The Wapping tunnel was located at the western end of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&M) the worlds first city to city railway built to carry passengers from the start. Engineered by George Stephenson the L&M opened on 15 September 1830.
Although at the time of opening the passenger facilities at Liverpool were to the east of the city at Crown Street the line itself extended further west to a goods station at Wapping adjacent to the docks. To reach Wapping from Edge Hill a 1 mile 49 chain tunnel was required at a falling gradient of between 1 in 38 and 1 in 48. It was 22 feet wide and 16 feet high. Nothing on that scale had been attempted before.
The Wapping tunnel was designed by George Stephenson and the line of its route was surveyed by T L Gooch. The engineer appointed to build the tunnel was Charles Vignoles and work began in 1826.
To construct the tunnel a number of vertical shatfs were sunk from which pilot headings were excavated in both directions until they met. During the construction houses Great George Square were threatened with collapse and Joseph Locke submitted a report showing that serious errors had been made in the original survey. Charles Vignoles resigned and Locke was given the task of completing the tunnel. He cut side shafts that were used to check the alignment and correct the errors. The tunnel was completed in 1829.
The tunnel opened before the rest of the line and even had an official opening ceremony in July 1829 when the Mayor and the directors had a ride down the incline in some wagons. The walls of the Wapping tunnel were whitewashed and it was lit by gas lighting. Pedestrians were allowed to walk through it at first and even for a period after it became operational. The dangers quickly became evident and the public were no longer permitted.
The tunnel had double track but it was not designed for locomotive working as it was considered that the gradients were too steep. Trains worked down by gravity and they were hauled up by a cable. The cable was worked by stationary steam engines located in the Edge Hill Chatsworth Street cutting. Six wagons could be hauled up with an average weight of 4 tons. Locomotives were attached and detached at Chatsworth Street.
There were at least two occasions in the early years when the rope snapped causing wagons to roll back down the tunnel and derail. Although nobody appears to have been killed or injured on those occasions there was an accident at the Edge Hill end of the tunnel when a brakesman was run over and killed whilst attempting to disengage the rope mechanisms from wagons. Following the accident a regulation was brought in forbidding brakesmen from working with the mechanisms whilst trains were in motion.
At Wapping Goods station horses were used to move the wagons around. The horses even worked into the tunnel for a short distance as the western end of the tunnel was level for 300 yards. The cable commenced at the bottom of the gradient were it levelled out. To assist the horses the spaces between the tracks had planks laid in them to give a level surface.
On 8 August 1845 the L&M was absorbed into the Grand Junction Railway which only a year later on 16 July 1846 merged with other companies to form the London & North Western Railway (LNWR).
In 1849 the winding engines at Chatsworth Street were replaced by new engines that were installed near the present day Edge Hill station. The new engines were required to operate the cable worked Waterloo Dock branch. At the same time the Chatsworth Street cutting was widened and a new Crown Street tunnel (to the south of wapping) opened.
In the second half of the 19th century cables replaced the ropes which allowed longer trains to be hauled up from Wapping Goods station.
On 2 March 1874 the Cheshire Lines Committee Railway (CLC) opened a line from Brunswick to a new city centre terminus called Liverpool Central. The line had three long tunnels one of which, the Great George Street tunnel, passed directly over the Wapping tunnel just to the south of the junction between Nelson Street and Great George Street. The CLC tunnel floor was only a few feet from the Wapping tunnel roof.
By the 1890s locomotives were much more powerful than could ever have been envisaged in 1830 and thoughts turned to using them in the Wapping tunnel. To facilitate locomotive working ventilation shafts were built at Crown Street, Myrtle Street, Blackburne Place, Rathbone Street and White Street. It is possible that the shafts were dug where the original vertical shafts had been.
To the east of Wapping Goods station the Wapping tunnel was opened out to the east of the Park Lane and Jamaica Street junction cutting it into two. At the same time two new tunnels were constructed between an enlarged Wapping Goods station and the cutting. The ‘new’ western portal of the longer section of the Wapping tunnel flared slightly to accommodate a three way junction. To control the junction a signal box was built in the north side of the cutting wall. The works were completed by 11 May 1896 when locomotive working began.
Even with the introduction of locomotive working gravity was still used in the down direction (Wapping direction). Specially fitted brake vans were allocated to the Wapping branch for this purpose and each train had one at each end for the journey down to Wapping Goods station. The brake vans were usually attached to the train within the Chatsworth Street cutting were the locomotive would be detached as had been the case prior to 1896.
Locomotives were only used to haul the up direction trains (Edge Hill direction) and they travelled light or coupled together in pairs or groups from Edge Hill to Wapping Goods. The locomotives used only the up line to travel down to Wapping Goods which in effect made the up line an ‘up and down line’ for locomotives but only an up line for trains. The down line was only used for down trains that were worked by gravity. Clearances within the tunnel were probably the reason for this working practice.
