Merseyside was the cradle
for Britain's 20th century suburban railway
In the last decade of the nineteenth century a railway
line was opened along the length of Liverpool's dock estate that was to become
both a distinctive feature of the city and a trend-setter for future urban
transportation over the following decades. It was known as The Liverpool
Overhead Railway (LOR) as it was built on an elevated iron structure along
the length of the Dock Road. It was built as a result of considerable congestion
on the roads serving the docks which urgently needed better service. The
LOR achieved this with a frequent and swift service of trains serving the
closely spaced stations along its length. The line was locally prominent
because of the nature of it's construction, but nationally important as a
result of how it was operated. The trains were powered by electricity, at
the time of opening in 1893 it was the first open air all electric railway
in Britain. The trains themselves combined both traction and passenger carriage
into one self contained two coach unit which dispensed with the need for
locomotives. In less than half a century more passenger journeys in Britain
were being made on trains that worked on the same principle.
Images of the Liverpool Overhead Railway. The elevated structure can be see weaving through the city's dock area.
(photos By J. Ryan courtesy of J. Peden Collection)
The suburban lines into Liverpool were prime targets for electrification and
the first railway in Britain to convert from steam to electric operation
was the Mersey Railway in 1903 when they electrified their line from the
city to Birkenhead and Rock Ferry. It is a fact that prior to electrification
the Mersey Railway were on the verge of bankruptcy due to low patronage caused
by the choking atmosphere created by the steam trains in the tunnel under
the river. Birkenhead certainly owes it's direct railway link with Liverpool
to the invention of the electric train !
The railway also pioneered huge leaps in suburban railway
infrastructure, the most notable being the use of signals that were worked
automatically by the passage of the trains. These factors allowed the LOR
to provide an intense urban railway service that was unequaled any where
in the country. Liverpool had set new standards and the rest of Britain was
quick to follow the inventiveness of the LOR and suburban electrification
was initiated in all larger cities.
By 1915 Merseyside had an electrified suburban network
that was only bettered, in terms of mileage, by London. The Lancashire
and Yorkshire Railway had, from 1904, commenced electrifying their busy commuter routes that ran
into Liverpool Exchange station from Southport, Crossens and Ormskirk.
Electrification continued during the pre war years with
the Wirral lines from Birkenhead to West Kirby and New Brighton being electrified
in 1938 under the management of the London Midland & Scottish Railway.
By linking up with the Mersey Railway system this gave travellers
from these districts an uninterrupted journey by swift and efficient electric
trains directly into the city. At this time modernisation to stations and
signalling was also carried out by the LMS to the Wirral and former L &
Y routes out of Liverpool Exchange including replacement of the old rolling
stock by state of the art designs.
The system survived even the Beeching era intact and is
now a suburban network that is ready to face the needs of the next century.
The opening of the underground tunnels and extensions in the late 70s created
an integrated suburban system that, like the LOR 80 years earlier, set a
new standard of urban and suburban transportation from which other cities
have taken their future policy.