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Metrolink Introduction > A Brief Rail History: updated 11 July 2011
This page is an outline of the history of railways in the Manchester area from 1830. It summarises information obtained from various books about railways and includes observations of recent developments.
When mainline railways arrived, during the 1830s and early 40s, the town was already a considerable size with valuable properties in the central area. Terminal stations were built on the outer edges of the town. This resulted in problems for passengers arriving at one station and wanting to depart from another.
Victoria and Exchange stations with their connecting lines opened in 1844 on the north side of the city centre. The Manchester South Junction and Altrincham lines opened in 1849 on the south side.
By the 1980s the north and south side networks were still unconnected and without effective central area penetration. The Metrolink six line plan came out of several studies into light rail.
The 19th Century saw the arrival and expansion of railways in the Manchester area. Topics in this section are Liverpool and Manchester, Lancashire and Yorkshire, Manchester and Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester, Diagram of Central Manchester Railways and Stations in 1890, Victoria and Exchange Stations, Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway (MSJAR), Manchester to Leeds via Stalybridge and Huddersfield, Midland Railway (MR) and Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC).
1900 to 1960s, during this period the railways faced increasing competition from road based transport. Topics in this section are Bury Line Electrification (LYR), Railway Grouping 1923, The Altrincham Line Electrification (MSJAR) and Modernisation and Contraction.
Late 1960s to Metrolink. It became clear that previous attempts to solve the railway’s problems were not working which lead to the setting up of the Passenger Transport Authorities and Executives. Other topics covered in this section are Altrincham line first re–electrification, North–South Connections, Hadfield and Glossop line re–electrification, Hazel Grove Chord and Windsor Link, Transpennine Services, Manchester Airport Link, Diagram of Central Manchester Railways, Stations and Metrolink in 2007 and Conclusions
By the early nineteenth century Manchester was already a thriving town based on the cotton and related industries. The existing road and canal links to Liverpool, through whose docks most of the raw cotton was imported and also finished goods exported, were considered inadequate. A group of Liverpool businessmen got together and promoted a rail line between Liverpool and Manchester. The ‘Rocket’ won the Rainhill locomotive trials in October 1829. The line opened on 15th September 1830 the Manchester terminus was Liverpool Road Station. The Grand Junction Railway (GJR), opened in 1837, linked the mid–point of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway with Birmingham. Early in 1844 Liverpool Road became a goods station and closed in 1975. It is now preserved as part of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.
This was formed in 1847 from a number of smaller railways in the two counties from which it is named. The Manchester and Bolton opened in 1838 from a terminus at Salford (present day Salford Central) to Bolton. The Manchester and Bury was promoted by a company which became the East Lancashire Railway (ELR). It ran from Clifton Junction on the Manchester and Bolton to Bury and on to Accrington. The Manchester and Leeds was first of the Transpennine railways and one of the easiest in terms of gradients. The route is through Rochdale and Hebden Bridge. The line opened throughout in 1841 from a terminal station in Oldham Road. Oldham Road became a goods station after Victoria opened. Later it closed completely and has now been demolished, it was about 800 metres or half a mile from Piccadilly Gardens. By 1842 there was a steeply graded branch from Middleton Junction to Oldham Werneth, extended to Oldham Mumps in 1847. In 1863 a line from the east end of Rochdale via Shaw to Oldham was opened. The Cheetham Hill loop line from Victoria to Thorpes Bridge Junction was built in 1877 avoiding steep gradients on the Miles Platting line. In 1879 a new line opened from Cheetham Hill, via Prestwich, to Radcliffe on the former ELR route to Bury. A more direct line from Thorpes Bridge Junction to Oldham opened in 1880. In 1904 the LYR opened a new short line to bring trains from the Bury line into the terminal platforms on the south side of Victoria Station.
