When the Liverpool & Manchester Railway (L&M) opened on 16 September 1830 it had at its westernmost extent a large goods station in the heart of Liverpool’s dockland at Wapping. At first the Wapping Goods station served the railway well but within a decade the docks had expanded northwards and the newer docks could take larger ships. Waterloo and Victoria docks opened between 1830 and 1836 and the L&M was keen to have a goods facility close to them. In 1845 the L&M obtained an Act for a 2 mile 23 chain line from their station at Edge Hill to Waterloo Road which was very close to both the Waterloo and the Victoria docks. On 8 August 1845 the L&M was taken over by the Grand Junction Railway which became part of the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) when it was formed on 16 July 1846.
Work began on the branch in 1845. The double-track line ran almost entirely underground in two tunnels: Victoria Tunnel (1 mile 947yd) and Waterloo Tunnel which was 852yd in length. At the western end of the line a large goods station called Waterloo was built. The Waterloo branch, as the line became known, opened on 1 August 1849.
At Edge Hill the line entered the Victoria Tunnel. When it opened it was the longest tunnel on the LNWR network. The western portal was in a cutting at Byrom Street. The cutting was 70yd long and had a bridge across it that carried Hodson Street.
At the west end of the Byrom Street cutting the line entered the Waterloo Tunnel. Its western portal was at Pall Mall where the line entered a brick-lined cutting. It then passed under two single- arch bridges, both designed by John Hawkshaw, an engineer of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway (LYR). The first bridge was constructed from iron and it was at street level. The second stood 60ft above the Waterloo branch and was of brick. It carried LYR lines into Great Howard Street goods station and was known as the ‘Grand Arch’. To the west of the ‘Grand Arch’ the line passed under Great Howard Street which was carried by a double-arched iron bridge wide enough for four tracks to pass under. To the west of Great Howard Street was the Waterloo Goods station.
At the time of opening the up line through Victoria tunnel was operated by cable, there being a steam-powered static engine housed within a building at Edge Hill station. Locomotives worked up trains from Waterloo Goods station to Byrom Street cutting where they came off and went into a siding. The wagons were then attached to the cable and worked up to Edge Hill. Down direction trains were worked through the Victoria tunnel by gravity. At Byron Street a locomotive was attached for the run through the Waterloo tunnel. On the down side line there was a water tank at Byrom Street which enabled locomotives to be filled there.
Cable working continued until February 1895. Plans had already been drawn up to introduce locomotive working but following an incident when the cable snapped the process was speeded up. One of the incentives for the introduction of locomotive working was the proposed introduction of passenger services onto the branch to serve a new waterfront station called Liverpool Riverside. The new station opened on 12 June 1895 and passenger trains started to operate. The passenger trains were express services that connected Liverpool Riverside to London Euston for the benefit of trans-Atlantic liner passengers.
For the introduction of passenger trains better signalling was needed. Signal boxes were opened at each end of the branch. At the eastern end was the Waterloo Tunnel Mouth signal box. The name was curious as the adjacent tunnel mouth was that of the Victoria Tunnel. The box opened in June 1895; it was an LNWR type 4 with a 25-lever tumbler frame and located on the south side of the Waterloo line to the north of the lines that came up to Edge Hill from Liverpool Lime Street. At the western end of the line was the Waterloo Goods signal box. It was an LNWR type 4 with a 36-lever frame and was on the south side of the line. At Byrom Street cutting the sidings were removed and a catch point with sand drag was installed on the up side.
On 4 July 1899 there was a serious accident on the Waterloo branch when a up (Edge Hill direction) goods train split inside the Victoria Tunnel. The rear portion of the train started to roll backwards towards Waterloo and by the time the guard realised what had happened it had picked up speed. At Byrom Street it hit the catch points and the runaway portion of the train came off the line and smashed into the cutting wall killing 2 people including the guard. The driver of a down (Waterloo direction) goods train saw what was happening and was able to brake in enough time to avoid running into the wreckage of the runaway at speed. Although the down train hit the wreckage only three of its wagons became derailed. The enquiry that followed found that a faulty coupling was to blame, but the imperfection that led to its failure was not visible on the exterior so could not have been detected.
The Waterloo branch became part of the London Midland & Scottish Railway on 1 January 1923 and of British Railways on 1 January 1948.
During the life of the branch it carried millions of tons of freight and hundreds of thousands of passengers. Decline set in during the 1960s. Waterloo Goods station closed to public goods on 30 September 1963 but private traffic operated after that date.
Waterloo Goods signal box closed on Sunday 6 September 1970 by which time all goods traffic had ceased. The double-track line between Waterloo Goods station and the Waterloo Tunnel Mouth signal box at Edge Hill became single track on the same day that the former down line was made redundant. Waterloo Road Crossing ground frame and signals were dispensed with and replaced with ‘Stop and await instructions’ boards.
The last passenger train ran from Liverpool Riverside on 25 February 1971. Waterloo Tunnel Mouth signal box was out of use by19 December 1973 and it was abolished on 1 September 1974. The Waterloo branch was lifted shortly after.
Both tunnels were extant in 2015 although the Waterloo had been partly infilled at its western portal. At the eastern end of the Victoria Tunnel there was still a section of track used as part of a run-round facility for freight trains.