & Yorkshire railway that ran from Liverpool Exchange to Southport6 and the Aintree Racecourse7. Most trains ran just to the first station on the Southport line, this being Seaford and Litherland. This allowed LOR trains to get passengers from the outer suburbs, and also presented the opportunity to run race day specials to Aintree. The railway was also a tourist attraction in its own right and gave visitors to the city a great view over the Mersey docks.

By the end of the First World War the rolling stock was getting old. Despite making a profit, there was not enough money to buy new trains so all the old ones were completely refurbished. 1919 saw 19 million passenger journeys, the railway's peak figure, but hard times were around the corner.

The End of the Line

A number of factors put pay to the Liverpool Overhead Railway. The first was a change in the way the docks worked, with the telephone meaning that fewer messengers needed to pop from dock to dock. Ships were getting bigger and fewer, and eventually some cargoes and passengers started to travel by air. The economic decline of the 1920s and 1930s hit the LOR hard.

Another reason was the Corporation of Liverpool itself, which ran the tram service. Trams, while slower, were much more flexible and reached many more suburbs than the railway. Because the Corporation subsidised it, the tram network's fares were much cheaper than train fares. Being 16 feet in the air, the LOR had much higher maintenance costs than other railways, with seven miles worth of bridge and supports having to be maintained as well as the tracks and stations. By 1954 the iron and steel was corroding, and a detailed study took place to see how much money it would take to repair and how long it would take to make a profit again. The numbers just did not add up.

The line closed at the end of December 1956. The demolition process that started near the end of 1957 meant that very little of the line remains today.

Other Lines

While The Liverpool Overhead Railway is probably the most famous of the Railway lines in Liverpool Dock, there were many others. A goods-only railway ran under the entire length of the Overhead Railway and had tracks branching off into most of the docks. Some of the tracks of this railway still exist. The mainline railways all wanted their pieces of the action. The London and North Western Railway, London Midland and Scottish, the Cheshire Lines Committee8 and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway all had goods and passenger terminals up and down the port.


Most stations on the line were of similar design, with two uncovered platforms. Each station was connected to street level by sets of stairs. Like all of the line, they were 16 feet above street level. From north to south, the stations were:

  • Seaforth Sands
  • Seaforth Sands was opened in 1894 as the line was extended from Alexandra Dock. The station was enclosed by a roof. Britain's second escalator was installed at the station in 1901 to improve access, but the resultant compensation claims from women who had their long dresses ripped meant that it only lasted five years.

    The LOR started a tram service from the station to Crosby in 1900. In 1905 an extension to a junction with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway was opened9. The station was seriously damaged in February 1956 after an arson attack. The station was repaired but was closed along with the rest of the line at the end of the year.

    The station stood next to carriage sheds, just to the west of Cosby Road South, Knowsley Road and Rimrose Road. It was next to Gladstone Dock station on the surface line and served the Gladstone Docks.

  • Gladstone Dock
  • This station opened in 1930 and shouldn't be confused with the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) station of the same name which was situated further to the north. The station was built to serve the newly opened Gladstone Dock complex, and since the station backed onto the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) goods yard, only the northbound platform had access to the street. Passengers wanting to head south had to use one of the two footbridges to cross the tracks. The station was in the dock estate, west of Regent Road and Grove Street.

  • Alexandra Dock
  • Serving the Alexandra Docks complex, this was the original northern terminus of the line when it was built in 1893. The station sat next to Regent Road, south of Church Street. It was just south of the huge LMS North Mersey and Alexandra Docks Goods Station.

  • Langton Dock
  • The station opened in 1896 and closed in 1906, and there is now no trace left of the short-lived station. It sat west of Regent Road next to Langton Branch Dock, with Alexandra Dock terminus on the LNWR just to the east.

  • Brocklebank Dock
  • This station served Brocklebank Dock and Timber Slipway. It sat west of Regent Road between Seymour Street and Millers Bridge.

  • Canada Dock
  • This station lay west of Regent Road near its junction with Bankfield Street, and was next to Canada Branch Dock No 1 and Canada Graving Dock. Canada Dock station on the LNWR and Bankfield & Canada Dock Station on the Lancashire and Yorkshire were both situated on the opposite side of Regent Road.