Despite the method of working described above and the installation of the air vents conditions in the Wapping tunnel after the introduction of locomotive working were described as chocking and locomotive crews did not enjoy the passage through with a heavily loaded train.
On 1 January 1923 the Wapping branch became part of the London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS). The LMS renamed Wapping Goods station as Park Lane. In the 1930s the LMS introduced 0-6-0 diesel shunting locomotives onto the Wapping branch which made the tunnel environment slightly more bearable for those that worked within it. Certainly it was better for the locomotive crews as they were in an enclosed cab.
During the Second World War Park Lane Goods station was extensively damaged and the signal box frontage was replaced with an ARP design structure.
On 1 January 1948 the Wapping tunnel and Park Lane Goods station became part of British Railways London Midland Region.
The Liverpool Docks system had been spreading northwards since the 1840s and it each time a new dock was built it was larger than its predecessor. By the 1950s the north docks handled the majority of the traffic and only the smaller vessels used the older south docks. By the 1960s the oldest docks of all which were close to Park Lane Goods station were seeing very little traffic at all. At the same time much more traffic was going by road and BR [LMR] had numerous goods stations within the Liverpool Docks complex. It was inevitable therefore that Park Lane the oldest goods station in Liverpool would close and it did so on 1 November 1965.
The closure of Park Lane left the Wapping branch that ran through the tunnel devoid of traffic and it was lifted shortly after the closure of the goods station. Wapping tunnel ceased to have any purpose for the first time in 136 years.
In 1969 the Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority (MPTE) was formed and building upon work that had been carried out by the local authorities during the 1960s they set about transforming the local railway network into what became the Merseyrail system. One of the key developments was the creation of an underground loop and link line in the city centre an Act for the construction of which was granted in 1971. In the initial plans the Wapping tunnel featured as a second phase of the developments. The idea was to link it to Liverpool Central Low Level station which became the Northern Line platforms of the link line. Trains would then have travelled between Liverpool Central and St Helens via the Wapping tunnel. The plans were then amended in order to create a new line under the University district. The new plan would have seen only a short section of the Wapping tunnel used at its mid-point. As well as being connected to Liverpool Central it would also have been connected, via a new tunnel, to the Victoria tunnel on the Waterloo dock branch. This would have allowed the St Helens trains to pass under the main line out of Liverpool Lime Street and serve the University. An Act for the second plan was granted in 1975 but the recession of the late 1970s stopped the work from going ahead. A short section of the tunnel that would have connected the Wapping tunnel to Liverpool Central was built at the latter location.
The Merseyrail link line was designed to create a through route between the former CLC and the former Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway (the terminus of which was at Liverpool Exchange) systems. The former CLC main line (closed to passengers on 17 April 1972) had to be altered so that it could descend to the former Liverpool Central Low Level platforms. An incline was created inside the Great George Street tunnel which broke through the roof of the Wapping tunnel. A concrete deck bridge was constructed that spanned the Wapping tunnel and carried the Merseyrail line over it. The works were carried out in the 1975 - 76 period and passenger trains first started to run on 3 January 1978.
In 1980 it was the 150th anniversary of the opening of the L&M which led to a resurgence of interest in its features. For a period the public were admitted to the Chatsworth Street cutting which was at that time derelict. This could have led to a future for the Wapping tunnel as a tourist attraction but it was perhaps a decade or two too early as at that time the fortunes of Liverpool were at a very low ebb.
In the 1990s a road scheme was proposed that would have used the Wapping tunnel to create a quick route to the waterfront from the M62 motorway. These plans also came to nothing. In the first decade of the 21st century the 1970s plan to link Liverpool Central to the Wapping tunnel and to create a line through the University district was looked at again and at the time of writing was still being discussed.
In 201x the Wapping tunnel was used by Jaguar Landrover as a film location to make an advertisement for its Landrover Evoke.
Since 1965 the tunnel has remained silent (with the exception of the Evoke advert) beneath the streets of Liverpool. At the Wapping Goods station end it has suffered from being partly in filled with industrial rouble a shocking example of legally sanctioned vandalism. The infill material has created a flooded section of the tunnel about 50 metres in from the 1896 western portal. Other than the damage caused at the western end the tunnel was in remarkably good condition when visited in October 2012.
Of the five ventilation towers built in 1895⁄6 only those at Crown Street, Blackburn Place and White Street were still standing in 2014. The Myrtle Street and Rathbone Street towers had been demolished and their shafts, leading into the tunnel, had been capped off at ground level.
- An Illustrated History of Liverpool’s Railways, Irwell Press, P Anderson
- Liverpool & Manchester Railway, D Singleton, Dalesman Books 1975.
- Liverpool & Manchester Railway Operations 1831 - 1845, T J Donaghy, David & Charles 1972.
- Underground Liverpool, J Moore, Bluecoat Press, 1998