The citizens of Manchester required a more direct route south than that via the Liverpool and Manchester. The Manchester & Birmingham (M&B) line from London Road (now Piccadilly) to Crewe opened in 1842. In 1845 the GJR took over the Liverpool and Manchester. Then in 1846 the GJR, M&B and London and Birmingham railways became parts of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR)
Before the railway was built the Pennines were a formidable barrier to travel, there was no canal and only a very poor road between Sheffield and Manchester. Construction of the line was very difficult and resulted in steep gradients which were a handicap to operators for the next hundred years. This Line, via the long Woodhead tunnel, opened in 1845. It shared London Road Station and the first half mile of track with the M&B. This line became part of the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR) in 1849. Before the opening of the London extension in 1899 the MSLR renamed itself the Great Central Railway (GCR).
LYR (LNWR) is:-
LRY to Yorkshire via Rochdale
LNWR to Yorkshire via Stalybridge
LNWR + MSLR is:–
LNWR to Birmingham and London
MSLR to Sheffield and Lincolnshire
MSJA to Altrincham
CLC lines to:–
Liverpool, Chester and the Midland Railway
LNWR Liverpool via Chat Moss
LYR – Bolton
Manchester’s original terminal stations were on the edge of the built up area. To make these into through stations would have required lines going through the most expensive central area of Manchester. On the north side, the Liverpool and Manchester built a line from Ordsall Lane which passed the Salford terminus of the Manchester Bolton and Bury on its way to Victoria. Here it made an end on connection with the new Manchester and Leeds line to a junction at Miles Platting with the original line from Oldham Road. Victoria Station and the line opened in 1844. The LYR extended Victoria in 1884 and the LNWR opened Exchange station that year.
In 1845 the Birmingham and Sheffield companies at London Road promoted the South Junction to link with the Liverpool line. The branch to Altrincham was added to the scheme. The South Junction line is built entirely on a 2.6 kilometre viaduct to minimise the amount of land required and cross the many roads in its path. The Altrincham branch is also on viaduct for the first 900 metres southward from Castlefield Junction. The MSJA opened in 1849.
The London and North Western Railway opened this route in 1849. It used Running Powers over the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway between Victoria and Stalybridge. In time it became the main route for transpennine services — trains from Liverpool to Manchester, Leeds and beyond.
The year 1867 saw the Midland Railway running trains from the MSLR side of London Road station. They ran over the MSLR line to Hyde Junction and then over a branch to New Mills where Midland Railway tracks continued to Ambergate and Derby. From 1880 the MR ran trains to Central Station via Romiley, Heaton Mersey, Didsbury, Chorlton Junction and Throstle Nest Junction on the CLCR line from Liverpool.
This grew from an 1850s partnership between the MSLR and the Great Northern Railway (GNR). It was joined by the MR in 1866. Initially the CLC managed four local lines in the area on behalf of the partner companies. These lines ran from Woodley via Stockport (Tiviot Dale) to Timperley (Deansgate Junction) and from Altrincham via Knutsford, Northwich and Mouldsworth to Helsby. In 1873 the CLC line from Cornbrook Junction on the MSJAR via Warrington to Garston and Liverpool opened to traffic. The CLC’s Manchester to Chester route ran over the MSJAR line to Altrincham then via Knutsford and Northwich reaching Chester by a branch from Mouldsworth in 1875.
The CLC partners decided that they needed an independent terminus in Manchester. They built Manchester Central and a new two track viaduct from Cornbrook to Central Station. The viaduct was built with red brick arches and metal decks at major crossing locations. A temporary station opened serving Liverpool trains in 1877 and Chester trains in 1878. The permanent station opened in 1880. The temporary station later became part of the CLC Goods Station.
In the late 1890s the viaduct was widened to carry five tracks. From Cornbrook towards the city centre, because of the existing viaduct alignment, blue brick arches were built on either or both sides of the red brick arches. Wrought iron metal widenings supported on blue brick piers were also used in several places. At the northern end, a steel viaduct on metal columns was built to cross the canal basins and the Manchester South Junction railway line.
The Great Northern Railway Goods Station was built between Central Station and Deansgate in 1898/9. Long disused it is now a “listed building” and can be seen from Peter Street. A short viaduct connected it to the main CLC line, only a small part of this now remains near the Metrolink line. GNR Goods Station and the listed Deansgate Victorian Terrace are now part of the Great Northern development.
Central Station, CLC and GNR goods stations were nearer the centre of the city than the MSJAR line. The area was previously occupied by low quality housing, industrial buildings and part of the unsuccessful Manchester and Salford Junction canal.