  • Huskinsson Dock
  • This station opened 1896 as a replacement for Sandon Dock Station, serving Huskinsson Docks and the north part of Sandon docks. The station stood west of Regent Road near Sandhills Lane and next to Huskinsson Branch Dock No 1. The Cheshire Lines Railway's Sandon & Canada Goods Station stood to the east.

  • Sandon Dock
  • This station opened up with the line but only lasted until 1896, when it was replaced by Nelson Dock and Huskinsson Dock stations. It was at the south end of the Sandon & Canada Goods Station.

  • Nelson Dock
  • This station opened 1896 as a replacement for Sandon Dock station, and served Bramley-Moore Dock and Nelson Dock. The Lancashire and Yorkshire's North Dock Goods Station and Cattle Station were just to the east. The station was just to the south of the junction of Waterloo Street and Fulton Street.

  • Clarence Dock
  • This station lay between the Clarence Graving Docks and the junction of Waterloo Road and Saltney Street. It also served the Trafalgar Docks complex, Salisbury Dock, Collingwood Dock and Stanley Dock. It was just south of the massive Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse10 and north of the Power Station by Trafalgar Docks. The station was closed briefly in 1906.

  • Princes Dock
  • Prices Dock Station sat at the junction of Waterloo Road and Roberts Street. It served the Waterloo Dock complex, Prince's Half Tide Dock and Prince's Dock. The '85 Railway line from Liverpool Waterloo Station to Liverpool Riverside ran almost under the station. During the war Princes Dock station was hit by a bomb and was too badly damaged to be repaired.

  • Pier Head
  • Pier Head was the busiest station on the line, forming an interchange with the Pier Head tram station and Mersey Ferry terminal. It was also one of the nearest stations to the city centre. Being a busy station, the platforms were covered. The station was on Strand Street just outside the Royal Liver building.

  • James Street
  • James Street station formed the interchange with the underground railway coming from Birkenhead under the Mersey, and was at the junction of Strand Street and James Street.

  • Custom House
  • Custom House station opened outside Liverpool's magnificent Customs and Excise building, and was situated between Canning Dock and Salthouse dock near the Albert Dock. During the war the building was destroyed by the Germans. The station was renamed Canning in 1947 to avoid confusion. As the station for the customs building, it was deemed prestigious enough to be a fully covered station.

  • Wapping Dock
  • Wapping Dock station is one of the only parts of the line where a trace still remains. Some of the iron support struts still exist on the warehouse-turned apartment block on the west side of Challonor Street opposite the junction with Blundell Street. The station served the Wapping, Kings and Queens docks.

  • Brunswick Dock
  • This station was situated on Sefton Street and served Brunswick and Coburg docks. The LMS railway had a few goods stations just to the east of the station.

  • Toxteth Dock
  • Toxteth Dock station was situated at the junction of Sefton Street and Park Street, with the modern-day Tower Street running along the course of the old line. The station served Toxteth Dock, and the LMS railway had goods stations and depots just to the west while the Cheshire Lines Committee had a large goods station to the east.

  • Herculaneum Dock
  • This was the original southern terminus between 1893 and 1896. When the line into Dingle was being built, it became clear that the original station which sat facing onto Herculaneum Dock could not be used, and so a new station was opened a few hundred meters further north and sat on the side of Harrington Dock.

    The Dingle line passed to the east of the old station which was converted into carriage sheds.

  • Dingle
  • The extension to Dingle opened in 1896. This was the only section of line that was in a tunnel, bored into the sandstone rock. The line passed the edge of Herculaneum Dock on a steel trellis bridge, crossing the Cheshire Lines route to Hunts Cross and heading into a tunnel under Dingle. The station was opposite the bus station off Park Road near Dingle Lane. The Cheshire Lines railway had their own goods yard built underneath the entrance to the LOR's tunnel. In 1901 a train arrived on fire, with the air flowing though the tunnel fanning the flames. Six people died in the disaster and the station was closed for a year.

    More of the line around Dingle remains than anywhere else. The tunnel portal, long since sealed, is still visible, as is the entrance to the station.

1These are trains in which each carriage has its own electric motor.25 metres.315 metres.49 to 21 metres.5182 metres.6The current route of the Merseyrail Northern Line.7This line has long since closed.8A company that was owned by a number of other companies.9See above.10This was the biggest building in the world when it opened in 1901.

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