By the 1880’s, Liverpool’s dock network was virtually complete. So too was the congestion along the Dock Road, as carriages, omnibuses, lorries, carts and drays all plied the route. Numerous railway crossings which connected goods stations and dockside lines only added to the confusion. With increasing trade, it became clear that passenger traffic had to be isolated from the cargo routes in the interest of efficiency.
An elevated railway had been proposed as early as 1852 but came to nothing. It emerged again, in 1877, when the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board sought permission for a single line with passing loops at stations.
This was rejected as being insufficient to meet the likely needs of the rapidly growing port but, five years later, an improved scheme did receive sanction. Unfortunately, at that time, the company had reviewed its policy towards transporting the public and, once again, nothing was done.
Finally, in 1888, a prominent group of businessmen formed the Liverpool Overhead Railway Company and obtained the Dock Board’s powers by an Act of Transfer. Two leading engineers, Sir Douglas Fox and James Henry Greathead, were commissioned to design the railway and work commenced in October 1889.
Amongst the many problems encountered was the decision as to motive power. Steam was considered too dangerous to the many flammable cargoes within range of locomotive sparks.
This was one of the reasons electric traction was chosen, in 1891; other advantages being economy, speed, cleanliness and quiet running. Work was completed in January, 1893, and the line was formally opened on February 4th that year by the Marquis of Salisbury. Public transport commenced on March 6th.
The Overhead was the world’s first electric elevated railway and the first to be protected by electric automatic signals. The line stretched from the Seaforth Carriage Shed to Herculaneum Dock, with public services beginning and terminating at Alexandra Dock in the north. There were eleven intermediate stations at Brocklebank, Canada, Sandon, Clarence, Princes, Pier Head, James Street, Custom House, Wapping, Brunswick and Toxteth. However, it was soon found that receipts outside working hours were poor and a decision was taken to extend the line and to tap residential areas. A short extension to Seaforth sands was opened on April 30th, 1894, followed by another to Dingle on December 21, 1896.
Dingle (Park Road) was reached by spanning the Cheshire Lines goods yard with a 200 foot lattice girder bridge and by boring a half-mile tunnel through the sandstone high ground further inland. Thus the Overhead belied its name at the southern terminus, passengers new to Dingle no doubt wondering why they had to descend steps and a subway to gain the platforms of an elevated railway!
Extensive bomb damage was inflicted during the Blitz but it was quickly repaired to maintain the smooth running of the docks. Modernisation of some of the nineteen 3-car sets had begun as the War drew to a close and eight were in operation by 1955. In the same year, the curved deck plates which supported the track were reported as being in need of replacement at an approximate cost of two million pounds.
This was beyond the financial resources of the company, who looked to the City Council and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board for assistance. No adequate solution could be found and, despite rigorous public protests, the railway closed on December 30th, 1956. Rescue attempts continued until September, 1957, when the dismantlers moved in.
Dingle station was the scene of the Overhead’s worst disaster. In December 1901, an electrical fire on board an incoming train got out of control and fanned by the tunnel draught, quickly engulfed the terminus. Six people died and such was the devastation that the station was closed for more than a year.
After little more than sixty years existence, a much-loved, pioneering railway was rapidly removed from its prominent elevated position which had thrilled so many passengers with its unforgettable sights of dockland activity. Today, only traces can be seen in the form of columns set into the dock wall at Wapping, the tunnel portal at Herculaneum and the excavation at Dingle Station, now used by an engineering firm.
Although difficult to access the tunnel portal was sealed some years ago so the only access into the station site is from Kedleston Street off Park Road. Here a ramp leads down to the original station entrance subway with its white glazed brick walls now looking very grimy. The subway curves down onto what was the platform but is now a car repair workshop and storage area. At the top of the ramp there are a set metal gates (probably not original) and above the company monogram.
For much of its length from the portal above Herculaneum Dock the brick lined tunnel is in original condition and apart from a few dumped cars is not used by the engineering company. Approaching that station area the tunnel widens to take the crossover and island platform. There were also two short sidings on either side of the running lines and at the end of each siding a steel buffer can still be seen set into the brick wall.
The station site has been cleared, the platform has been removed and the original access ramp has been extended down to track level. Beyond the station the tunnel again narrows, running a further 123 yards to a blind end. Here there are a further two steel buffers set into the wall at the end of each line. This section of tunnel has been converted into a car repair workshop with ramps, inspection pits and work benches.
- The Dockers Umbrella by Paul Bolger published by Bluecoat Press ISBN 1 872568 05X
- Eric Peissel - Map of Liverpool Overhead Railway
- Portrait of the Liverpool Overhead Railway by Adrian Jarvis