A significant short section of the CLC ran from Cornbrook to Chorlton; via Throstle Nest South Junction then through a short tunnel, crossed under the MSJA line and Elsinore Road and continued in a cutting to Chorlton Junction. There it became the Midland line to Derby and Great Central line to Guide Bridge and Sheffield.
From the MSJA line to Chorlton and on to the Midland line will become part of Metrolink. The former Great Central Railway line has become the Fallowfield Loop footpath/cycleway.
From Cornbrook to Throstle Nest South Junction, (in a cutting alongside Boyer Street) also a south to west chord line from this junction to Trafford Park Junction (near Trafford Road) the track bed and former Cornbrook carriage sidings have disappeared under subsequent redevelopment.
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The spread of street tramways on radial routes from central Manchester and their electrification in the early 1900s, combined with frequent services and low fares compared to the trains, caused a marked loss of railway passengers on the suburban services. To counteract this the LYR electrified the Bury via Prestwich line in 1916 using the unique 1200V dc side contact third rail system. This was the highest voltage permitted for a ground level conductor rail system. Side contact current collection avoided the icing problems of top contact conductor rails used elsewhere. It also allowed the shielding of the live rail against snow and dirt by a fire resistant Jarrah wood casing, which also gave some protection to railway staff working on the line.
The Railways Act 1921 created the Main Line Companies known as the “Big Four”. As far as passenger services in Manchester were concerned The London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMSR) included the LNWR (which amalgamated with the LYR in 1922), MR and the North Staffordshire Railway. The London North Eastern Railway (LNER) included the GCR and GNR. The CLC continued as a joint line two thirds owned by the LNER and one third by the LMSR. The MSJAR continued as a joint line owned by the LMSR and LNER.
By 1907 Manchester Corporation electric trams were running to Altrincham along the parallel main road. Consequently some passenger traffic was lost to the railway. When considered for the fourth time in 1928 electrification was agreed, using the proposed national standard 1500V dc overhead system. The electric trains started in May 1931. They ran a popular and successful service for forty years. From 15 September 1958 the Altrincham electrics terminated at Oxford Road Station. This allowed the new suburban ac electric services to reach Oxford Road, which is nearer the city’s central business district, when the first stage of main line electrification was completed.
In 1954 the Manchester–Sheffield–Wath (GCR) route electrification was opened. This was at the then standard 1500V DC overhead. Electrification was primarily for the heavy west bound coal trains from Yorkshire to Manchester. It also enabled Passenger trains to be electrically hauled between Manchester and Sheffield and the electric suburban service from Manchester to Hadfield and Glossop.
The 1955 Modernisation Plan proposed and introduced radical changes. Stations were to be modernised, diesel and electric traction was to replace steam.
Stopping and local passenger services which could not be made profitable by introduction of DMUs were to continue being withdrawn. Over 2000 route miles of such services were withdrawn between nationalisation and publication of Dr Beeching’s Reshaping Report in 1963. Another report by Dr Beeching “The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes” appeared in 1965 and was to have more far reaching effects than the Reshaping Report. So called duplicate routes were to be closed in their entirety.
Local services from Manchester Central station on former Midland Railway lines were withdrawn in 1967. Express services to Derby and beyond via the Peak Forest route were, in 1968, diverted to run from Piccadilly via Romiley and the Hope Valley line. Alterations between Cornbrook, Oxford Road and Piccadilly enabled the former CLC Liverpool via Warrington and Chester via Northwich services to run to Oxford Road or Piccadilly and Central station was closed in 1969.
For several years the Central Station site was used as a car park. The Victorian train hall was converted into the Greater Manchester Exhibition and Events Centre (G–Mex) which opened in 1986. Manchester International Convention Centre (MICC) which opened in 2001 occupies the former CLC goods station site. In 2007 the adjoning G–Mex and MICC have been renamed Manchester Central.
Exchange station also closed in 1969, its reduced traffic was transferred to Victoria.
The express passenger trains on the former GCR Sheffield line were withdrawn in 1970. Freight traffic declined and the line was closed as a through route in 1981.
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The station closures and service withdrawals did not eliminate British Railways’ losses. Almost invariably they generated opposition from the public. By the late 1960s the government decided that remaining ‘uneconomic services’ would have to be supported by public funds. The 1968 Transport Act established the Passenger Transport Authorities (PTAs) and associated Executives (PTEs) in the large conurbations outside London. PTA members now are Councillors from local District Councils for the area covered. The PTEs were set up to carry out PTA policies.
By the late 1960s both the overhead line equipment and the multiple unit rolling stock on the Altrincham line were reaching the end of their working lives. In 1968 British Rail started converting the line to the 25kV ac overhead system. On the 3rd May 1971 electric trains started running through from the Crewe lines to Altrincham. They continued until 24th December 1991 when they were withdrawn from Altrincham to Deansgate (Manchester) to enable conversion of the line for Metrolink.
Over the years there have been several plans for connections between lines on the north and south sides of the city. The 1970s plan was for a new underground line from south of Piccadilly to north of Victoria. There would have been underground stations at Piccadilly and Victoria with three intermediate stations in the city centre. Radial suburban lines and stations would be upgraded and feeder bus services to suburban stations introduced. The Bury line would have been converted to 25kV ac electrification with the line from Radcliffe to Bolton electrified for Manchester–Bolton Services. This scheme became known as the ‘Pic–Vic’ after the tunnel line between main stations, it also failed to find the necessary finance.
In 1984 the former GCR line suburban services to Hadfield and Glossop were re–electrified at 25kV ac. Thus removing a non–standard electrification and rolling stock type.
The Hazel Grove Chord, built by British Rail, between the former MR and LNWR lines opened in 1986 and allows trains from Sheffield via the Hope Valley line to run through Stockport on the way to Manchester Piccadilly station.
The Windsor Link is a new line from Windsor Bridge Junction on the former LYR line to Ordsall Lane on the former LNWR line. It allows trains from Bolton, Preston and the North to run directly to Piccadilly station. The link opened in 1988 and came into full use in 1989.
In 1989 the transpennine services were transferred from the Victoria route to run through Guide Bridge and Manchester Piccadilly then on via Warrington Central to Liverpool.
Manchester Airport Station and its 2.25 kilometre (1.4 mile) electrified spur from the Styal line at Heald Green opened in May 1993. This enabled trains from Manchester Piccadilly and beyond to run directly to the airport station. These services have been very successful. A south to west curve opened in January 1996 allowing trains from the south via Wilmslow to run directly to the Airport Station. The third platform opened in December 2008.
In October 2009 the loop line closed for conversion to Metrolink. Rail services continue on the Calder Valley line between Manchester and Leeds.
Railways are shown in blue:–
Y v R is to Yorkshire via Rochdale
Main are routes to south including Birmingham and London
also transpennine via Leeds and Sheffield
Lpl v W is to Liverpool via Warrington
Lpl is to Liverpool via Chat Moss
BvSC is via Salford Crescent to Bolton, Wigan and Preston
Metrolink lines and stops are shown in green. Mosley Street is outbound only. Piccadilly is in the undercroft of the main line station.
Manchester Central (MC) is the new name for G–Mex and MICC. Deansgate–Castlefield Metrolink stop was G–Mex.
Since the main line railways first arrived in Manchester there have been problems for passengers arriving at one station and wanting to depart from another. During the 1840s Victoria station and the lines from it, together with the South Junction line and Altrincham branch were built. It was only a partial solution. Even after the 1960s closures passengers still had to get between Piccadilly and Victoria stations.
British Rail’s plans enabled it to concentrate most long distance services on Piccadilly Station. The reduced capacity required at Victoria enabled rebuilding with four through and two bay platforms for main line services
By the early 1980s there were lines with only or mainly local services. They required increasing levels of subsidy and considerable capital expenditure for renewals. Additionally no real solution for City Centre penetration had been found.
Several studies into light rail alternatives resulted in the original Metrolink six line scheme. See the Metrolink History page for more details.
Rail History: top
This page was written and illustrated by Tony Williams, Manchester Area Officer, Light Rail Transit Association. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any comments, ideas or suggestions about these pages.